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Christmas Hymn Fest

December 31, 2017
31 Dec 2017

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

1For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This year we wanted to focus on angels in our hymns for this Sunday. They’re relatively minor characters in the Christmas narrative but they play an essential part in the story. Without them, Mary wouldn’t have known she was to be the mother of the Son of God, Joseph would have probably left Mary after he heard she was pregnant, and the shepherds wouldn’t have understood the significance of the star in the sky on that cold, dark night. Angels played very important parts in warning and calming and explaining.

Our first hymn, “Angels, From the Realms of Glory,” was written by the Scottish hymn writer, James Montgomery, in the early 1800s. James was the son of the only Moravian pastor in Scotland at the time. When James was five years old, his parents felt a calling to mission work in the West Indies. They left James and he never saw them again. The Moravians raised him and even sent him to seminary to follow in his father’s footsteps. Alas, he was more interested in poetry than theology and was kicked out of the seminary. He tried his hand as a baker but quickly gave that up too. What finally grabbed him was working for a local newspaper. Of course, his devilish ways with the paper caused him to get arrested several times.

As troublesome as he was, James never lost his faith and eventually came back to the Moravian church. He was inspired by the angels approaching the shepherds in Luke 2 and wrote this hymn. He published it in his paper’s Christmas Eve edition to much success. Let us sing this beloved hymn.

“Angels, From the Realms of Glory”

Psalm 148

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.[a]

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and women alike,
old and young together!

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Our next hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” also pulls its inspiration from the second chapter of Luke. This one was written nearly 100 years prior to Montgomery’s hymn by the famous English hymn writer, Charles Wesley. Wesley was somewhat of a rebel in writing this hymn. Very few hymns and carols were written during the 1600s and early 1700s. The Puritan Parliament of 1649 had altogether abolished hymns and carols under the strict leadership of Oliver Cromwell.

Wesley was no fool though. He loaded up his hymn with such deep theological teachings that it was hard to deny the hymn’s relevance even in the strictest of times. Wesley knew how to use words to concisely convey what Jesus’ birth meant for the world. Of course, his words were not perfect as many people point out. Most significantly, historians note that the very first line of the hymn, “hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king,” was not the original line that Wesley had composed. No, his original opening line was, “hark how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.” Welkin is an old Anglo-Saxon word for the vault of heaven where the angels dwell. The original line doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the words we’re more familiar with. Luckily, another English evangelist named George Whitefield came along and made the change without Wesley’s approval.

And Wesley wasn’t the only one snubbed by unapproved changes. The man who put Wesley’s words to music, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote the tune with the strict condition that it wouldn’t be used for religious purposes. He was hoping his tune would be used to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press, not Jesus’ birth! But powers greater than Wesley and Mendelssohn were hard at work creating one of our most treasured hymns. Let us sing, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The second chapter of Luke, when the angel approaches the shepherds in the fields and shares the good news about Jesus’ birth, is the inspiration for so many of our Christmas hymns. We love to envision a multitude of angels singing in heaven over the amazing event. While Montgomery and Wesley were reflecting on the angels in the early 1700s, French hymn writers revived their work in the early 1800s. An anonymous author came up with our next hymn, “Angels, We Have Heard on High,” and published it in Canada in 1819. It gradually made its way down to America by way of a 1935 edition of the Methodist hymnal.

Because it has French origins, this hymn perfectly accompanies the French tradition of the creche, or nativity scenes. In France, nativity scenes are put out not only in homes but in public spaces as well. They can get to be life-sized and carefully crafted. When a creche is constructed, it is traditionally celebrated by singing this hymn.

Whereas Wesley’s hymn is deep with theological teaching, this hymn is probably best loved for its simplicity. The verses are very straightforward and easily sung. Indeed, the refrain of “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” is recognizable by both young and old alike. Some might consider the song monotonous but few Christmas songs are better at conveying the sheer joy of receiving the Savior. Let us join in the joy by singing, “Angels, We Have Heard on High.”

“Angels, We Have Heard on High”

Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

I thought we’d close out our reflection on angels with a hymn that was indirectly inspired by angels. Montgomery, Wesley, and some French writer did a pretty good job of putting words and song to the glory of angels at Jesus’ birth. Angels sing out with joy and they encourage us to sing out with joy too. Our closing hymn, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” builds off of this joy. This hymn goes much further back than the other three, dating back to the German priest, Heinrich Suso, of the 1300s. The tradition says that Suso had a dream involving angels not only singing but dancing. He listened as they sang and eventually joined in their “ecstatic dance.” When he woke, the dream had left such an impression on him that he felt compelled to compose his hymn.

Suso’s hymn was somewhat radical for his time. Suso was writing in the late Middle Ages when Christian music was particularly slow and solemn. It also written in Latin so few people could actually sing along. It was music to inspire contemplation and introspection, not joy and gladness. But Suso couldn’t help but write a hymn that reflected the joy he felt singing and dancing with the angels. Life is meant to be enjoyed, not simply reflected upon! Suso, like Luther 200 years later, wanted to add life to a serious, stagnating church. Of course, the church didn’t initially appreciate his contribution but it eventually took to it as people loosened up. Let us join in the joy and sing, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”

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