“Sing a New Song”
We don’t have enough services in the Christmas season to fit in all the wonderful carols of our faith that have been written to celebrate Christ’s birth. We’ve already sung several during the season of Advent, and we’ll sing some more next Sunday as the season of Christmas continues. But rather than miss singing some of our traditional favourites, we thought tonight we would do a little extra carol singing.
Our theme in worship throughout Advent has been “Sing a New Song.” Over the last four weeks, we have studied and joined in the Song of Mary as she sang about God bringing down the powerful and lifted up the lowly through the ministry of her son, Jesus, who was soon to be born. We sang the Song of Zechariah who foretold that his son John the Baptist would prepare the way of the Lord.
We rejoiced with the Song of the Angels to the Shepherds, proclaiming good news of great joy to all people. And we found hope in the Song of Simeon who was filled with peace when he recognized God’s promise fulfilled in the child Jesus, who would be the Messiah.
The carols we will sing tonight are not as old as those biblical songs, but some of them do have a pretty long history.
Oh come, all ye faithful
Let’s begin with “Oh come, all ye faithful” (#159), a classic one for gathering on Christmas Eve. In modern English hymnals, the text is usually credited to John Francis Wade, whose name appears on the earliest printed versions, including our hymn book.
Wade was an English Catholic, living in exile in France and making a living as a copyist of musical manuscripts which he found in libraries. He often signed his copies, possibly because his calligraphy was so beautiful that his clients requested this. The first printed source for Adeste Fideles (the original Latin title of Oh come, all ye faithful) was published by Wade in 1751.
But at various times, the text has been attributed to various groups and individuals, including St. Bonaventure in the 13th century or King John IV of Portugal in the 17th, though it was more commonly believed that the text was written by Cistercian monks – the German, Portuguese or Spanish provinces of that order having at various times been credited.
Besides John Francis Wade, the tune has been attributed to several musicians, from John Reading and his son, to Handel, and even the German composer Gluck. The Portuguese composer Marcos Portugal or King John IV of Portugal have also been credited. Thomas Arne, whom Wade knew, is another possible composer.
So, this carol has been sung for centuries by faithful Christians coming to worship the Christ Child, and we continue to come and to sing it tonight.
Hark! the herald angels sing
It seems that the 18th century was a busy time for writing Christmas carols. Our next carol, “Hark! the herald angels sing” (#139) is an English carol that first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems. Based on Luke 2:14, it tells of an angelic chorus singing praises to God. As it is known in the modern era, it features lyrical contributions from Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, two of the founding ministers of Methodism.
Wesley had written the original version as “Hymn for Christmas-Day” with the opening couplet “Hark! how all the heaven rings/ Glory to the King of kings.” Whitefield changed that to today’s familiar lyric: “Hark! The herald angels sing/ glory to the new-born King.”
In 1840 – a hundred years after the carol’s first publication, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and it is the tune from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics of “Hark! the herald angels sing,” that is used for the carol today.
Away in a manger
Like many other hymns in the church’s repertoire, the words of many traditional carols may be sung with more than one melody, as long as it has the same meter – the right number of syllables for each line of the song. Depending on which church you grew up in, or which hymn book was popular in the place where you lived, you might love singing “Away in a manger” (#149) to one of two popular tunes.
Our hymn book has the music written by William James Kirkpatrick in 1895. (Sing first line.) You might also know it with the earlier 1887 melody by James Ramsey Murray. (Sing first line.)
Regardless of which one you prefer, the words were first published in 1885 and used widely throughout the English-speaking world. Although the words were long claimed to be the work of the German Reformer, Martin Luther, the carol is now thought to be wholly American in origin.
The first nowell
The next carol is one that I don’t often select for Christmas Eve. Although it’s a lovely one, the words take us a little further into the Christmas story where we meet the Magi (or the wise men) coming the East to visit the Christ Child. That will be the focus on our worship next Sunday, including some other songs about the Magi. But let’s enjoy a couple of verses of “The first nowell” (#136).
