Some carols just do something to you don‘t they? For me, the contemporary carol, ‘Noel’, sung by Lauren Daigle, is one of those. It’s not traditional. It’s not technically anything to write home about. But there’s something about the pairing of the lyrics with the music in this song that always gets me. When I hear it for the first time each Christmas it stops me in my tracks. Amidst the fun and festivities, the crazy-business, the excitement for meeting up with family and friends, it grabs hold of me, reminds me what it’s all about, and gives me that ‘Wow!’ moment once again. A moment of wonder and awe at the enormity of what happened in Bethlehem that very first Christmas, as the universe shifted to make space for the Son of God on earth.
When Daigle lets rip with her, “Noel! Noel! Come and see what God has done!” I get goosebumps. Because Christmas is all about what God has done for us. That remains, even when our usual traditions of meeting up and sharing presents, food, and wine have to be put on hold.
“Love incarnate, Love divine, star and angel gave the sign. Bow to babe on bended knee, the Saviour of Humanity.”
Make sure you make space for that ‘Wow!’ moment yourself this Christmas – whatever does it for you!
Thought for the Day by Heston Groenewald (All Hallows’)
It came upon the midnight clear That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold: “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, From heaven’s all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.
Peace on earth and goodwill to all?! Yes please we’ll all take a dose of THAT this crazy Covid + Brexit year.
And I wonder this Christmas.. do you also find yourself drawn to the carols with minor chords and melancholy tones? The ones which refuse to whitewash everything with jolly happy jingle bells:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow, Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, And hear the angels sing!
Hark! This Christmas, I’m grateful to hear the angels sing of HOPE which is not just blind optimism. To hear their song of God rolling up his sleeves to be born among us – to be *with us* in utter vulnerability to real life and all its pressures and pain.
Hark! Hear them sing of *Immanuel* and his family fleeing to Egypt as refugees; growing up without a penny to his name; dying as an enemy of the state, scorned by the crowds, betrayed and abandoned by his friends and followers.
Hark! Hear them sing of God humbling himself to live and walk with us, sharing our humanity and inviting us into his divinity: to join him at the place (AS the place) where God’s endless self-giving love meets the real world’s real pressures and pain. Including our own.
Hark! This is a song for life, not just for Christmas:
For lo!, the days are hastening on, By prophets seen of old, When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And all the world give back the song Which now the angels sing.
Thought for the Day by Angela Birkin (St Michael’s)
Prepare the way of the Lord!
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Isaiah 40 v.3.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Matthew 3. 1-3
We have spent the past four and a bit weeks preparing ourselves for both the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas, and the return of Jesus as Lord and Saviour at the end of time.
Now Advent is almost over, and what a strange and challenging Advent this has been, preparing us for a strange and challenging Christmas as, despite a vaccination programme having got underway, Covid-19 is still very much with us and remains a threat to ourselves and those we love.
The last six to seven months have felt very wilderness-like at times.
Isaiah prophesied to a people in exile from their homeland. That felt like being in the wilderness.
John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness to a people occupied by the greatest military power in the world. Their homeland felt like a wilderness too.
The good news, the Gospel, is that our God comes to us even, and especially, when we are in the wilderness: when we are tired or struggling, isolated or anxious, afraid or despairing. We just have to be prepared to receive him.
This is the opening song from the 1973 film of Godspell, the musical composed by Stephen Schwartz with the book by John- Michael Tebelak based on St Matthew’s Gospel. The stage show opened in New York and in London in 1971, the London cast including David Essex, Marti Webb, Jeremy Irons and Julie Covington. I saw a version of the London stage show performed in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral on the BBC at Easter 1972. It changed my life!
Oo- Ah isn’t it a lovely baby!; Christmas is really the children’s festival
And was made man –that is what we say in the creed.
Yet almost all the religious Christmas cards depict only the birth of Jesus, and ignore the rest of His life and ministry. Perhaps we feel that we have the rest of the Christian year to consider His later life, ministry, death and resurrection. But in the lull just before December 25th it may be a good time to pause and, in the quiet, reflect on what T S Eliot called the God made man in Palestine.
The hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence ‘ is a translation of a hymn written before 451 AD, and was part of what was known as the Liturgy of St James. This James, thought to be the brother of Jesus, and not one of the sons of Zebedee, was the leader of the young Christian church in Jerusalem and its first Bishop, after the original Apostles had moved elsewhere; He was a renowned leader and the liturgy that bears his name was probably written several centuries later in his honour. In the Orthodox liturgy of that time it was used at the Offertory in the Holy Communion service. Copies of the text have survived in both Greek and Syriac.
It -was translated by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), a Shrewsbury schoolmaster, around 1850, The tune (‘Picardy’) is a traditional French tune. harmonised by Vaughan Williams in 1901.
‘We come before Christ in silence and in awe to reflect upon the mystery of the Incarnation, joined even by the hosts of heaven to witness the miracle. Singing this hymn, we can imagine ourselves standing in the stable’.
The slow almost chant-like melody in a minor tone, wonderfully expresses the awe and mystery.
Many of the themes are biblical; verse 4 is based on the famous vision of Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6), which is the background of our Sanctus (Holy. Holy, Holy etc) at Holy Communion; but the first verse draws on the words of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: (Habakkuk 2: 20):
The Lord is in His holy Temple; Let all the earth be silent before Him
If you ‘Google ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ you will be offered several good versions, all with the same tune. Most have a background of choristers.
There is a version by Fernando Ortega which I recommend.
Don’t be put off by the American accent; The photos that accompany the hymn are stunning.
Carol is derived from the French “Carole” or a circle dance, which became popular in the early middle ages. From the reformation carols were incorporated into religious processions and practice
Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant dates from the Vosges mountain region of North-east France in the 1870’s, though the tune is a hunting air from earlier. This and other “Chants de Noël “would accompany nativity plays prior to Christmas. Accordingly, the clip (labelled “French”) shows the song celebrating the birth, in and outside a French church.
The lyrics refer to Jesus as the fulfilment of 4,000years of waiting. They contrast his kingship and the humility of the stable. The message in the words below is to give our hearts to Jesus, Le Divin Enfant.
Chorus: Il est né le divin enfant, Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes ! Il est né le divin enfant, Chantons tous son avènement !
Chorus: He is born, the Heav’nly Child, Oboes play; set bagpipes sounding. He is born, the Heav’nly Child, Let all sing His nativity.
Depuis plus de quatre mille ans, Nous le promettaient les prophètes Depuis plus de quatre mille ans, Nous attendions cet heureux temps. Chorus
‘Tis four thousand years and more, Prophets have foretold His coming. ‘Tis four thousand years and more, Have we waited this happy hour. Chorus
Ah ! Qu’il est beau, qu’il est charmant ! Ah ! que ses grâces sont parfaites ! Ah ! Qu’il est beau, qu’il est charmant ! Qu’il est doux ce divin enfant ! Chorus
Ah, how lovely, Ah, how fair, What perfection is His graces. Ah, how lovely, Ah, how fair, Child divine, so gentle there. Chorus
Une étable est son logement Un peu de paille est sa couchette, Une étable est son logement Pour un dieu quel abaissement ! Chorus
In a stable lodged is He, Straw is all He has for cradle. In a stable lodged is He, Oh how great humility! Chorus
Partez, grands rois de l’Orient ! Venez vous unir à nos fêtes Partez, grands rois de l’Orient ! Venez adorer cet enfant ! Chorus
Jesus Lord, O King with power, Though a little babe You come here. Jesus Lord, O King with power, Rule o’er us from this glad hour. Chorus
Il veut nos cœurs, il les attend : Il est là pour faire leur conquête Il veut nos cœurs, il les attend : Donnons-les lui donc promptement ! Chorus
He wants our hearts, he is waiting for them: He is here to conquer them He wants our hearts, he is waiting for them Let us give them to him at once! Chorus
O Jésus ! O Roi tout-puissant Tout petit enfant que vous êtes, O Jésus ! O Roi tout-puissant, Régnez sur nous entièrement ! Chorus
Oh Jesus! Oh All-Powerful King Such a little child that you are, Oh Jesus! Oh All-Powerful King, Rule over us entirely! Chorus https://lyricstranslate.com
Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant belongs in and outside church . It is a song for children and adults. True to the carolling traditions it is song of the street and a song for all. It remains though, a song with a message:
Thought for the Day by Adriaan van Klinken (All Hallows’)
Mary, Did You Know?
A popular modern Christmas song is ‘Mary, did you know? It addresses Mary, the mother of Jesus, and asks her whether she knew about all the things her son would be doing later in his life, as narrated in the gospels: walk on water, calm the storm, heal the blind, bring deliverance and salvation.
