Angels, from the Realms of Glory | Gathered ‘Round Your Table | Good Christian Men, Rejoice

Angels, from the Realms of Glory | Gathered ‘Round Your Table | Good Christian Men, Rejoice

Liturgy Lessons: December 31, 2017 – Christmastide, day 7 (New Year’s Eve)
Call to Worship: from Isaiah 52:7-10 (NIV); Psalm 97:8-9
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Angels, from the Realms of Glory (#218)
Prayer of Confession: The Gift of Gifts (from Valley of Vision)
Assurance of Pardon: Galatians 4:4-7; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57
Hymn of Assurance: On Christmas Night All Christians Sing (#227)
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word
Doxology: The First Noel (last verse)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings: Joy Has Dawned (Getty/Townend)
Supper: Gathered Round Your Table; See Amid the Winter’s Snow (#199); There is a Redeemer
Closing Hymn: Good Christian Men, Rejoice (#207)
Sung Response: Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Every year the Boy Scouts come to collect our Christmas trees at the curb. This year, we received a mailing that informed us they are coming on Saturday, December 30th. Upon reading that notice, my wife remarked “What? That’s too early!” I wholeheartedly agree. If the Christmas tree in our home is a central symbol of our celebrations, then I say leave it up for the full 12 days of Christmas, those dozen days of feasting between the birth of Jesus and Epiphany (visit of the Magi) that have largely been forgotten to our contemporary calendars.

Every November, the “Christmas season” begins. The blinking lights return to our streets, and the inflatables return to our yards (our neighbor had Olaf and Darth Vader up the weekend of Thanksgiving!). The shops are full of dancing Frosties, and Santa returns to sit on his throne at the mall, inviting children to come and worship before the giver of all good things. And from Thanksgiving on, you can’t turn on the radio without hearing irresistibly bad versions of “Santa Baby” and “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree.” The merry momentum picks up throughout December as the Christmas crescendo builds to a fever pitch. Then, after all the presents have been torn open on December 25, we pull the plug. Christmas is over, the Boy Scouts come for your tree, and the New Year begins. To that, I say “Bah! Humbug!” What the Dickens? If Christmas really commemorates the most momentous, miraculous, mysterious, majestic, memorable, and magnificent moment in history, when the Mighty Maker and Monarch made like a meteor and was manifest as Messiah in a muddy manger by his mother a maiden, then let’s make the most of it and maximize the mirth!

Our liturgical calendar matters, because it brings to us gathered wisdom from the past. The “real” 12 days of Christmas are important, not just as a way of thumbing our noses at “the war on Christmas,” but because they give us time to reflect on the incarnation, and relish the joy that it brings. Baby Jesus deserves more than a nod. Emmanuel demands to be embraced. The very flame of love is burning brightly in Bethlehem, and these 12 days are Holy Ground. So take off your shoes, put on your Christmas slippers, and sing those carols for a little while longer. Oh…and don’t let the scouts take your tree!

Angels from the Realms of Glory
Text: James Montgomery, 1816
Tune: REGENT SQUARE, Henry Smart, 1867

December 24, 1816 was a good day for Christmas songs in Europe. While “Silent Night” was being set to music in Germany, this hymn was being published in Sheffield, England by James Montgomery, editor of the local newspaper. James was a lifelong poet (started at age 10), who even wrote verse while being jailed for protests against the slave trade. He was influenced greatly by Watts and Wesley (who came a generation before him), and stands as another member in the long line of great Anglican hymn-writers of the early 19th century. “Angels from the Realms of Glory” was later published in Montgomery’s hymn book The Christian Psalmist in 1825 under the title “Good tidings of great joy to all people.” The hymn originally has five stanzas, each of which invites a different group of people to “come and worship Christ the newborn King.” The first three—angels, shepherds, and sages (wise men)—are key players in the biblical Christmas narratives. In the fourth stanza, “Saints” could refer to Simeon and Anna, who had been “watching long in hope” for the Messiah to come. The original fifth, which is usually omitted, is addressed to “Sinners, wrung with true repentance,” announcing that redemption has come. Two other stanzas are occasionally added. One is from another Montgomery hymn based on Philippians 2; it begins “Though an infant now we view Him.” The other is a doxological stanza from The Salisbury Hymn-Book of 1857, which begins “All creation, join in praising.” This last one is the final verse that exists in our Trinity Hymnal. Because of its sense of urgency and enthusiasm, this hymn makes a stirring opening to our worship service. If I could insert one more verse into the hymnal for us to use this Sunday, it would be this one:

People of the Modern City, bowing down before your phone
Hear the heav’nly chorus bidding, greater Joy for you is born.
Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.