This carol is another traditional English Christmas carol with Cornish origins, most likely from the 17th century, although possibly earlier. And we don’t know who composed it. I always thought that “nowell” spelled NOWELL was just a different spelling of the French word for Christmas “Noel” NOEL. But I learned that the NOWELL spelling was an early modern English synonym of “Christmas”, ultimately from the Latin natalis dies (meaning “day of birth”).
Good Christians, all rejoice
Finally, let’s conclude our little Christmas-carolling interlude with “Good Christians, all rejoice” (#141). You may still remember it as “Good Christian men, rejoice” but fortunately the English words were updated so that we can all join in the song.
Of course, the original version was titled in Latin, “In dulci jubilo” which translates to “In sweet rejoicing.” The original text alternated between German and Latin sections, and was thought to be written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse around 1328. According to folklore, Seuse heard angels sing these words and joined them in a dance of worship.
The melody first appeared in a manuscript in the Leipzig University Library dating from around 1400, although it has been suggested that the tune may have existed in Europe prior to this date.
Sing a New Song
Some of you may know that among the various things that ministers do in the life of the church is that we select the hymns that we’re going to sing in worship each Sunday morning and for special services like this one tonight. It’s a part of my job that I enjoy quite a bit. I love singing, and I appreciate a wide variety of hymns and songs from different times in the church’s history in a variety of styles.
But it’s also a bit challenging to choose the hymns for worship. I try to strike a balance between choosing songs that many worshippers will already know and find familiar, and selecting new ones that clearly express the message of the service with beautiful, though perhaps less familiar, melodies. Since we’ve been using our current blue hymn book for over 25 years, I have to be careful not to assume that a hymn I’ve known for a long time will be known to others in the community.
Of course, it wasn’t difficult to pick the hymns for tonight. Almost all the Christmas carols in our book are well known, and most of them are well-loved as well. But I have to say that it felt a little odd to be planning to sing a bunch of old songs from the 12th to the 19th centuries when our theme through the Seasons of Advent and Christmas has been “Sing a NEW Song.”
All through December, our focus in worship each Sunday has been a song of one of the biblical characters surrounding Jesus’ birth. I found musical settings of Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Canticle, the song the angels sang to the shepherds on the first Christmas, and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis which was sung to the infant Jesus a few weeks after his birth.
Each of these seems like an OLD song to us today, and the ones that usually get named in Latin may seem even older. But at the time that the biblical characters sang them, they were world premiere performances. And in every case, they were singing about something brand new that God was doing or was about to do in the world.
Mary sang about how God was humbling the rich and powerful, lifting up the poor and needy, and turning the world upside-down through the child who was (at that time) growing in her womb.
Zechariah sang about how God was going to use his newborn son, John the Baptist, to prepare the way of the Lord by gathering people and calling them to turn their lives around and to follow the Way of Jesus.
The choir of Angels sang to the shepherds and told them the good news of great joy which was for all the ordinary people of the world. They gave glory to God, and proclaimed that God was bringing peace to all people on earth.
Finally, the old prophet Simeon saw the baby Jesus when his parents brought him up to the temple for a blessing. Simeon recognized that the child was the long-awaited Messiah, and he sang that the Christ would be a light for all people – both Jews and Gentiles.
I think that many people think of church, and perhaps even of God, as things that are super old, traditional, old-fashioned, and never-changing. And perhaps we’ve earned that reputation by singing songs from many centuries ago, getting into the habit of doing some things the same way for a long time, and perhaps being a bit slow in keeping up with new technologies and innovative ways of doing things.
But the God we believe in, and the one we worship and rely on for daily guidance and help in our lives, is one who is living, active, and always ready to do something new, something creative and wonderful in the world.
