First Congregational Church
December 27, 2015
First Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Joy to the world! the Lord is come
As an opening hymn for worship on the first Sunday after Christmas, “Joy to the World!” makes all the sense in the world. It’s up-beat, it’s familiarity allows us to sing with a little more gusto than usual, and the words are so spot-on.
It’s ironic that the writer of the words never intended his hymn for Christmas use. Instead, he intended to paraphrase the words of Psalm 98: "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth . . . for he comes. . .”, Christianizing the Psalms, as it were. With his pen, the author celebrated God's protection and restoration of God’s chosen people, in addition to the salvation that began when God became human. Both the psalm and the hymn also look ahead, to Christ coming again to reign: "He will judge the world with righteousness"
In our familiarity, we may forget that it was written by the Congregational composer, Isaac Watts, nearly 300 years ago. He became recognized as the "Father of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns. As of the late 1900’s, our opening hymn this morning was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.
Once in royal David's city
One of the Christmas traditions celebrated by many people in the English-speaking world is to tune in on Christmas Eve, either on radio or television, to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, originating from King’s College, Cambridge. This tradition began in 1918, was first broadcast in 1928, and is now heard by millions around the world.
Arthur Henry Mann, the organist at King’s College at the time, introduced an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the opening, processional hymn for the service. In his version, the first stanza is sung unaccompanied by a boy chorister, followed by the choir on the next verse and finally the congregation joining in on the following verses. Not that being that boy chorister would bring a lot of pressure, but I’ve heard it told that the soloist is never told which boy it will be until right before he takes the first step down the aisle, the chorus master pointing to the chosen one.
The gentleman that wrote the tune, the melodic part that has been given the name IRBY, was Henry John Gauntlett. He was no schmo, either - having studied in the fields of law and music, out of which - it is said - that he wrote over 10,000 hymn tunes. This morning we all get to be the chosen chorister, singing verses 1, 2 and 3.
O little town of Bethlehem
The author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks, came from a long line of Puritan ancestors, many of whom had been Congregational clergymen. He was the most famous preacher and the most widely-loved clergyman of his time, perhaps much like Billy Graham of our day.
He was fortunate to take a trip to the Holy Lands in 1865, then riding a horse for two hours to get to Bethlehem. Before dark, they rode out of town to the field where it is said the shepherds saw the star. Brooks described the place as a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here, said Rev. Brooks), in which, strangely enough, they thought the shepherds to be. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the where the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.”
A few years later, after Rev. Brooks had written the words, he asked a church colleague to write the music to this carol for Sunday morning worship. Rev. Brooks went to Mr. Redner on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?’ He replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On Saturday night, Lewis Redner’s brain still struggled with the tune. The composer was roused from sleep late in the night, hearing an angel-strain whispering in his ear, and seizing a piece of music paper he jotted down the melody of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church he filled in the harmony. Neither Rev. Brooks nor Mr. Redner ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.
Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a familiar and beloved Advent hymn. The hymn’s origins may be traced back to the late 16th century in a manuscript found in St. Alban’s Carthusian monastery in Trier in the original German, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The original verses numbered between 19 and 23, focusing on the events of Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 2.
The origin of the image of the rose has been open to much speculation. For example, an unauthenticated legend has it that on Christmas Eve, a monk in Trier found a blooming rose while walking in the woods, and then placed the rose in a vase on an altar.
Some Catholic sources claim that the focus of the hymn was originally on Mary, who is compared to the symbol of the “mystical rose” in the Old Testament book, Song of Solomon (2:1): “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.”
It has been suggested that at a later date Protestants took the hymn, altering its focus from Mary to Jesus. Citing Isaiah 11:1—“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” - some controversy arose as to the original German word in the first line of stanza one: Was it “Ros” (rose) or “Reis” (branch)?
A third passage from Isaiah 35:1 suggests a stronger biblical basis for the image: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”
261 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The first two verses of "Away In A Manger" are anonymous. They have been attributed to Martin Luther, but this is not clear and likely not true. The popularity of this hymn is noted in the over 41 versions that exist.
In fact, we get an example of the importance of tune names in this very song. The version we will sing today is #261, and if you look down to the bottom of the hymn, you see that the tune name is “Cradle Song.” #262 has the same words, but different melody and harmony, being called “Away In a Manger.”
You will note that there is a number below the hymn tune name. That is that song’s metrical number. For those who weren’t here the last time this number was mentioned, it is the number of syllables in each line. You can count them as we sing it, but the “fun” of that number is the interchangeability of other hymns with the same metrical number in the metrical index - that can be found in the back of most hymnals. So we could sing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” to either of these hymn tunes, as we could with “My Jesus, I Love Thee” and “How Firm A Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord.”
Although this last bit of information has no real correlation to the season of which we sing, it does, for me, provide another example of the perfection in the combination of music and numbers, a beautiful connection for the more left-brained among us. For those whose brains are now exploding with insight, we will get to “Away in the Manger” after we first sing “Lo, How a Rose.”
264 Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” will not be found on any top ten Advent carol, Christmas carol or Christmas song list. It is in part because it is an Epiphany hymn. And the harmonization of the melody was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, it thus being a Bach chorale. Johann would take a melody like the one from this hymn and construct an entire worship service around it: prelude, vocal and instrumental solos and hymns, of course basing them on that rotating schedule of scriptures called the lectionary, at one point in his career, cranking out one chorale a week.
For a long while, hymns of this age and complication were dismissed or disliked for those very reasons of age and complication. But studies are discovering what church musicians have known for centuries; that old hymns have a substance to them that does not disappear or wears out. In fact, some of the best theology the Christian church has today is wrapped within old chestnuts as “Break forth.”
267 I heard the bells on Christmas day
If “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” would be considered more theological, “I heard the bells on Christmas day” would be more pastoral. One of America's best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to our final hymn this morning on December 25, 1864, just three years before this church family gathered.
Originally in seven verses, two were omitted because of their direct connection to the Civil War. When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was still months away from Lee's surrender to Grant, his poem reflecting the prior years of the war's despair, ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace. As with any composition that touches the heart of the hearer, "I Heard the Bells" flowed from Longfellow’s experiences - involving the tragic burning death of his wife Fanny and the crippling spine injury of his son Charles from war wounds.
It has been assumed that this darkish carol was written because of Longfellow’s son’s death. It is the opposite; he lived. The message for Longfellow was that the Living God is a God of Peace, proclaimed in the close of the carol: "Of peace on Earth, good will to men.” And so may it be for us as well.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.