Liturgy Lessons – Christmas Eve 2017
“Welcome to our wondering night, Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter! Day in night!
Heaven in earth! God in man!
Great Little One, whose glorious birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.”
– Richard Crashaw, 1646
This Sunday, we have two services. The morning service has the strange identity crisis of being the fourth Sunday of Advent on Christmas Eve. It’s a double cry of “Come” and “Welcome.” We confess our longing for the Lord, and yet praise him as Emmanuel and Redeemer. In many ways, this tension of “already and not yet” is emblematic of the Christian life. Christ has come, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again!
The evening service will be a festival of “lessons and carols.” This is a century-old tradition (started in 1918 in Cambridge) that consists of nine scripture readings that retell the gospel narrative. At our service, those readings will be told by various members of our congregation. Each reading will be followed by reflection, singing, and prayer—all of which will be aided by a string ensemble, chamber choir, piano, and organ. The service concludes with a brief homily and then the tender tradition of transforming our sanctuary into a heavenly hearth by lighting the candles as we sing “Silent Night.” It should be a beautiful service, and I encourage you to invite friends and family. There is great power in an artful retelling of our salvation story, and I believe that at such times the Holy Spirit has a winsome way of bringing the light of Christ into the dark and hidden corners of our hearts.
Below is the outline for both services, followed by a brief write-up on a few of our beloved carols. It is my hope and prayer that the information would lead to transformation. I hope that the knowledge gained by reading and listening would enable these songs to make the migration from head to heart when we gather to sing them on Christmas Eve. For our love is what the Lord desires. He who is Love incarnate came for you, and he came for me. Such extravagant Love demands a response. The wise men brought gifts, the shepherds came as well. What shall we offer him? Let’s give him our hearts. I encourage you to come to both services on Sunday. Come, gather with us, and worship the newborn king. Even if the roads are icy, make the journey. O come, let us adore him; let us bend the knee, open the heart, and raise the voice as we “Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail the Son of Righteousness”!
Morning Service, 10:30 am, 4th Sunday of Advent
Introit – O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Call to Worship: John 1:1-5, 9-14
Prayer of Invocation
Hymns of Adoration: What Child is This? (#213) and Angels We Have Heard on High (#214)
Call to Confession
Songs of Confession: Come, Lord Jesus; O Little Town of Bethlehem (vs. 4)
Word of Assurance: Isaiah 62:11-12; Psalm 98:1-3
Hymn of Praise: All my Heart Today Rejoices
Advent Reading: Matthew 1:18-24
Reading of the Word: Luke 2:1-21 (The Birth of Jesus)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Offertory: O Savior of Our Fallen Race
Supper: O Savior of Our Fallen Race; Thou Who Wast Rich (#203)
Closing Hymn: Joy to the World (#195)
Sung response: “Gloria in excelsis deo”
What Child is This?
Text: William Chatterton Dix (1865)
Tune: GREENSLEEVES, English Folk Tune
The text for this hymn is taken from a poem by William Chatterton Dix, entitled “The Manger Throne.” Dix was the manager of an insurance company who had a profound spiritual awakening after a bout of severe illness that almost killed him. While bedridden, he turned to voracious Bible-reading and found an abiding hope in the salvation of Christ. One can hear both the sinner and the salesman in the pitch of the final verse, which pleads for all to accept Christ, honoring him with gifts, and to “enthrone him” with loving hearts. The first two verses are dialogical. They each begin with a question about the nature and purpose of the Christ child, and then they proceed to provide the answers. Beginning from a position of wonder and amazement, we are placed at the manger scene—as fellow shepherds or visitors—to behold and marvel at this miraculous thing which has happened. We are told that “nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me and you.” And so we “haste to bring him laud” as we “raise the song on high” in worship of the “word made flesh.”
This tune is perhaps the most famous folk song ever to come out of England. This medieval tune dates from the 16th century, and was originally an ornery love song about “Lady Greensleeves,” named for the green stains on her clothing, presumably caused by frolicking in the grass with a lover. It is a very memorable tune with a jaunty swing and playful rhythms. Its appeal was immediate, and it must have caught on quickly because the tune receives mention by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in 1597). Mistress Ford twice refers to “the tune of Greensleeves” and even Falstaff exclaims: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!” The famous tune has been set and reset by many composers in the subsequent centuries, including a timeless masterpiece by Vaughan Williams, called ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ (see link below).
It is the greatness of the tune that carries the day. Gratefully, the original lyrics have largely been discarded, but perhaps faint echoes of the content remain to be redeemed. Today we can sing this song in honor of he who is “lover of our souls” and who washes our stains away. Now, that is reason to rejoice!
Suggested recording (Vaughan Williams)
Angels We Have Heard on High
Text: Anonymous, Traditional French Carol
Tune: GLORIA, Traditional French
Is there any more iconic setting of the angelic proclamation “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” than this one? We are indebted to the French culture for both text and tune. The sources of each are unknown, and yet the words and melody have always been paired together. Of course, it is the latter half of the tune, with its beautiful cascading “Glorias” that we all know so well, and that is the part of the carol that feels the most French. Florid, decorative, elegant, it is very different than the first half, which could have easily been written by the Germans.
