It Happened Again

I am still amazed at little, seemingly hidden verses that strike me from time to time. In recent years, it seems to always happen at Christmas. Last night was no different.

Our congregation travels to a local rehabilitation and nursing facility every other Wednesday night to sing and fellowship with a special group of residents. Last night was our final visit for 2017. So, we sang through the entire Christmas, er, I mean, “Special Themes” section of our hymnal. True, there are several important Christmas hymns and carols noticeably absent from this particular compilation (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, Sing We Now of Christmas, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Infant holy, Infant Lowly, just to name a few).

We came to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. And we started in, just like we’d sung it time and time again. But we came to the third verse, and there it was, and it hit me right between the eyes.

I must make a note here before going into that lyric: We in Churches of Christ have missed the boat on a LOT of the rich, broader Christian hymnody of Advent and Christmas. Not only that, but we’ve bred a culture of singing that skips stanzas. So many of our hymns and songs were constructed to tell a story…especially, this is the case in so many of these Christmas carols and songs…they tell of the full narrative, of the prophets foretelling the coming of Messiah, of Mary’s encounter with the angels, of the manger, and of the upside-down-ness of Jesus’ coming and our waiting for his second advent, his return…living in that in-between. We’d do well to sing all of these stanzas, and to broaden our choices to include hymns and carols with a rich heritage, while also looking to include new hymns such as Matt Boswell’s Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery which tell the Christ story in with a wonderful new tune and rich text. Listen to the original here, then you can buy the a cappella version here. One of my professors and friends, Dr. Scott Aniol of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth offered good perspective on this in an interesting Baptist Press article as well.

midnight

I digress…
So often, these Christmas hymns include a story of how our world is doing anything but living in the reality of God’s world-changing love, as shown through Jesus. I’ve written before about hymns like O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night and how they sing into just how we are to live out that love in the here and now. So often, these ignored stanzas speak of the sadness of war and the lack of love for brother and sister humankind…

This verse is no different. Consider these lyrics.
Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

3 Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
(Some hymnals use the original, “and man, at war with man hears not”)
the love song which they bring.
O hush the noise and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing.

Considering this hymn was written over 140 years ago, the commentary on the warring between humankind and the plea with us to cease our strife is all the more powerful, and all the more relevant for us today.

And it sets up the closing stanza, now more important than ever to sing in light of stanza 3.

4 For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the time foretold.
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In our living and loving, may we send back heavenward, and to our brothers and sisters, the “song the angels sang.”

And may we sing these hymns and the rich stories they offer in their entirety…and may we be changed because of it.

“Law of Love and Gospel of Peace”

Last Christmas, I wrote this post amidst a sea of unrest, politically and otherwise.  In light of recent tragic events, especially in Orlando, I’m reposting it here today.

There has been a lot of swirling conversation going on around me, both physically and virtually, about what has gone on in the world around us these last few weeks…Syria, San Bernardino, Jerry Falwell…and on and on.  It was so much that today, I’d had enough and I needed a moment to just sit, be, listen and be quiet…in the quiet, I was overcome by the lyrics of one of the world’s most beloved Christmas Carols…and I had to write a bit about it.  I’ll come back to the other verses and the backstory of this wonderful Adolphe Adam carol, Cantique de Noel, on another day.

[And I will return to my series of posts on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” later this week.  But for a moment today, amidst the hatred, vitriolic speech, harsh judgment and language found in my Facebook feed and in other social and news media, I paused today just to breathe in and claim the lyrics of a Christmas Carol that so many love…but I’m afraid have sung too glibly over the years.]

The third verse of “Oh Holy Night” speaks of a world in which those who claim to follow Jesus are living out he calls all of his followers to in his subversive Gospel.

That Gospel is deeply rooted in Love of God and Love of Others…and so many claim the first part of that Call…the part about loving God.  But the back half…well, I’m afraid some have given Christ a bad name in how we’ve lived that out in recent days, weeks and months…that love of “others” is not one we can or should place provisions or privileges on…it’s an unconditional love for all of our brothers and sisters…Cantique-002

 

“Truly He taught us
to love one another;
His law is Love
and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break,
for the slave is our brother,
And in his name
all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise
his Holy name!”

 

Come, Lord Jesus!

Come, Emmanuel #3

Christmas has turned into one of the busiest, most frantic times of year, hasn’t it?  How far this holiday has come from the most humble of origins.

Amidst concerts, travel, all of our planning, Christmas service preparations, parties  Christmas shopping, two broken cars, the last 2 weeks, at least for us have been filled with “strife!”  I know, that may be a stretch for such a definition…but it sure seems as if we’ve been immersed in anything but peace on earth…because we’re so consumed with ourselves, after all, we’re the consumer!

This November-December, I participated in several performances of Handel’s messiah…and each time, we sang those storied words that echo the voices of the prophets, anticipating the coming Messiah.

“And his name shall be called: Wonderful…Counselor…Mighty God…Everlasting Father…the Prince of Peace.”  Our world…We…I desperately need the Prince of Peace.  Because only that can bring us back to the true meaning of a baby, humbly born into a broken world that can change everything and spread the blessing of Emmanuel, God with us now,  “Far as the curse is found.”

I want to close 2015 with these closing words of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  These are a portion of my prayer as this year melds into a new one filled with new expectations and endless hope.

