First Congregational Church
Sunday, December 28, 2014
First Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
As I’ve come to know various families in this part of the world, I’ve also come to realize that part of their “together” time often includes singing. Whether it’s bonfires or driving or whatever the vehicle, I’ve seen/heard family singing pops up at weddings, funerals, or even sitting on the front porch. So it makes sense to celebrate our “together” time as a family today with the singing of some of those songs that love to be sung.
On top of the love of singing these beloved old friends, there are the stories behind them that can make them come alive even more. That being said, our opening hymn was most commonly known by its Latin name, “Adeste Fidelis.” Although it’s not our oldest hymn today, it is over 260 years old and there may be a possibility that the words could be 700 years or older. So “Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,” and let us sing our opening hymn - just these four of the total eight verses, and in English.
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” #249
Our next song set is what I thought of in terms of being more bawdy or rowdy. It is so easy to think of the sacred hymns as being softer and more serene, and the secular carols as more “fun.” For those who have come to know me a bit, you know I appreciate flipping expectation on its head.
"Good King Wenceslas" may not seem fitting for use in church - at first. But it is based on a real person, a duke from Bohemia, who died well over a thousand years ago, said to have risen from his bed at night, and with only a single servant, would go to local churches to give generous alms to widows, orphans, prisoners and those afflicted by every difficulty. To honor his efforts, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto posthumously made him a king.
The reference in the song to St. Stephens is to December 26th, the day after Christmas, the day some countries call Boxing Day, since servants and tradesmen would receive gift “boxes” from their bosses or employers. It is a fitting relationship between Wenceslas and Stephen, because of Stephen’s encouragement and example to help the lesser abled among us.
Good Christian Men, Rejoice” fits well with “Good King Wenceslas” because it is a true Christmas carol, rather than a Christmas hymn. True hymns are poems which have been taken from the book of Psalms, sung by the whole congregation for God, in public worship. Carols are festive songs that are religious in nature but may or may not be sung during worship and sometimes have a loose relationship to dance.
“Good King Wenceslas” S 47
“Good Christian Men, Rejoice” #273
The next two songs were paired together for a purely musical element. (This is the part that makes our worship different from probably every other service in the world today.) Both songs contain melismas. Melismas, although they may be highly infectious, are not deadly in any way, so be not afraid. A melisma is singing a sustained vowel, like “o,” through a lengthy rising and falling melodic line. The second in the next pair is one of the most famous examples of a melisma and another musical M term: macaronic, which is the mixing of two languages, usually Latin and English. I am so looking forward to hearing the town buzz about those Congregationalists that heard about macaroni today.
Like our last two songs, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is a true carol, and was originally used as a secular dance tune. Composer Mr. Woodward had a particular love of church bell ringing, which you pick up when you sing it. It was first recored in 1959, and has since been recorded by Roger Whittaker, The Wiggles, The Chieftains, Julie Andrews, The Muppets and numerous others.
Although most all of us can sing at least the first verse of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by heart, I wonder how many know that “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” is Latin for "Glory to God in the highest.” Although I have personally sung this song about a billion times, it wasn’t until this week’s research that I was introduced to, and so I - you, the idea of the rising and falling of the refrain phrases resembling in our perception, the beating of angels’ wings. It was also the how the shepherds would spread their holiday message and cheer from points faraway to one another. From hillside to valley, the melismatic phrases of the refrain are a perfect shepherds’ song echoing angels calling to one another.
“Ding Dong Merrily on High” S 31
“Angels We Have Heard on High” #278
I know that some of you have been stretched in the choices of hymns and carols thus far, but worry not, we end in good stead. Our last two songs are also linked by a musical M word, but this time by the composer Mendelssohn, Felix, that is.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written by Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who studied under Mendelssohn. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” comes from the second chorus of a cantata created by the illustrious composer himself.
It’s interesting that “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” may be the only commonly sung Christmas carol in our hymnals that does not mention the birth of Christ. The focus is rather on the song of the angels, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” taken from Luke 2. This may be because of the the social strife that plagued our country as the Civil War approached at the time of the carol’s composition. Verse three may strike you differently with that bit of context.
As many times as any of us have sung “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” I wonder how many of us realize this carol was written to recognize Johann Gutenberg and the influential invention of his printing machine. But the big names associated with this song don’t just stop there.
Charles Wesley, of Methodist church fame, wrote the words, and the original opening line that started, "Hark, how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.” Welkin comes from Old English, Dutch and German roots, meaning people of the cloud/sky or “vault of heaven.” Along came the great Congregational evangelist, George Whitfield, or “touchdown George” as we spoke of him at the Boston Congregational Library, and yes, there is such a thing. Anyway, George never bothered to ask permission; he just changed the words to the ones we sing today, and Wesley never forgave him.
Not only are all these carols a delight to sing and a joy to hear, they remind us that out of difficulty can come good, if our spirituality is about our whole being, then it would naturally include dance, and although we were primarily blessed with the birth of Christ all those years ago, we have been given many good people with talents that make our lives richer and fuller than Mary, Joseph or any of the shepherds and wisemen thought possible. So shall we sing!
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” #251
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” #277
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.