I love the juxtaposition of these two halves of the song because it shows the contrast between earth and heaven, between our human song and the unending chorus of the angels. Each verse begins with a conversational unfolding of the shepherd’s experience in very pedestrian melodic fragments, and then it is interrupted gloriously by a radical shift in tone and dialect. As we sing this iconic carol, it gives us a glimpse at the shepherd’s experience. Imagine. At one moment the head shepherd, Harry Herder, was telling his protégé, Sammy Sheerer, to close the gate behind him and make sure it was locked, when “GLORIA” erupted in a thousand overtones and as yet unimagined light flooded the fields. If I had a time machine, that’s the one moment I would choose. To be there, with the shepherds, to hear that divine chorus, and then to run to the manger. I don’t care how many miles it would have been, or how breathless I would be, I would be singing the whole way, echoing that great heavenly refrain that I had just heard for the first time. If I were that shepherd, this refrain would enchant my heart for the rest of my days until I finally got my wings and was at last able to join the Angel choir’s tenor section. We would then belt out the “Gloria” in HD (Heavenly Dynamics). No rehearsal necessary.
Suggested choir recording
Evening Service, 6:30 pm
Prelude (String Quartet)
Procession of Christ Candle
Call to Worship: Isaiah 60:1-3, 19; John 8:12
Opening Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful (#208)
Prayer of Invocation
Service of Lessons and Carols
First Lesson: Genesis 3:8-15
God announces in the Garden of Eden that the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.
Carol: Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus (#196)
Second Lesson: Genesis 22:9-18
God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed
Carol: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#194, vs. 1,2)
Third Lesson: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
Christ’s birth and kingdom are foretold by Isaiah.
Carol: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#194, vs.3-women; vs.4-men; vs.5-all)
Fourth Lesson: Isaiah 11:1–2; Micah 5:2-5a
The righteous branch foretold by Isaiah; The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem.
Choral Meditation: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Fifth Lesson: Luke 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel salutes the virgin Mary
Reading: Mary’s Song by Lucy Shaw
Musical Mediation: Lullaby to the Christ Child
Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7
Luke tells the birth of Jesus.
Carol: Once in Royal David’s City (#225, vs. 1-solo, vs. 2-choral, vs. 4-all)
Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:8-16
The shepherds go to the manger
Carol: Angels We Have Heard on High (#214)
Eighth Lesson: Matthew 2:1-11
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.
Reading: from On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton
Choral Meditation: In the Bleak Midwinter
Ninth Lesson: John 1:1-14
John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.
Carol: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing! (#203)
Homily: Rev. Casey Bedell
Lighting of the Candles: O Holy Night; Silent Night
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Text: Charles Wesley (1739)
Tune: Felix Mendelssohn (1840)
When I was a boy, there was a moment in which I thought that God’s name was “Harold.” That assumption was partly because of this carol, and also because my Grandfather’s name was Harold; however, it was mostly just a misunderstanding of the Lord’s prayer, which I understood to begin with “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name.” I later learned that the word “herald” simply meant “messenger.” The pairing of this text about the messenger angels, and its popular tune, was a comically arranged marriage of sorts. When Felix Mendelssohn wrote this melody, originally entitled Festgesang (“party song”) he said that the tune would “never do to sacred words,” arguing instead that “there must be a national and merry subject found out, and the words must express something gay and popular as the music tries to do” (Lutheran Hymnal Handbook). Fortunately for us, the very stubborn William Cummings, in complete denial of the composer’s intent, adapted the tune to fit Wesley’s text in 1856.
Although this hymn’s title and refrain seems to be about the angels, the bulk of the text is a theological description of Christ. Charles Wesley wrote this hymn within a year of his conversion, and originally entitled it “Hymn for Christmas Day.” The verses are aglow with the vibrancy of a soul finding “newly made contact” with God. What I love about this hymn is that it doesn’t just recount the nativity story. It begins with the message from the angels, but then the second and third verse go on to celebrate the reason why the angels sang. In a few beautifully rich verses, like some sort of theological truffle, Wesley delivers the entire Gospel story, describing Christ’s nature, incarnation, ministry, and salvific purpose. The last stanza is one of the most sublime hymn verses ever written. I can never sing it without tears.
“Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace, Hail the sun of righteousness
Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.
Mild he lays His glory by, born that man no more may die
Born to raise them from the earth, born to give them second birth.”
If I had to choose one Christmas Hymn to sing, this would be it. O Holy Night is more rewarding for a soloist, Silent Night is more of a crowd favorite, but this is the one that even Charlie Brown and Linus sang around the Christmas Tree. Let’s join them, chins lifted, mouths and hearts open, eyes heavenward, and with the angels declare ‘Glory to the newborn King!’”
Link to sheet music
Text: Joseph Mohr (1816)
Tune: Franz Gruber (1818)
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr, a 26-year-old priest of St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf, Austria brought six stanzas of a poem to his colleague, Franz Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Mohr had written the poem two years earlier, but now presented it to Gruber, who composed a melody with guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass. Together, they performed the new carol that night.
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” is perhaps the most beloved Christmas carol in the world. The text has been translated into at least 175 languages, movies have been written about the story, and there are whole societies and organizations devoted to the historic authenticity of the hymn’s content and origins. There is even a replica of the St. Nicholas Chapel (a.k.a. the Silent Night Chapel) at the Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan. It is fair to say that the song has reached sacramental status, and for many, the celebration of a Christmas Eve service would not be complete without this iconic carol. Because of its familiarity, it resides deep in our emotion-laden Christmas memories. It can evoke an intense nostalgia as few other songs can. As we light the candles, and we sing it, I encourage you to let it be more than just a Thomas Kinkade moment. Lean into the content of the words, and sing out the truths about Christ—who is “love’s pure light,” who brings the “dawn of redeeming grace.” Indeed “with the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King.” He has come not to bring warm fuzzies and the liver shiver, but to redeem our souls, and re-open paradise! The angels had it right: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men!” The savior of the world is here. Hallelujah!
Hymnal sheet music
Copy of original music
Suggested recording (original German)