Oh come, desire of nations,

Bind all peoples in one heart and mind

Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease…

Fill the whole world with heavens peace

May God richly bless you in 2016!  Keep Reading…keep commenting…

Come, Emmanuel (#2)

As the anticipation, the “Watching and waiting, looking above” continues, we move (backward) to the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Perhaps, this is the most poignant of this hymns litany of verses, with its begging and pleading for Messiah to come…little did they know just what that Messiah would look like.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O, Israel.

O-Come-EmmanuelAs I stated in last week’s blog, each verses gives us a glimpse into a different prophecy, a different Name identified in scripture.  “Emmanuel” meaning “God is With Us” (or even better translated “God is With us Now”, we know well from the prophecy of Isaiah which is reiterated in Matthew & Luke’s account of the                                                                            birth narrative. (Is. 7:14, Mt 1:23)

Musically speaking, this hymn, and namely this opening verse and its significance is inextricably tied to its role in the great “O” Antiphons.  Hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in the most recent printing of the United Methodist Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”

Each antiphon begins as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai
(Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse
(stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David
(key of David)
O Oriens
(dayspring)
O Rex genitium
(King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel

If one were to look at the first letter of the second word of these titles, each with verses translated by John Mason Neale in various hymnals of our time, you’d find an acrostic, SARCORE.  When spelled backwards, and this is where the interesting-ness continues, you get “ero cras,” which in the Latin means “I will be present tomorrow.” Every one of the Latin titles anticipating the coming Messiah, Jesus are from the Old Testament except “Emmanuel,” which is found both in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, as mentioned above. Matthew quotes Isaiah virtually verbatim—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”—with the exception that Matthew adds the phrase: “which being interpreted is, God with us.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O, Israel.

I love the longing in the words of this prayer…like Israel amidst it’s waiting for liberation…like those in the 400-year period of silence, waiting for Messiah to come…we too are longing, waiting to be ransomed out of this earthly captivity.  So we wait…but we rejoice, because, like the writer who penned the “rejoice” chorus, we know how the story ends.  Messiah did come…and will come again. IN the meantime, “Maranatha…Lord, come quickly…and thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

We Gather Together…and other Pre-Meal Customs

Each of us have our own special family customs and traditions…be it when you have your thanksgiving meal, driving to see the lights on Christmas Eve, on and on the list could go…My hunch is that for every one of us, there are also different customs for how mealtime begins.

 

I’ve come to appreciate those occasions when I’ve been gathered with friends around the meal table to sing a blessing over our food and our fellowship.  Maybe you have a song or songs that you sing prior to your meal, but one that I’ve sung around the table on a few different occasions (and that was number 1a in the hymnal of my youth) was originally titled “Prayer of Thanksgiving.”  Though it’s largely fallen out of circulation in my hymnological experience, “We Gather Together” has long been considered a hymn invoking and celebrating the blessing of God.

0351=351“We Gather Together” [Find the rest of the story here]
Anonymous 17th-c
entury Dutch, translated by Theodore Baker

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.”

In many hymnals, “We gather together” appears as a Thanksgiving hymn. Perhaps this is because of the opening line and the idea that God is with us regardless of our circumstances. However, the hymn speaks more about God’s providence throughout life’s trial and experience.

This hymn is a late 16th-century expression of celebration of freedom by The Netherlands from Spanish oppression. Like many older hymns, it found its way to North American hymnody through a rather circuitous route.

“It was first published in Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck (1626), a collection by Adrianus Valerius in Haarlem. Austrian Edward Kremser (1838-1914) included it in Sechs Altniederländische Volkslieder (Six Old Netherlands Folksongs) in 1877 for his men’s chorus, all six anonymous songs taken from the Valerius collection 250 years earlier.

According to hymnal editor Carlton Young, the performance of these tunes led to their popularity and the inclusion in many hymnals.
The story extends to the U.S. through Theodore Baker (1851-1934), a New York-born musicologist who studied in Leipzig and authored the famous Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Baker translated the hymn from German for an anthem entitled “Prayer for Thanksgiving” published in 1894. It is from Baker that the hymn gets its traditional Thanksgiving connection.

Some of the political overtones in this hymn faithfully translated by Baker are apparent. Hymnologist Albert Bailey suggests that the phrase, “The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,” is an allusion to the persecution of the Catholic Church under the policies of Spain. Thousands had been massacred and hundreds of homes burned by the Spanish in 1576 during the siege of Antwerp.

In stanza two, the writer states, “so from the beginning the fight we were winning,” stressing that Protestants had always been assured of winning the cause. The truce of 1609 proved that the Lord “wast at our side.”

The final stanza is a series of petitions—

“ …pray that thou still our defender will be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”

This is an eschatological stanza. The ultimate battle has not been won and will not be won until all battles cease.

An interesting sidebar was that Baker’s anthem inspired another hymn.

A young Julia Cady Cory (1882-1963) heard this text in 1902 at her church, Brick Presbyterian in New York City. Cory’s “We praise thee, O God, our Redeemer, Creator” is a more general hymn of praise and thanksgiving that also uses the Dutch tune KREMSER. Cory’s hymn did not include any reference to nationalism, making it a more general ecumenical hymn of thanksgiving.