We visit today with two beloved Christmas hymns. Anglican holiday hymnody is an embarrassment of treasures, and we have only 12 Days of Christmastide after all, so please use these devotionals as a launch pad to explore your personal favorites…why so many notes in one word (“Glo-o-o-o-o-ohh, o-o-o-o-ohh, o-o-o-ORR-riah”), how does arid desert wilderness become such a bleak midwinter, how did Harold become an angel, why the broken uneven cadence to trip us up in Lo How A Rose Ere Blooming, and where did all those (horribly, terribly) medieval gifts for each of the 12 Days derive?! We all know what those 6 geese are a’layin’ after all, and it’s nothing holy or fragrant!!
But every so often, those medievalists get something right. And thanks to them, we love singing the third holiday hymn to feature the beckoning refrain of Come! First Come, Ye Faithful People Come, then O Come O Come Emmanuel, and now, O Come All Ye Faithful. Though originally identified with either 13th century Saint Bonaventure or 17th century Portuguese royalty, I prefer O Come’s attribution to anonymous Cistercian monks composing hymns of praise for Christmas. Translated into English by 19th century liturgical scholar Frederick Oakeley in 1841 (Oakeley then had the audacity to “swim the Tiber” as we say, or translate from Anglican priestly order to Roman Catholicism), O Come’s lyrical Latin phraseology ported nicely into hymnic English. The tune’s origin is less certain, usually attributed to 19th century English hymnist John Frances Wade who fled to France as a Jacobite sympathizer!!
No wonder I love this hymn!! Some see Jacobite imagery encoded in the tonal quality and lyrics, but I digress. (Please web search “Jacobite” for a more complete explanation, or for a bit more flare, simply binge watch the first three seasons of Outlander!! Bonnie Prince Charles was a complete head case!) O Come rapidly gained popularity for English-speaking Christians, ascending to musical royalty by anchoring the final moments of the King’s College, Cambridge’s 9 Lessons and Carols. The hymn simply invites us to come and adore the babe in the manger, posturing us for worship while embedding constitutive Christian doctrine in each verse.
Silent Night, Holy Night took a far different path to holiday fame. Austrian cleric Joseph Mohr composed his Stille Nacht in 1816, but it took two more years for church organist Franz Gruber to compose the beloved tune. Interestingly, Mohr and Gruber first performed it together on guitar just after midnight on Christmas Day, 1818, in Saint Nicholas Church, Oberndorf, Austria, as the church organ was broken. Legend holds the organ repair man heard this new hymn, and brought it back with him to Tyrol where a travelling band of singers learned it and took Silent with them on tour throughout German-speaking Europe. German immigrants brought it to America, where it was first performed in 1839 at the Alexander Hamilton Monument in Central Park, NYC. John Freeman Young translated the song into English in 1863, the brutal midpoint of the Civil War. I was transfixed by the accurate depiction of Night’s global appeal in the movie Joyeux Noel, which by now you must know also; the night of Christmas Eve, 1914 (the first year of the Great War, WWI), German soldiers began singing their song and the nearby English, French and Scottish troops responded in English. An impromptu evening truce followed, complete with winter soccer matches and the trading of native liquors in celebration! To my knowledge this shocking episode has never been repeated in modern warfare ever again, a parable of how beloved music can unify us across language, culture and ideologies.
- One of the great tragedies of the pandemic is the loss of shared singing, a core experience in every Christian worship tradition. I found it life-giving to not only watch ECOT’s Advent and Christmas Lessons and Carols but sing along with the scrolling words, a great gift from our Mother Emily to all of us. If you haven’t yet, please go here to watch and worship and sing with us!!
- Take a moment to review the lyrics of these two Christmas classic hymns, or any other holiday hymn you love. Notice how much theological and doctrinal content is so cleverly and smoothly integrated into our music. Truly, as the saying goes, those who sing pray twice!
- And, if you haven’t yet done so, do worship with one the “great” Christmas worship events, whether it be Saint Peter’s Basilica, Washington National Cathedral, King’s College 2020 Lessons and Carols (a personal favorite of mine) or our own Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver. All do a terrific Christmas choral worship presentation worthy of our time.