First Congregational Church
December 30, 2018
First Sunday after Christmas
“The Gift of Celebration”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Last week we began our service with one of the oldest surviving Christmas hymns, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” dating from the 5th century. Surely there must have been songs about Christ’s birth before 413, but they didn’t survive in ways that we recognize today. It would be interesting to find out the lyrics for some of those early Christmas hymns, because “Of the Father’s Love” speaks about Christ’s birth in a more ethereal, grandiose manner, without the details that so many of our modern hymns, carols and songs include.
It is the gospel of Luke that gives us the most detail about Jesus’ birth, and included in the opening chapters are songs by Mary and Zechariah - Jesus’ uncle. Song is the name given to their speeches, although we don’t know for certain if these words were actually sung. Perhaps it is how they were recorded by the writer of Luke that made the words seem like songs.
Regardless, there was the “great company of the heavenly host” that appeared to the shepherds, along with the angel Gabriel who “praised God” with the words “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lu. 2:14)
After the shepherds found the holy family, they returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God,” which if the previous “explanations” of wording is taken as true, then there could surely have been some singing from the shepherds.
And none of that information is really worth two beans, except that it reminds us that we human beings have been singing for a long time, and hopefully, we will continue to do so in our eternal lives - at least for those who like to sing.
This morning is the convergence of two realities: the fifth Sunday of the month, that the Worship Committee has declared to be hymn/song Sunday, and the Sunday after Christmas, which gives us room to sing the beloveds one more time before tucking them away until next year.
May the hymns each be a message - to you, about you, for you - with phrases that pop out to lighten burdens, lift hearts and set our minds for the coming year.
Our opening hymn was birthed in England, published first in Scribner’s Monthly magazine, about the time our church was built. Apparently, magazines were a popular means of getting music “out there.” It was the great composer, Gustav Holst, who gave us the tune and harmony that we common folks use these days. He gave the tune the name “Cranham" after the city by the same name in Gloucestershire, England. Whether there was actual snow at Christ’s birth or not, let us stand and sing the backdrop to the rest of our worship service.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” S 76, (do 4 verses)
I’m not sure how these things ever happen, well, we know that God has a certain corner on this market, but it is always interesting to see how things pan out. The next three hymns represent the international aspect of our worship, reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
“O Holy Night,” or, “Cantique de Noel,” reminds us that noel means Christmas in French. In fact, a Christmas carol is sometimes called a noel in some places in the world. Then there is the word “carol,” which could either be a French word or Latin word, carula, meaning a circular dance. I believe the man’s name to be Andrew Carter, who made the distinction between Christmas hymns and carols to be about meter: carols are more often in 3/4 time while hymns are generally in four. More about the dance element later.
“O Holy Night” #285, vs. 1 & 3
“Silent Night” comes from Germany. Some time after the text of “Silent Night” being written, Joseph Mohr took his poem to Franz Gruber, asking him to compose a melody with guitar accompaniment. Some stories say that the organ at the church, on a particular Christmas Eve, decided to give out, so the hymn was created to save the day for the choir and Gruber as guitarist.
The other story focuses on a truce that occurred in 1914, supposedly from a decree by Pope Benedict, between British and French soldiers during World War I. The epilogue to this part of the hymn story tell us of the power of its message, that at some strips along the 500 mile trench, friendly soccer games broke out. Whatever stories are true or not quite so true, it is still one of the best loved Christmas hymns/carols/songs.
“Silent Night” #253, vs. 1 & 4
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is from Poland. If we were singing it in Polish, it would likely start on the down beat. Since we are singing it in English, it starts with an upbeat. In Poland, Christmas caroling takes place between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, while carrying a star on a pole and a Nativity scene. Not sure if the Nativity scene is in costume or also carried on a pole, but apparently it’s pretty festive. Because of it’s stately 3/4 time signature, some have called this tune the first polonaise or mazurka, the form that Frederick Chopin made famous.
It’s possible that the tune of this song may date back to the 13th century, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was translated into English by Edith Reed. Whatever it’s origins, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” fits just right into this little trio of night songs/carols/hymns.
"Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” #279
You may remain seated for the “Morning Message.” This last grouping of songs/hymns/carols is the American set. While a lot of the singing we do at this time of year is in large thanks to England, I was surprised at the number of American tunes that we maybe don’t think of in terms of what was going on in the life of our country.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written during the Industrial Revolution, on the cusp of the Civil War, and during the California Gold Rush. Even though we are not singing verse 3 today, it had never occurred to me that those "beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow” were people that perhaps carried real, heavy, crushing loads of rock or coal or even munitions.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” #251
In my humble opinion, no better song for those who struggle for this time of year than "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow didn’t just pen the words, he “got them.”
