First Congregational Church
December 29, 2019
First Sunday after Christmas
“Lingering at the Stable” (Stable Songs)
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Welcome to this Christmas Hymn/Carol Sing Sunday. With all the work that goes into getting ready for the holidays, when we have to move right on to the “next thing,” maybe we get cheated out of some of that reflection and reveling time. So it’s a good thing, that within the church calendar, there is generally at least one Sunday where we get to appreciate how all the preparations have come together, and today, we will do that through some of the songs, hymns and spiritual songs of the season.
Besides “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the other most appropriate song to start a service or season is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The tune that we know, found in the lower righthand corner, is Veni Emmanuel, music written for a French Franciscan Requiem Mass Processional in the 15th century.
The words, however, are ancient, with some 90 scriptural references. Each verse of this hymn, originally there were six, refers to Christ by various Old Testament titles, like Emmanuel, Dayspring, Wisdom and Desire of Nations, exemplifying Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In addition to its anticipation of Christ’s birth, the hymn can also be interpreted to refer to the Second Coming.
John M. Neale translated the original Latin verses into English. He was born in London in 1818, and over the course of his 48 years and ill health, John actually accomplished a great deal. He attended Trinity College in Cambridge, England, was ordained in the Church of England, spent 20 years as the warden for a retirement home for poor men, that he expanded to include women and orphans, founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, which became one of the finest English training orders for nurses, wrote two volumes of hymns for children and translated numerous hymns from Greek and Latin.
If there is nothing else that comes from this hymn, it is a reminder, that even when we feel like we aren’t able to do much, God can do much with what we offer. Through all his pulmonary issues, Dr. Neale maintained a mixture of gentleness and firmness along with a high degree of courage of his definite and strong convictions, maintaining the greatest charity towards and forbearance with, those who didn’t agree with him. So let us stand and sing all the verses of #245, this most remarkable work.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” #245 1-4
A fair number of our Christmas song repertoire comes from Germany, and then the next most common carols come from France, Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. So our very old, Polish carol of unknown origin, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, is rather precious. Unlike our first hymn that was published in 463 hymnals, this one has a been published in just 93 hymnals. And yet, it has been recorded by such famed musicians as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and opera singers Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkenin.
There is a fair bit of agreement that many of our hymns - of all types - come from the music of the people, including dance music. With that thought, it is quite interesting that this Polish carol, in 3/4 time, comes from the same place as the famous Frederic Chopin, most notable for his rhythmic mazurkas. If we put such carols and music into our feet, how much deeper will they go into our hearts and minds and souls? Despite what the bulletin says, you can remain seated for the singing of our next two hymns.
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” #279 both
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" was "the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in all of the 18th century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer." This was because most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century.
The original “story” was in six verses, telling the story of Christ’s birth from the shepherds point of view. The writer of this song, Nahum Tate, was born in Ireland, but lived most of his life in London. Mr. Tate wasn’t a household name by any stretch, but he was appointed poet laureate and royal historiographer, even though he died while living at a refuge for debtors.
There is a “joke” that musicians like to toss around, saying that much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the song “Yellow Rose of Texas.” To that point, down in the bottom righthand corner, under the tune’s name of Christmas, C.M. with Repeat stands for Common Meter, which is 4/4 time. Any song with a common meter can be interchanged with any other song with a common meter.
So in Cornwall, this carol is sung with the tune usually sung with “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” while the rest of the United Kingdom uses the tune Winchester Old. Here in the states, is it most commonly sung to Christmas, the tune based on a soprano aria by George Frederic Handel. It’s not just every song - or text - that becomes so associated with a classical composer.
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” #272 1 & 4
Noël is the French word for Christmas and is from the Latin natalis, meaning "birthday." Though “The First Noel” is often used for Christmas, its narrative is actually better suited to Epiphany, as its loose basis on Luke 2 and Matthew 2 includes the wise men.
This carol is an anonymous folk song, believed to date from the 13th or 14th century, a time in which all medieval civilization in Europe was springing to life, and used in dramatizations of favorite Bible stories for holidays called the Miracle or Mystery Plays. Most medieval poetry was written to be sung, so it is presumed that the words were written with an existing tune in mind. This probably makes the tune to the song even older, and is likely English or French, which makes it a lot like a lot of us - mixed combinations of elements that come together in some good and lasting ways. And thank you, God, for that! Let us stand and sing verses 1, 3, 4 and 5 of “The First Noel”.
“The First Noel” #265 1, 3, 4, 5
“Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” is perhaps the most obscure carol we have this morning. With the tune, Resonet in Laudibus” and the translator both being anonymous, there is little with which to fill out this song. Except that it is a sort of lullaby, and it has Joseph asking to rock the baby, so maybe, at the very least, it could be called one of the more progressive Christmas carols.
Edward L. Stauff put this particular harmonization - or chording - together, and he is most definitely our most contemporary music contributor this morning. The Choral Public Domain Library says that he is a software engineer by trade and a musician by calling. And he even has a couple of emails and a website (that doesn’t work.)
Back in the 1400s, when people were not allowed to attend pagan plays, the Church sponsored various Christmas and Easter mystery plays that provided sacred entertainment interwoven with religious instruction. It’s good food for the soul - when it can span 700 years and still speak to the creative parts of us. Feel free to remain seated as we sing the two verses of this classic carol.
“Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” S 89
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of Ken Bible, the writer of the lyrics for “Love Has Come!”, born in 1950. Like so many others we’ve heard of this morning, Mr. Bible took an old melody that is attributed to the son from a long line of herdsmen from Provence, France, put it on top of the familiar “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” and came up with a Christmas carol that not only speaks about God’s love, but makes great sense in our modern day. Mr. Bible was rather brilliant in putting his text onto a tune that most of us know, one degree to another. And he helps us to see that it was Love, with a capital L, lying in that manger. “Love Has Come” helps us to actually see that “The heavens could not contain the message of God’s love to humanity, so it exploded in the Bethlehem skies. That’s the gift of Christmas, the love of God brought to us in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.” So let us give ourselves some of that message, in the singing of verses 1 & 2.
“Love Has Come!” 256 1, 2
When it comes to the song, “Away in a Manger,” any musician worth their salt would make sure to specify: Kirkpatrick or Murray. Long thought to be the work of Martin Luther, modern thought is that, maybe not so much. In fact, the tune was once known as Luther’s cradle hymn, but in the lower right corner, you can see how the non-attribution to Luther has caused even the tune name to be contemporized. To add even more to the obscurity of this beloved hymn, no one is sure about the words, especially the entire third verse.
As you all have, no doubt, become more sensitive to the wealth of information included on the pages of our hymnals, you can see in the lower left corner that today we are singing Kirkpatrick’s version - or as it is in my head - the other version.
William James Kirkpatrick was born in Ireland, and when he was about two, his parents immigrated to the US, leaving him behind, thinking that he was too young, although his mother gave birth on the ship during the crossing. By the time he was sixteen, Kirkpatrick was living in Philadelphia, studying music and carpentry, because even back then, musicians didn’t make enough working just one job. Along with voice studies, he also took on cello, fife, flute, organ, and violin. Throughout his life, Mr. Kirkpatrick was a Sunday School teacher, a member of the church choir, a Fife-Major of the 91st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, and continued to write and publish hymns, ending with a career track of 49 major books. Mr. Kirkpatrick might have - might not have - but might have thought of his life, being separated from his parents at a young age as a rather large stumbling block in his life. If he did, we surely don’t see it in what was left of his life after he died. May we so be inspired - not only by the sweetness and beauty of the words of this precious carol - but in the life and legacy of the man who wrote the music for it.
“Away in a Manger” #261 or #262 1-3
Those paying attention to the bulletin and the verse numbers to be sung may be a bit confused, indicating that we would sing verses 1, 2 and 4 of “Go, Tell It,” because there are just three verses in our hymnals. Not to be one to gloat, I would like to point out all the rest of the bulletin that doesn’t have any mistakes. Just sayin’.
Technically an African-American spiritual song, “Go, Tell It” is considered a Christmas carol because its original lyrics celebrate the Nativity of Jesus. The only tune ever associated with it is “Go Tell It,” but one group that adapted the song was Peter, Paul and Mary, rewriting the lyrics to refer to the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s, making reference to the Exodus and using the phrase "Let my people go”.
It’s an interesting premise, “telling it on the mountain”. In the Bible, the mountain often represents the holy presence of God, the mountain being a barrier between the Israelites and God’s presence, much like the curtain in the temple dividing the people from the Holy of Holies. Moses has to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and to see the Promised Land. In the Gospel, Jesus is transfigured on a mountain. In the Old Testament especially, the mountain is a place that is set apart – not just everyone can go up the mountain to be in God’s presence.
When Christ was born however, God’s presence came down to God’s people in a new form, in the helplessness of a baby. In ‘Going and Telling,” we sing out the story of the nativity, as we become part of those who tear down the walls between us and God, so that the Holy Spirit can bridge our hearts with God’s. Going and Telling is a far more holy and sacred task than many of us might have previously thought.
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” #258 1, 2, 4
The writer of our last text, James Montgomery, was born in Scotland, the son of missionaries who left him to go to the West Indies, where they died within a year of each other. (One has to wonder about the lot of hymn writers and the difficulty of their early lives!)
On failing to complete his schooling, he was apprenticed to a baker, then to a store-keeper. After an unsuccessful attempt to launch a literary career in London, Montgomery became an assistant auctioneer, bookseller and newspaper printer and owner. He was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition, first for printing a song that celebrated the fall of the Bastille and again when he printed an account of a riot.
Even so, Mr. Montgomery published eleven volumes of poetry, mainly his own, and at least four hundred hymns. Some critics judge his hymn texts to be equal in quality to those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. His poems tended to be rather lengthy, and some of them addressed some of the social issues of the times. One of his most famous poems came out of his imprisonment, called “Prison Amusements.” A large portion of his writings reflected concern for humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery and the exploitation of child chimney sweeps.
Being a great summation of the Stable Story, “Angels, from the Realms of Glory” makes sense to be placed at the end of such a service as this, because it commends us to go out as shepherds to worship where our journeys take us, just as it was for them. The refrain gives us an extra push, that as we go where Christ takes us, that we embrace the worship of that same Christ, in all our moments and paths, as a way of life, living in joy like that when a child is born. So let us do all of that as we stand and sing all the verses of our final hymn this morning.
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” #259 1-5 (end)
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.