The Word Made Fresh

Christmas carols.  Old familiar favorites.  I remember singing them in grammar school — so well — I got kicked out of Glee Club for my rendition of Joy to the World!:)  I used to plunk out the carol notes on the piano from my tattered Easy Carols Piano Book.  Even when all grown up it made my heart glad to play those old familiar tunes on our front porch baby grand.  And as a priest – at nursing home services  — I have often sung them all year long. They universally, I believe, touch the heart.

Caroling actually began as wassailing — a midwinter fertility ritual rooted in pagan magic. (I love that!) Revelers would gather in an orchard, sing, and bless an apple tree in hopes of a fruitful new year. Before they went singing door to door in the village, they would shout at the top of their lungs to scare away the evil spirits: WASSAIL!! (Feel free once you leave church today to go ahead and shout. It’s very cathartic!)

Historian Lucy Worsely’s awesome documentary on Christmas Carols tells us that “Wassailing was part of a much larger winter blowout. The darkest time of the year, there was no farming and no fighting and nothing much to do. A perfect time to celebrate solstice.”

Christians knew a good thing when they saw it. So, they took over the winter festival of solstice and turned it into Christmas. Wassailing evolved into caroling – from the French word for “song and dance.”

The most famous and familiar carol – a simple poem set to a simple tune — is probably Silent Night — #111 in our Hymnal.

         Silent Night!  Holy Night!

         All is calm, all is bright

         Round yon Virgin mother and child

         Holy infant so tender and mild

         Sleep in heavenly peace

         Sleep in heavenly peace.

Hymnal 1982, #111

So widely used, Silent Night has been translated into more than 230 languages.  It was written by Joseph Mohr, an assistant Catholic priest in an obscure village near Salzburg, Austria.  Many legends have grown up around the composition of this carol – some more fanciful than factual.

One version has Mohr write it for a Christmas celebration at a school house. While another has him write it as a musical response to a simple and very moving Christmas pageant. Apparently he was so moved that on the way home that he climbed a small mountain and let the night speak to him.  Actually, the poem was originally written in 1816 in response to the tragic loss of 200,000 Austrian lives in the Napoleanic Wars, a memorial to those who had died to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

In 1816 on Christmas morning, Mohr serendipitously came up with the idea that his poem would make a perfect hymn for the people to sing at Christmas services that very night. Amazingly his friend and church organist, Franz Gruber, literally wrote the tune in just a few hours.

One of the reasons for Silent Night’s universal appeal is its lyrical telling of the story.  Quiet darkness. A night pierced by glorious light. Shepherds in the fields. Angelic voices from the skies. And the face of an infant Jesus beaming with redeeming light. Jesus Lord at thy birth. Jesus Lord at thy birth.

In 1937, a relative of Franz Gruber published a pamphlet: “The Christmas Carol: How it Came into Existence and What It Really Is”.  He relates that when the organ broke down on Christmas Eve, Father Mohr hoped that the organist would be able to set his poem to music on the spot. The hymn was written for two voices and a guitar.  Mohr sang tenor and Gruber sang bass. Some say they were joined by a choir of young girls. But that is probably apocryphal.

Silent Night became immensely popular in Germany and Austria – often sung by wandering singers.  It started popping up in hymnals all over the globe – both Catholic and Protestant.  The King of Prussia – William the IV —heard the song for the first time in 1854 – when it was sung by the entire choir of the Imperial Church of Berlin.  He declared that it should forever more be given pride of place on Christmas.

And then there is the ancient hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten, #82 in the 1982 Hymnal. Do you know it? It does not show up often on popular Christmas albums, but with its haunting chant in a minor key, it is one of my favorites.   The words date back to the fourth century and the plainsong tune to the thirteenth century.  And yes, it was even in the 1940 Hymnal  — #20 in the Christmas section.  The not-so-new 1982 Hymnal blessedly omits verse four – on the politically correct grounds of its cringeworthy language – especially the bits about women!

         Then let old men, then let young men

         Then let boys in chorus sing

         Matrons, virgins, little maidens

         With glad voices answering

         Let their guileless songs re-echo

         And the heart its music bring.

The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Raymond Glover

But the first verse sings powerfully of a cosmic Christ:

         Of the Father’s love begotten

         Ere the worlds began to be

         He is alpha and omega

         He the source, the ending he

         Of the things that are and that have been

         And that future years shall see

         Evermore and evermore.

Hymnal 1982, #82
Art by Fernando Ortega

The words beautifully echo today’s classic gospel – –  John’s prologue.  John 1 is essentially a hymn that John composed by rewriting Genesis 1 – placing the cosmic Word with God at the beginning of time. 

Now shepherds, angels and wise men are easier to imagine than John’s light, glory, grace and truth.  These pretty words need to come down to earth. God puts skin and bones on those words so that we can see God’s glory up close and personal.

This Word is made flesh in healing the blind, the lame and the deaf.  This Word is made flesh in multiplying loaves and fishes, walking on water, and raising the dead.  Pretty amazing what the Word with an uppercase “W” can do.

No congregation I know lives out every letter of the this Word, jot and tittle.  John says that we have become children of God – Jesus’ brothers and sisters – able to do his work in the world.  To be faithful — we may be able only to put into action only one little word at a time. One little lowercase “w” word at a time.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a most eloquent preacher says:

“For one person the word is ‘compassion’.  For another it’s ‘justice’.  For someone else the word is ‘generosity’.  For another it is ‘patience’.  All very good ideas that sadly too often are seldom seen.  The moment however that we act upon them  — the words become flesh; they dwell among us and we can see their glory.”

Feasting on the Word, Barbara Brown Taylor

Here at Emmanuel on High, the Word springs to life in marvelous ways. Hospitality shines forth at coffee hour.  Through ALIVE!, Carpenters Shelter, Meals on Wheels & Bag Lunch, God’s people are fed. By your generosity, in response to this year’s Giving Tree – nine families in need will be able to keep a roof over their heads.

From the pews, words of prayer and praise are said and sung. From the pulpit, pastoral and prophetic words are shared. The good people of Emmanuel putting skin and bones on God’s Good News.

If you are new to us, come join us! The more the merrier!

So, let us conclude with these last beautiful words from #82:

         Let the heights of heaven adore him,

         Angel hosts his praises sing,

         Powers, dominions bow before him

         And extol our God and King,

         Let no tongue on earth be silent

         Every voice in concert ring

         Evermore and evermore.

Hymnal 1982, #82

Merry Christmas!

Joani

Sources:

Christmas Songs and Their Stories, Herbert H. Wenecke

Christmas Carols, Lucy Worsely

Christmas Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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