Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Sounds of the Season Are Seasoned with Soundness

Quickly now, if you added all the gifts in the little Christmas Carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," how many gifts would you receive? You said 364 which is correct. With the 12 days of Christmas beginning the day after Christmas and extending to Epiphany Sunday (on or near to Jan. 6) in merry ole England you would have a gift each day until next Christmas. Of course, you'd have to sell the golden rings to feed all those Lords a'leaping and maids a'milking. Bummer.

Consider for a few moments the absolute treasure chest which is the church's in her ever expanding library of of Christmas music. Whether ancient or modern, contemporary or traditional, in her hymns, anthems, and songs you find sound theology and captivating beauty in both lyric and melody. The authors and writers have left us emotionally stirred, intellectually stimulated, and abundantly grateful as they help us explore and expound the Eternal. The words and music of Christmas bring to expression every wonder, hope, sorrow, inquisition, resolve, and fulfilment of the heart of man while attempting to express the heart of God revealed in the Babe in a Manger. These expressions range from the haunting to the lilting; from the solemn to the triumphant; from the contemplative to the joyous. A few examples are needed......

In the music of Veni Emmanuel and the words of 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel' we hear, and feel the longing and the haunting hope of men of ages past and present. It is a plaintive prayer for redemption as it both describes the need and prescribes the healing balm. Ransom is called for in verse one, disbursement of gloom in verse two as well as death is requested to be sent away. In our earthly chaos, heavenly order is needed in verse three and unity and peace prayed for in four. In all cases the refrain lifts a bit to rejoice as if it were too much to even hope for yet it's true as the needs are met when "God with us," Emmanuel comes.

Can you not find yourself engaging in deep contemplation with Mary in the stable and asking questions as she must have asked when you hear or sing "What Child is This?" The Lord of the Universe, maker of heaven and earth who with a word spoke the world into existence, now wraps Himself in humanity's flesh and risks His healing of the rebellion of sinful man in the care and love of a teenager. Why does He lie in such a common, lowly place? He does it to plead the for the hearts of sinners. Why? Why? Why? With each question comes a deeper answer and a deeper question 'til all contemplation takes you to the heart of God's love knowing you will never plumb those depths but will grow in awe and wonder in the endeavor.

And rightly so, many of the songs of Christmas are joyous and triumphant. How could they not be full of 'Joy to the World...(why?) the Lord has Come!' The King is here to be received! What does one do with this good news of great joy? O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come and behold Him born (verb, already happened) King of the Angels. What do we see when we come? We see "Christ, by heav'n adored Christ the everlasting Lord! Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the Incarnate Deity! So first we Adore Him in worship and then we Go Tell It On the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born!

And still, at the end of nearly every Christmas eve service one carol stands out. It is solemn, yet not frightening. It helps one contemplate the mystery of Christ's birth. Most mysteries carry in their unknown nature a distance lest the unknown turn out to be something you wish you didn't know. In this simple melody,  the mystery of the Incarnation and these words draw you in to the beauty, joy, and triumph  of Bethlehem much like a warm fire draws you to its glow. This song is, of course, Silent Night. Written originally in Austria by Fr. Joseph Mohr in about 1816 or 18. The music was added by his school-teacher friend, Franz Gruber,  for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. Legends grew around the song about a damaged organ and a children's choir. No objective, historical proof exists of these motivations but the song was written for and performed at first by guitar with Mohr and Gruber singing six verses of "Stille Nachet! Heilige Nacht!" at the midnight mass in 1818.

The song traveled and the popularity of it grew despite its simple music and words or maybe because of its simplicity. Ironically, Gruber's name was not associated with the song and the music was thought to be that of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, at least by some. By the time the song had truly become famous in the 1860's, Fr Mohr had died. Gruber wrote to music conservatories in Berlin explaining that he had written the music but no one believed him. Finally, an 1820 manuscript of Fr. Mohr's was found and in the upper right hand corner was this note: 'Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.' Finally, Gruber got the credit, we receive the blessing and God gets the glory.

The Church sings because we have a song. It is the song of the ages placed in our hearts because the Singer of creation, grace, redemption, forgiveness, and love has taken up residence there. O Come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee.

Keep Singing, use music if you can,

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hymns or Carols, What's the Difference?

Do you know the difference between a hymn and a carol?  According to Phillip Brunelle, founder and director of VocalEssence in Minneapolis they are not exactly the same. The word 'carol' is derived from the Italian 'carolare' meaning to sing, to dance and thence 'carola' meaning a ring dance. The Italians also broadened  the French word 'querole' or 'carole' to describe tunes used to accompany celebration dances, whether religious or not, mostly not. Carols were originally thought of as circle dance that was accompanied by singing. A hymn had more theological implications originally and was not made for dancing. Later Augustine, the early church theologian, took it even farther using very strict guidelines of theological truth and musical solemnity for a song to reach 'hymn' status.

So are what we sing at this time of the year Christmas songs, hymns, or carols? I guess that depends on who you ask and how strict their interpretations are. One thing we know is that the Christmas carols have stuck around now for 600 plus years. The most enduring ones coming out of European traditions, mostly Latin, English, and German. Again, according to Brunelle, their endurance is attributed to "step wise" melodies which means they go up and down the scale--think "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel." One popular theory is that we sing these songs, hymns and carols every year because of their nostalgia and taking us back to when.....  There is much about the art and science of music I have no clue about but I have a theory, slightly different from Dr. Brunelle's as to why we sing these songs, hymns, and carols:  we can't help it.

We can't help ourselves because God made us that way. Music is universal. In every culture there is something akin to singing, praising, and expressing joy and sorrow through music.  The ancient hymnbook of the Hebrews contains many verses about the messiah. When Mary was told of her conception by the angel and had visited Elizabeth she wrote a song in Luke 1:46ff. When Zechariah recovered his voice after the birth of John the Baptist he broke out in song (see Luke1:67ff) and most of it was about the messiah and not his kid. When shepherds were told about the new born king a choir of angels punctuates the good news toward men with heavenly tunes.

We can't help but sing. But it has become one of the deceiver's great schemes to still our songs, silence our tongues and thus steal our joy. But the church rises up every Sunday and especially at Christmas and shakes our hymnals and overhead screens in the face of the adversary to remind him that he cannot take our joy any more than he could keep Jesus in the grave. God has made us in such a way that the overwhelming truth of His Incarnation, the mercy shown, the salvation given, the righteousness imparted, and heaven opened will be sung.

The way I see it, Christians themselves actually become the hymns, the songs, and the carols of the Incarnation by the way we display this grace God has given. Has your life caused others to want to join the choir and sing the songs of Life?

Keep Singing, use your voice if necessary.


PS: The rest of the month we'll look at a few Christmas carols and hymns and discover the back story.