I used to sing along with this song without spending too long thinking about the text. At least, different from many more traditional Christmas carols, the lyrics of ‘Mary did you know’ is clearly based on the Bible, while the dramatic tune carries you away meditating on the story of Jesus and the meaning of his life.
So, I was a little surprised when, just this week, a friend of mine told me that she despised this song. In her words, the song patronises Mary, especially the chorus that repeats the question eight (8!) times: ‘Mary, did you know?’ Calling it a ‘stupid’ text, she argued that the song is patronising towards women.
Did Mary know? Of course she did. After all, the Gospel of Luke opens with the story of the angel Gabriel telling her in detail what would happen to her son. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel gives a similar message, but then to Joseph (let’s assume he passed it on to his fiancée). So, why then a song asking Mary time and again whether she knew that her baby boy ‘would one day rule the nations’?
There is indeed a long tradition in which Mary is depicted as this naïve young girl from Nazareth, and praised for being meek and docile. This modern song might well reinforce this depiction. Mary doesn’t need a sweet-sounding male voice asking her time and again whether she really knew something that, according to the Gospel, was made clear to her from the beginning.
My friend sent me a link to another version of the song. Here, Mary sings back, retorting the question by saying: ‘Yes I freaking knew!’ The Mary in this song is articulate, strong, and outspoken. Not the way in which the church, for a long time, wanted (and still wants) women to be. And not like society, for centuries, has treated (and still treats) women. Yet this articulate and outspoken Mary might be much more like the Mary of the Magnificat.
Thought for the Day by Malcolm Heath (St Michael’s)
GOD is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…
That psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott / Ein gute Wehr und Waffen…’, composed in 1529 or perhaps a little earlier.
Of the many English translations (close to a hundred, according to one expert), Thomas Carlyle’s version (1831) is the most familiar:
A safe stronghold our God is still A trusty shield and weapon…
The last line of Carlyle’s version, ‘… the City of God remaineth!’, is (I think) an allusion to St Augustine’s theological masterpiece, TheCity of God: Luther—an Augustinian friar before his excommunication—was a reformer, not a vandal.
Luther composed his hymn in the light of the single astonishing decade that saw an initially precarious and vulnerable reformation become a safe and securely rooted reality. Such a transformation, he reasoned, would be inexplicable if God had not defended His people. Though we lack the power to save ourselves, we may put our trust in God and celebrate Christ’s victory over the Devil.
The tune has appeared in many different forms. Bach’s over-elaborated cantata (BWV 80) does not appeal to me: it seems more interested in the music than in God. Mendelssohn does a better job in his Reformation Symphony, planned for the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (1530), a key event in Lutheran history. The final movement is based on Luther’s chorale, and comes to a magnificent celebratory climax: the final movement starts at 22:59).
Nowadays the hymn is typically sung at a drearily slow tempo and in a ploddingly regular rhythm. But in Luther’s time the hymn, sung to a syncopated rhythm, had more bounce and far more of a sense of joyful confidence in God. This modern performance (in German) may give a sense of what we are missing:
If you are not familiar with Mary’s song of praise, having agreed to have ‘God’s baby’, the ‘Magnificat’ (My soul doth magnify the Lord from Evensong), you may find it helpful to read it here: it’s from verses 46–55 of Luke 1.
I, along with many of my generation, grew up with a lot of the familiar hymns and carols. ‘O God our help in ages past’, ‘While shepherds’, ‘Once in Royal’. It was a breath of fresh air therefore when Timothy Dudley Smith and others started to write new hymns and Christmas Songs for the church. “I did not think of myself,” wrote Dudley-Smith in 1984 “as having in any way the gifts of a hymn-writer when in May 1961 I jotted down a set of verses, beginning ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.’ I was reading a review copy of the New English Bible New Testament, in which that line appears exactly as above; I saw in it the first line of a poem, and speedily wrote the rest”. Even better, (then,) were ‘new’ tunes that did not depend on a church organ, and Michael Baughan did a great, (if now dated,) job of setting many new songs to new music.
‘Woodlands’, the tune we use, I learned at school, and it goes well on the organ at St. Chad’s. It gives a good energy to the music: and I was particularly pleased with the arrangement I made for our former music group.