In the United States, this hymn is sung almost exclusively to REGENT SQUARE. That tune was composed in 1867 by Henry T. Smart for Horatius Bonar’s doxology, “Glory be to God the Father.” The tune’s name comes from Regent Square in London. It is interesting to note that in Britain, this hymn is better known with GLORIA, the French carol tune associated with “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Sheet music
Choral/orchestral recording

Good Christian Men (and women and children), Rejoice
Text: Medieval Latin Carol
Tune: IN DULCI JUBILO, German Melody (14th cent.)

Did you know that the word “carol” comes from French origins and means “dancing and spinning”? Well, in this week’s liturgy we have a few carols that embody that definition. The first is our hymn of Assurance, the famous Sussex Carol, commonly known by the title “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.” It is a close twin in meter and form to “In Dulci Jubilo,” and the two equally famous swinging melodies could easily form a spritely medley. This is because they share the same DNA (Dancing Nimbly if Able!). Sadly, there is not a rich history of dancing in the Presbyterian church. However, if a closeted Calvinist suddenly felt an urge to let loose a Presbyterian Pirouette, a Jig for Jehovah, or an all-out Hallelujah Hoedown, these lively and rhythmic carols would be great musical choices for accompaniment.

IN DULCI JUBILO (“In sweet joy”), was an old German folk dance from the 14th century, and it may be older than that. Judging by its exuberant nature and childlike simplicity of form, it could have existed in fragments for centuries. Here’s a challenge: Hum it and try to sit still! Does not your head start bopping, or foot start tapping? I can easily imagine this was played on wooden flute and drum as the shepherds skipped along toward the manger. And that is precisely the right spirit for a medieval carol that celebrates the accessibility of Christmas story for all men. In the late medieval period, there was a tradition of using folk songs to teach illiterate church-goers the Gospel story. With that purpose in mind, this hymn was written in an original combination of Latin and German, so it would be familiar in both the vernacular and the language of the Church. When set to a familiar folk tune, the people would be able to sing along with ease, and would understand the story.

Over the centuries, this hymn has been translated into many different languages. A missionary diary claims that on September 14, 1745, at the Moravian mission in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, this hymn was simultaneously sung in 13 different languages. What a marvelous prelude to heaven that must have been, all languages joined in universal celebration of the story that began all of our own stories. John M. Neale translated the hymn and paraphrased it rather loosely, but his translation is the most commonly used today. Most modern hymnals include almost the same text, but in a day of “inclusive” language, some hymnals—such as the Psalter Hymnal—have replaced “men” with “friends” or “all.”

Sheet music
Instrumental Celtic dance version
Early Renaissance version for cathedral choir and orchestra

Gathered ‘Round Your Table
Text: Margaret Clarkson, 1986
Tune: SHEPHERDS LAMB, Ross Hauck, 2017

Those who lament the decline of theological truth and literary beauty in most of our modern songs will be encouraged by the hymns of Margaret Clarkson. Along with Timothy Dudley-Smith, Clarkson will occupy a place in history as one of the great hymnwriters of the 20th century (sadly, there were not many). She passed away in 2008, and I encourage you to read the winsome eulogy written for her by Christopher Idle in Evangelical Times. Margaret was a robust defender of reformed doctrine, and apparently, even as a child, loved both the Presbyterian hymnal and the Westminster Catechism. Her hymns fold very easily into our worship. They are full of Christocentric language, biblical metaphor, and heartfelt devotion. “Gathered ‘Round Your Table” is a communion hymn intended for use at Christmas time. In very short and simple verses, it connects the Incarnation to the Crucifixion. We sing about how “Bethlehem’s stable” leads to “Calvary’s bitter cross.” Margaret seamlessly and beautifully weaves a theological tapestry, an image of Christ that is both sorrow and joy. For me, it is the musical equivalent of a Rembrandt, that chiaroscuro master, where the darker elements only enhance the focal points of light. So it is with Jesus’ birth, the light of light come to dispel our darkness. The night sky made the Bethlehem star more resplendent. And the same is true with the passion of Christ. His suffering and death make his birth more glorious. Understanding the cross makes Christmas more brightly shine.

I wrote music for this text that I hope maintains the solemnity and simplicity of Margaret’s hymn. I added a short refrain of “Alleluia” at the end of every verse, borrowing heavily from the tune for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”. My goal was to find a tune that sounds timeless and transcendent. I chose to use a modal sonority that feels ancient, and a melody that includes both a sense of surprise and an inevitability of arrival. These are all elements that are perfectly portrayed by the Christ child. Because the music is brand new, there is no recording of it; however, the full text of the hymn, and the lead sheet with the melody can be found at the link below.

Hymn text and lead sheet