Week 1: O Come, o come, emmanuel

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Listen to each of the hymns, including this one, HERE.

Over 700 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Isaiah said:  “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”  Isaiah 7:14.  Then, in his gospel, Matthew referred to that prophecy when he wrote:  “Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call His Name Emmanuel” (which being interpreted is, “God with us.) Matthew 1:23.


“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a hymn favored during Advent.  It is a translation of a Latin hymn, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.”


The lyrics and melody for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” emerged independently.  The text comes from a 7 verse poem that dates back to the 8th century.  The unknown author wrote seven antiphons – short lines to be sung before or after psalm readings.  Each antiphon began with “O”.  Seven days before Christmas Eve, monasteries would sing the “O antiphons” in a call and response fashion during the vespers, or evening, service.  The original melody was a Plainsong or Chant, which is the earliest form of singing in the church. 


In 1861, John Mason Neale translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” into the version that is most prominent in the English-speaking world although other English translations do exist.  Translations in other modern languages are also in widespread use.  While the text is adaptable to and used with many metrical hymn tunes, it was first combined with its most famous tune (often itself called Veni Emmanuel) in 1851.  Although the composer of the music is unknown, the melody had its origin in 15th century France.


This hymn takes us back to the mindset of old Israel, longing for the first coming of the Messiah.  And it serves as our reminder that we are called to eagerly expect and to prepare our hearts and lives for the return of Emmanuel, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

WEEK 2: angels we have heard on high


Listen to each of the hymns, including this one, HERE.

The carol, Angels We Have Heard on High, commemorates the birth of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Luke.  (Luke 2: 6-20)  It focuses on the shepherds encounter with the angels who announced the birth of our Savior.


It is believed that the song lyrics originated in 18th century France although the author of the song is unknown.  The lyrics as we know them today were inspired by, but not an exact translation of, the French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (or “the angels in our countryside”.)  The song was loosely translated into English in 1860 by James Chadwick, a Roman Catholic priest who became bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in 1866.  Chadwick’s lyrics are original in some sections (including the title) and loosely translated from the French in other sections. 


Since it was common for text to be written for existing tunes, it is possible that the original melody for Angels We Have Heard on High is even older than the words.  The tune which is most recognized today was arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes.  Edward Barnes was a gifted organist who used his talent to serve God in churches across the United States.  The Barnes arrangement is believed to have been first published around 1937.


As we think of the angelic proclamation, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord”, let us be reminded that we also need to share the good news.  And may we join with the heavenly hosts in saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

WEEK 3: Joy to the world


Listen to each of the hymns, including this one, HERE.

It is one of the most exuberant, popular, and beloved carols that we sing.  Yet it was not written as a song about Christmas; at least not as the author intended.


Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in South Hampton England.  He was raised in a deeply religious family with a father who had concrete convictions about religious liberty.  Watts’ father even spent time in prison on two separate occasions for his outspoken Nonconformist views (of wishing to worship in a government-free church.)  Isaac Watts’ parents passed on their love for Christ and His work to their son.


Watts grew up in a world where the music in every service consisted only of sections of scripture or psalms put to music.  Watts found the practice monotonous and, to him, the congregants showed no joy or emotion as they sang.  When he expressed his sentiment to his father, his father issued a challenge.  He told Watts that if he struggled with what they sang, perhaps he should do something about it.  The challenge led Isaac Watts on a lifelong pursuit to write lyrics that exalted Christ and reminded Christians of their hope in His saving work on the cross.  Watts penned a massive collection of over 750 hymns.  In his day, Watts’ work was not always well received.  He was boldly introducing “praise and worship” songs by including extra-biblical poetry into his songs (rather than simply scripture).  Watts’ lyrical goal, as one author put it, was to wed “emotional subjectivity” to “doctrinal objectivity.”


In 1719, Watts published a work that was a translation or rewriting of the Psalms for congregational singing.  The hymnal was titled “The Psalms of David; Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.”  The title was meant to acknowledge that Watts had read the Old Testament and in light of the New Testament had written his Psalm-book to point to the person and work of Christ.  That collection included Watt’s rewriting of Psalm 98; it is familiarly entitled “Joy to the World.”