We are encouraged to ‘Tell out – the greatness of the Lord, His Name, His might and the glories of His Word’. In the same way that Mary ‘praised the Lord’ in the Magnificat, we can also be sure of God’s greatness, that His Name and Power are still important and that His Word, be that Jesus and/or the Bible, hold great significance to us as believers. And telling is not something we are good at. We are happy to sing about it but witnessing to (telling) others about what God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit has done for us is much harder!
My prayer is that we would each engage with God in a way that helps us have something to really sing and talk about!
Tell Out my Soul – Lyrics Video (but don’t forget to ‘skip the ads’ that appear on these you-tube videos!)
This carol has always been a favourite of mine, I think for the beautiful simplicity of the words and slightly haunting tune. It speaks of the love for Christ in Heaven and Earth.
It was written by Christina Rosetti as a Christmas poem for an American magazine in 1872 and set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906, which was after her death.
The first verse ‘in the bleak mid-winter’ when ‘snow had fallen, snow on snow’ is the most well known and best remembered by everyone. Slightly romantic and seemingly setting the scene for a Victorian Christmas card picture. It describes, though, in a simple, sparse way, the ‘bleak’ world that Jesus came into and perhaps that is appropriate for us at the moment as we can, this year, feel we are metaphorically in a bleak mid-winter.
God came to earth at Christmas in the form of Jesus’s birth and a simple stable was enough for Him. He had ‘milk’ and ‘hay’ to sustain him and the love of His mother. Who are we to complain with all our comforts and luxuries? He was worshipped and adored but above all He came to bring love.
The final verse challenges us, ‘What can I give Him, poor as I am?’ and we are told to give what we can, ‘Give my heart’.
We can give our time and ourselves and show love for others. We don’t need all the glitz and glamour and expensive food and presents! It’s hard though for us to let go of the trappings of Christmas and they do bring fun and joy at this time, but we are reminded that it’s what is in our hearts that really matters.
I have included two rather different versions of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’. One by the King Singers and the other by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge and hope that you will enjoy them.
The title and opening lines of this Advent carol take the form of a plea for God to come and release his chosen people from prison. This may resonate with us as we struggle today with the constraints imposed by the current global pandemic. However, the words of this popular carol stem from long ago when the people of Israel found themselves in Babylonian exile and desperate for freedom .It was an unforgettable experience and a critical event in Jewish history. We may not be as familiar with the Old Testament as we used to be but if you open the book of the prophet Isaiah you will find the origin of all 5 verses of this Advent hymn.
Verse 1. Isaiah 7:14 assures the suffering people that ‘God is with them’, ‘Emmanuel’ in Hebrew.
Verse 2. Isaiah 11:1 confirms that they will be freed from captivity by someone who is related to former Jewish leaders ie ‘The Rod of Jesse’.
Verse 3. Isaiah 60:1-2 predicts that the present clouds of darkness will be turned to light by the Dayspring of God’s glory.
Verse 4. Isaiah 22:22 declares that the ‘Key of David’ will open the door into a safe place.
Verse 5. Isaiah 1:24 prophesies that God, ‘Lord of Might’, will overcome all his people’s enemies.
For Christians all these prophecies from Isaiah have found their fulfilment in the New Testament Gospel thanks to the coming of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of all humanity, who has opened the gate of Heaven to free us from all evil. We find His birth foretold in Isaiah ch7:14. Jesus Himself is therefore ‘God with us’, ‘Emmanuel’. Mark begins his gospel by quoting Isaiah ch 40 v3 in connection with preparation for Jesus’ ministry.
Not surprisingly the Book of Isaiah features prominently in the daily prayer readings set for Advent in our Anglican lectionary and we know that Jesus Himself stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry, quoting a verse from Isaiah (Luke ch4 vv 16-21). He also told his disciples to take careful note of Isaiah’s words (Matthew ch13 vv 14-17). There could be no higher recommendation so why not take your Bible off the shelf and may the words of this famous carol in this season of Advent bring us fresh hope and reassurance during these days of trial and tribulation.
Yes, it may seem amazing, but we who are Advent people can also rejoice and sing in company with the angels and the whole company of Heaven.
O come O come, Emmanuel:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny; From depths of hell Thy people save, And give them victory o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Key of David, come And open wide our heav’nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Adonai, Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height, In ancient times didst give the law In cloud and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.