Two years before he wrote the poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire, which caused permanent scar damage to his own face. Then in 1863, during the
American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles, joined the Union cause as a soldier - without his father's blessing. Then his son was severely wounded and it was feared that he might become paralyzed. He eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished. Despite the valleys of his life, including the fear of being sent to an asylum for his grief, Longfellow’s faith found respite by listening - to the bells that rang of a peace that would pass all understanding.
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” #267 (5 verses) 1864 Longfellow
During my scrounging and digging for this service, my greatest surprise came in a little video of a question and answer session with a gentleman named Jeremy Summerly of the Royal Academy of Music in England. He was speaking about the history of carols - including other seasonal ones, like Easter and Epiphany carols, explaining that they were mostly developed from circle dances. Ring dances were pretty much what they sound like: a group of people dancing in a circle, with a leader in the middle. The leader would sing a verse and the circle would sing back the refrain. Ironically, the only two songs for today that would fit such a description would be our next, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and our last, “Joy to the World.”
Mr. Summerly made a distinction that I’d not heard before, that “Go Tell It On the Mountain” is an example of a burden. I don’t know why that is its name, but a burden is a song that begins with the refrain and ends with the refrain, with verses in the middle of the musical sandwich. One of the other hymns that might fit the form of a burden would be “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” We start with the refrain and end with it. “Go Tell It” is also an extrapolated call and response song from the days of tending cotton and tobacco and all the other crops that required long and backbreaking work - the call being the verse and the response being the refrain.
I didn’t find any evidence of it, but I wonder if the lyrics of “Go Tell It” were, in part, a message about escaping slavery, the shepherds being the ones who were to escape, the light being the North Star, and the angels being those who encouraged the shepherds on their journey, i.e., the abolitionists. Because so many spirituals carry this double meaning, I’m guessing that it’s a possibility.
“Go Tell It On the Mountain” #258 (3 verses) Spiritual 1865
Interestingly enough, “The Birthday of a King” is another hymn from the Civil War era. It’s not necessarily a hymn best suited for congregational singing, but then, neither is “O Holy Night.” And yet the publishers of our hymnal included them.
The man who wrote “The Birthday of a King” was William H. Neidlinger, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, which is close to Queens, which is where Bill Hirschfeld was born. Neidlinger lived for a time in Chicago, and so did Bill. Neidlinger was a singing teacher and Bill played the trumpet, so this is not just an arbitrary song!
“The Birthday of a King” #284 (2 verses) William Neidlinger 1890
“One Small Child” is such a great song, reminding us of the breadth of love in which God sent us the Christ child. But it is a really hard one to follow, and I’ve yet to see a version that is truly congregational friendly. That being said, our version is possible, if you know that the bulletin is no mistake.
We will sing the beginning of the song, and almost at the end of the third line, we will go back to sing the second verse at the top of the page. When we get to almost the end of the third line again, we will go down to the second verse at the bottom of the page and sing through the top of the second page. Then we go back to the top of the first page to end at the end of the third line, and Bob’s your uncle. It wasn’t mandatory that this song be included today, but it was fitting to include a living American composer, as long as we have one.
“One Small Child” #280 (4 verses) David Meece bn. 1952
“Joy to the World” is perhaps one of the most iconic of Christmas songs/hymns/carols. But it carries an extra layer for us because it was written by Isaac Watts, the great Congregational hymn writer and father of English hymnody. He was properly an English Congregationalist, but we take our fame when we can get it.
It’s pretty cool that Watts wrote this song with a nod to Handel’s Messiah. I haven’t found it, but perhaps there is an irony that Mr. Watts didn’t write this song to be sung only at Christmas. He thought it would be sung during all different times of the year.
And then there’s the part where it is based more on a psalm than a gospel, and it speaks more to Christ’s second coming than his first. It was Mr. Lowell Mason who brought the text and tune together in the way we know it. The result is almost like the punch line of a joke: a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States!
May the messages of the music today stay with us in the coming week, for contemplation, prayer, and devotion, making our hearts a place of peace for the spreading in Christ’s name. Amen.
“Joy to the World!” #270 (4 verses) 1719 Watts
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.