The second collaborator on the hymn was an unwitting one.  George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) was a German born composer who resided in London.  Although Handel and Watts were contemporaries in England, they did not collaborate on “Joy to the World.”  Another person pieced together parts of Handel’s “Messiah” to make up the tune we sing in North America.  It was the third collaborator, Lowell Mason (1792-1872), who assured that the tune and text would appear together.  Lowell Mason was a Boston, Massachusetts educator who had significant influence in his day.  He published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in “Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836).”  He named the tune “Antioch”.  While it is not the only tune to which Watts’ text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one.


The first line of “Joy to the World” is sometimes sung incorrectly as “Joy to the World! The Lord has come.”  What Watts wrote is “The Lord is come.”  He was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (Jesus’ return.)  Watts understood the main point of Psalm 98 not to be about Christ Jesus’ first coming but, rather, to be about His second coming when the full expression of His glory will be revealed.  So why do we sing this song at Christmas?  We sing it because there could be no second coming without the first.  The song is about the fulfillment of what Jesus came to do in the first place.  Christmas is not only a time to look back at what grace accomplished in the past, it is a time to look forward to what grace has accomplished for our future. 


Joy to the World…the Lord has come…and he is coming again!   Let us be joyful as we prepare our hearts and lives for his return.

WEEK 4: silent night


Listen to each of the hymns, including this one, HERE.


When turmoil and unrest besets us, we must turn to God for comfort, peace, and love.  Such was the case in the little town of Mariapfarr, Austria, in the fall of 1816, just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Twelve years of war had destroyed the country’s political and social infrastructure.  The 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tamboro had caused widespread climate change throughout Europe.  The volcanic ash in the atmosphere caused almost continuous storms, including snow, in the midst of the summer.  There was widespread famine due to catastrophic crop failure.


Joseph Mohr, a young Austrian priest in Mariapfarr, shepherded a congregation who was poverty-stricken, hungry, and traumatized.  So he crafted a poem with verses to convey faith and hope that there was still a God who cared. 


Mohr, who was a gifted violinist and guitarist, probably could have composed the music for his poem.  Instead, he sought help from a friend.  In 1817, Mohr was transferred to the St. Nicholas Parish in the town of Oberndorf.  There, he asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and organist, to write the music for the six verse poem.  The melody and harmonization of “Silent Night” is based on an Italian musical style called “siciliana” that mimics the sound of water and rolling waves.  (Two large rhythmic beats split into three parts each.)  In that way, Gruber’s music reflected the daily soundscape of Mohr’s congregation, who lived and worked along the Salzach River.  In 1818, on Christmas Eve, Mohr played his guitar and the two friends sang “Silent Night” together for the first time in front of Mohr’s congregation.  The song was well received by the parishioners.


An organ builder and repair man who was working at the church took a copy of the song to his home village.  There it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers --- the Strassers and the Rainers.  The families included the tune in their shows and the song became popular across Europe and eventually in America.  In 1834, the Strasser family performed it for the King of Prussia.  In 1839, the Rainer family sang the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City.  At the same time, German speaking missionaries spread the song from Tibet to Alaska, translating it into the local languages.  The song has been translated into over 300 languages.


The peaceful lyrics of “Silent Night” and the lilting melody reminds us of a universal sense of grace that unites people across cultures and faiths.  Perhaps at no time in the song’s history was the message more important than at Christmas in 1914, during the height of World War I.  By that time, “Silent Night” was known around the world.  During a temporary truce on Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers sang carols from home.  On the front lines of the battlefield in Flanders, German and British soldiers laid down their weapons and simultaneously sang “Silent Night”.  The song’s fundamental message of peace, even in the midst of suffering, has bridged cultures and generations.


Whatever trials or troubles surround us, may we always look to God for hope, peace, joy, and love.  Let us spread the good news of Jesus to others as we eagerly await His return.