First Congregational Church
December 28, 2013
First Sunday of Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The birth of Jesus was celebrated by music: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14).
Christians of the first century continued the tradition of the angels. Historical records from as early as 129 AD document songs written specifically for Christmas celebrations. However, they were primarily written in Latin, and were not called Carols, but hymns. The French word, carole, meaning circle dance, or song of praise and joy, did not originate with Christianity, but with the pagan celebration of winter.
It is interesting that the favorite "Joy to the World" doesn't make a mention of Christmas, or Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, or the star. Even so, it is a good "carol" and it fits with the idea of a Celebration in Song. So let us stand and sing....
"The First Noel" #270
We easily associate candles with the Celebration of Christmas, but handheld light has a greater history. Long before the 1553 of "Bring a Torch," torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah's Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe. When "Bring a Torch" came along, it was originally written not for Christmas but as French dance music. When words were added to the melody, they told the story of two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who went to milk their cows in a manger in Bethlehem, only to find the baby Jesus sleeping in the hay. The two girls ran to town to tell the village of the coming of Christ, and the townspeople came with their own torches to view the sight for themselves. However, they had to keep their voices down so little Jesus could enjoy his dreams. To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to church on Christmas Eve while singing the carol.”
"I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve," when sung in Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, takes on the love and popularity of "Away In a Manger" for Scandinavians. Part of the reason for becoming so beloved is because it is short and easy for children to memorize. Prior to the last half of 19th century northern Europe, children were allowed to read only for the purposes of education and moral examples. Marie Wexelsen, being born at the right time, was able to help in the expansion of education - to include boys and girls in receiving general education as well as the ability to read (and sing) for amusement as well as learning. So let us sing with a lilt, first number 19 and then number 62 in the spiral books.
"Bring a Torch" S 19
"I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve S 62
As you get ready number 89 in the spiral book, I encourage you to get #261 in the red hymnal ready to follow. Mystery plays were religious dramas that provided sacred entertainment, since attending pagan dramas was forbidden, and they provided opportunities for religious education. The religious dramas were also performed in the language of the people, rather than church Latin and allowed for instruments, which were not allowed in churches.
"Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine" has been traced back to the mystery plays in 16th century Leipzig, Germany. There is an intimacy in this song not found in all carols, and this one allows us to come in and be right there, right with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.
While we're at the manger, it wouldn't be right to leave before singing "Away In the Manger." No Christmas song is more loved than this tender children's carol. With its simply worded expression of love for the Lord Jesus and trust in His faithful care, the hymn appeals to young and old alike. Like the song "Jesus Loves Me," we generally learn "Away In a Manger" as young children, and it tends to stay with us through our adult lives. It is the musical rendering of Luke 2:7.
“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7 NIV) Let us go to the stable and sing "Joseph Dearest", ladies singing the first verse, men singing the second and everyone on the refrain, and then "Away in a Manger."
"Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine" S 89
"Away in a Manger" #261
"Love Came Down at Christmas" was written about the same time as the previous two hymn carols. While we don't know much about the real composer of "Away In a Manger", we know a fair bit about Christina Georgina Rossetti, the composer of "Love Came Down at Christmas. She came from a family steeped in the arts. She was a sickly child, so her deep faith is thought to be partially due to the solace she found in writing. Her father, Gabriele, was a professor of Italian at King’s College, and brothers Dante and William developed the 19th century art movement, the pre-Raphaelite era. Oh, and a family friend was Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." The beauty of this little carol hymn is that it is a personification of "love," that word being mentioned 12 times in three short stanzas.
"There's a Song in the Air" is the first home-grown hymn-carol sung today. Both Josiah Holland and Karl Harrington were New England boys. Although word-writer Holland dropped out of high school for poor health, he went on to get a medical degree before giving up his practice to become the owner and editor of a newspaper. As the poem's popularity grew, being published in his own newspaper, three noted composers took note and wrote their own melodies for it. It was the version that Karl Harrington wrote while on vacation that became the one we will sing after number 102 in the spiral book.
"Love Came Down at Christmas" S 102
"There's a Song in the Air" S 160
Again, you may want to ready number 128 in the spiral book and #258 in the red hymnal.
Isaiah wrote - some 700 years before Jesus' birth - a prophecy that we consider to have been fulfilled with the birth of Christ. "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you. (Isaiah 60:1–2)
When we get to the first of the next two hymn-carols, it may take a moment to realize the seeming "mistake". The people who followed the star to Jesus weren’t the shepherds, they were the wise men. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories. There is no mistake, however. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bringing lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom slaves could relate.
There are a few Christmas songs that come in the form of a spiritual. Spirituals were means of teaching the story of Christmas, along with secret communications oblivious to slave owners.
If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion. Slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves.
"Go, Tell It On the Mountain" doesn't have a composer, but a compiler. That's because like many African American songs, it was handed down orally, from plantation to plantation. John Work recorded it and was finally able to put it to paper . As we began our service by joining the singing of the angels, so shall we end it, first with "Rise Up" and lastly with "Go, Tell It." Let us stand and sing.
"Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow" S 128
"Go, Tell It on the Mountain" #258
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.