Our first Scripture reading tonight was from the Prophet Isaiah. It was written to the People of Israel around the 6th century BCE when they were struggling in exile in Babylon. Interestingly, the prophet begins by reminding the people that God has helped and guided them in times past. When their ancestors were in slavery in Egypt, God came to their rescue. God led them out, guided them through the wilderness, and brought them into a good land where they could make a new life.
But they are not called to praise God simply because of God’s kindness to them in the past. Through the prophet, God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
God plans to address the current needs of the people, making a way for them to return to Judah and Jerusalem, and they are invited to watch for it, to wait for it, and to praise God for doing this new thing for their well-being.
Of course, the big new thing God did, happened somewhat later than that. Some time around the year 0, God did something new to help God’s people again. God was consistent in that God kept on reaching out to the people with forgiveness for their failings and generosity and care for their needs. But this time, God did something even more spectacular – something very novel.
One of the best descriptions of the new thing God did is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The author of the 4th Gospel poetically describes how the “Word of God” that had existed since the beginning of time came into the world like a light shining into the darkness to bring life to all people: “The Word [of God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
At Christmas each year, we celebrate that new thing that God decided to do – coming to be “Emmanuel” – God-With-Us – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God made God-self small and vulnerable, being born as a human child to a poor family in humble circumstances. And God did it in order to truly show us what love looks like and how we are intended to live in love with one another on this earth.
But that happened more than 2000 years ago, you may be thinking. It kind of sounds like old news. And that’s kind of true, except that when Jesus died, and when he was raised from death, and when he went back to heaven to live forever with God, he didn’t leave us orphaned.
That’s how John’s Gospel describes the new thing that God did next. God had drawn us close to God-self by sending Jesus to us. It was like we were adopted into God’s own family. But then Jesus asked God to send the Holy Spirit to stay with us, to guide us, to encourage us, and to bind us together in love with God and one another.
We only see Jesus these days in our nativity scenes and creches, but the Holy Spirit continues to be present in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our communities of faith – equipping and empowering us to embody God’s love in the world today, and sending us out to do the new things that God intends for us to do.
As a church, our calling us not to just keep doing the same things we’ve always done in the same ways we’ve always done them. No, we are invited to keep our eyes alert and our hearts open to discover the new things that God is doing in which we can participate.
Things like making our congregations more and more welcoming and inclusive to the wide diversity of people that God loves and is calling to God-self.
Things like communicating and connecting and sharing God’s love with people in new ways – online and in the building and in the community where we live.
Things like welcoming refugees and providing hospitality to those coming to find a safe haven in our community.
Things like speaking out for justice and advocating for the dignity and care of those on the margins or who experience discrimination in our society.
Things like building relationships and partnerships with folks who are different from us – whether different religions, cultures, backgrounds or experiences.
Our faith and hope in God hasn’t changed, but we are paying attention to the fact that God is always doing something new, and we get to be a part of that. Indeed, as the Book of Revelation assures us, God still has plans to make all things new. And God will dwell with us and we will be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for the first things have passed away.
And that’s the kind of promise from God that makes me want to sing a new song to God. So I wrote one earlier this week. I used an older, more familiar tune (Scarborough Fair) so you shouldn’t have any trouble singing along with some new words tonight.
Hymn: A New Song
Sing a new song unto the Lord.
Magnify the Saviour with me!
God scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly.
God will fill the hungry with good.
Sing a new song unto the Lord.
Now’s the time to lift up your voice!
Prepare ye the way, the prophet will say.
Christ will come and we will rejoice.
Sing a new song unto the Lord.
With the angels, sing out with love!
Glory to God, and peace to all people.
Jesus Christ has come from above.
Sing a new song unto the Lord.
Our long time of waiting is done!
There’s hope for the world and peace in our hearts.
Go in peace, for he is the one.
Sing a new song unto the Lord.
Join Creation praising our God!
At Christmas-time and throughout the year.
We will honour God with our song.