Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Quartet of Carols

December 27, 2015
Our meditation today is entitled ‘A Quartet of Carols’ because we have four beloved and beautiful carols that we will think about and sing comprising my meditation.  So this is not really a sermon per se, I’m sermoned out!

Most of my thoughts and words today have been based heavily out of the book “Then Sings My Soul” by Robert J. Morgan.  (endnotes)

Just a few words about carols and hymns though before we begin.  These beautiful pieces of music are intentional poems and writings that tell us stories of our faith. Written by the hands of faithful men and women often inspired by a moment in time or after contemplating the meaning of God in our lives they are gifts that have been passed down to us.  They aren’t random but set forth for us beautiful and poetic pieces of theology for us to think about long after the sounds have ceased.  Now let us make a joyful noise unto our Lord…..

We open with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, PH 120 verses 1-2.

From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
Our first carol for reflection, ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come’ was written by one of the great and probably most well known reformers, Martin Luther.  This carol relates to the nativity of Jesus and is Luther’s interpretation of this story from Luke 2.  It is a beautiful piece reflecting incarnational theology which is the study of God coming to us in the human form of Jesus as well as the notion that we are to function as Christ in this world. 

You will note in verse 3, ‘Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled.  Within my heart, that it may be, a quiet chamber kept for thee.’  In essence we are to open our hearts to the love and joy of this tiny Savior-baby.

It has been said of Luther, “he was never expected to marry, for he had taken a vow of celibacy as an Augustinian monk….even after discovering the reformation truth of Sola fidi, faith alone, and Sola scriptura, scripture alone, he intended to keep his vow.  But it wasn’t just the monks who were renouncing their celibacy vows it was also the nuns.  When he heard about a certain group of nuns who wanted to leave their order and vows, he agreed to help them.  Luther arranged for the nuns to be smuggled out in empty barrels.  He managed to find husbands for all but one, Katharina Von Bora.

Two years passed and upon a visit to her parents he joked that he might have to marry her himself to which her father heartily endorsed.  By autumn of that year, 1525 she was pregnant and Luther joyfully announced, ‘My Katharina is fulfilling Genesis 1:28”. “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…’.

Little Hans was born and five years later Luther wrote this Carol for him and each year thereafter was sung in their home during the Christmas Eve festivities.[i] 

PH 121 From Heaven Above – remain seated.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
With the backdrop of revolution in Europe and the US war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote this somewhat romantic and slower carol around the year 1858.  He was a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and was ordained in the Unitarian ministry.  Not one to be in a big pulpit he devoted his ministry to small towns in Massachusetts where he would have time to write and study. 

What is unusual about this beloved carol, ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’ is that there is absolutely no mention of Christ.  I had never realized this before until studying about Sears and this carol.  It was something that I just inferred.  His only focus is the repeated angelic request for peace on earth.

Many people criticized Sears for this ‘humanist’ carol saying it was nothing more than an ethical song extolling peace, that it’s unscriptural references to prophet-bard and age of gold did not mention the Christ child.  But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe.  Ironically Sears was Christ-centered and believed in his humanity and divinity.  He also believed that Jesus should be experienced in daily life.[ii]  Sears supported the equality of men and women and believed that slavery was a crime.

Again, noticing the date of this hymn, 1858 we know that it was written as the clouds of civil strife were darkening in the United States setting the stage for the War between the States.  One of the verses of this carol that is usually omitted is evidence that it was on everyone’s mind, ‘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 man, at war with man, hears not, the love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!’[iii]

PH 129  It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

O Little Town of Bethlehem
If you have ever been to the Back Bay in Boston and happened upon Copley Square you will notice a large, imposing and beautiful church, Trinity Church, Episcopal.  And outside is a statue of Rev. Phillips Brooks who served that church from 1869 – 1891.  Apparently he was quite a large man standing six feet four inches and weighing at least 300 pounds!  He was criticized for thinness of doctrine and not very theologically sound sermons he, none the less, was considered one of America’s greatest preachers in the day.   

But it is this man who wrote another one of our beloved carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.  Before he came to Trinity Church he served a church in Philadelphia.  When he was 30 years old he visited the Holy Land. ‘On December 24, 1865, traveling by horseback from Jerusalem, he attended a five hour Christmas eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  He was deeply moved. Later he said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.’[iv]  It must have been quite and experience.

Three years later he recalled that magical night and wrote this beloved carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, for the children to sing during their annual program.  He handed the poem to his organist Lewis Render promising that if he wrote a new tune for the poem he would name the tune St. Louis after Lewis.  Lewis struggled with it but the night before the Christmas program the tune came to him.  The next day he handed it to six Sunday school teachers and 36 children who sang O Little Town of Bethlehem.[v]  And we have been singing it ever since. 

It is another piece of beautiful incarnational theology as we look at verse three,  “How silently, how silently this wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.  No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.  

PH 134  O Little Town of Bethlehem

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
And so what about Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing?  We sang two verses of it at the beginning of this meditation and we’ll conclude with the third and final verse.  Upon, his conversion Charles Wesley began writing hymns and wrote over 6,000 in his lifetime!  Wesley is the father of Methodism with the focus on personal faith, holiness, and experience.  God’s grace is central, it’s something we can’t earn but it is just given to us and so we are to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul and love one another as our self. 

Reflected in the last verse which we will sing in a minute Wesley begins to set our hearts and minds on the eschaton or the final days when Christ will come again.  “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” All is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Wesley didn’t like people editing his hymns, saying, “Now they are perfectly welcome to do so (that is print his hymns to sing), provided they print them just as they are.”  But when Wesley was 32 he wrote a Christmas hymn that began: “Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.”  But one man in the church did a great favor by polishing it up to what we sing today.  The word ‘welkin’ was an old English term for ‘the vault of heaven’.  It was Wesley’s friend George Whitefield who in 1753, changed the words to the now-beloved “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing”.[vi]


And now the final verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

[i] Morgan, Robert J.  ‘Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories’, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville 2003.  Book 2 p. 5.
[iii] Morgan, Robert J.  ‘Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories’, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville 2003.  Book 1, p. 121.
[iv] Ibid.  Book 1. p. 176.
[v] Ibid.  Book 1. P…….
[vi] ibid.  Book 1.  P……

Pastoral Prayer
Gracious God as we are about to embark into another year we call upon you to be present with us now in these remaining few days.  Thank you for the blessings of this year, the challenges by which we have been made stronger, and the friends and family in whom we have shared all of this.  We seek to always be in your presence, to be loved, accepted and filled with your ineffable grace.  And thank you for your incarnate word in Jesus Christ who saves and redeems us. 
The world in which we live is a complicated place, so hear us as we come before you now with our prayers.
For those who are ill in body, mind, or spirit we pray….for those who suffer from depression, mental illness, dementia, addiction, in recovery…..grant healing.
For those whose time is not long upon this earth we ask for a peaceful departures into the glorious eternal.
For the men and women who serve in our military, for the vets who have served and all who died in service we pray.  We pray for peace in this world, this community, our homes, our hearts.
Grant for our children love, faith, friendship and hope. 
In the name of the one who came to us again, Suzanne

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