Lift Up Your Heads | O Come Emmanuel | What Child is This?

Lift Up Your Heads | O Come Emmanuel | What Child is This?

Liturgy Lessons: December 9, 2018 – Advent 2
Musical Introit
Call to Worship: Isaiah 42:1-10a
Opening Hymn: Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates (#198)
Confession of Sin: Psalm 51:1-4
Advent Prayer Song: Come, Lord Jesus
Assurance of Pardon: Zephaniah 3:14-18
Hymn of Assurance: Thou Who Wast Rich (#230)
Advent Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Matthew 2:1-11
Advent Doxology: The First Noel (last verse)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
The Lord’s Supper: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#194); What Child is This? (#213)
Closing Hymn: There is a Higher Throne
Sung response: “Joy to the World” (verse 1)

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Text: Latin antiphons, 12th cent., translated 1851
Music: Plainsong chant, 13th cent.

This is perhaps the closest thing to pure chant as we have in our hymnal. Imagine you are in a glorious old cathedral, one of those with a 3-second reverb. Hear the haunting opening phrase that starts in minor key as it effortlessly expresses the desperation and longing of your heart for a savior. Then take a deep breath, and inhale the Holy Spirit, and let that quiet moment of inspiration be like the downward motion of the diving board as it prepares you to spring up and out into the shouts of “Rejoice! Rejoice!”. This is where the chant (even without any harmony grounding it) hints at G-major, reassuring us that Christ is coming! It is, if only for two measures, a musical depiction of Hebrews 11: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”

This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Catholic Advent liturgy. One way that the medieval Christians heightened their anticipation for the second coming was by praying the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons.” Antiphony basically means “one sound against another”; put simply it is a call and response, an echo effect that was employed quite frequently in the old cathedrals, where one (or several) voices would sing a phrase, and it would then be answered by the choir or congregation. Sometimes this musical tennis match would be played from balcony to balcony or back to front of Cathedral. In the case of this particular chant, the dialogue is obvious. Each verse that starts with “O come” is the cry for help, and the “rejoice” refrain is the answer.

During the late middle ages, on each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. Each of the seven prayers expounds upon one of the names for the Messiah:

“O Emmanuel”: God with us (Isaiah 7:14, Mt 1:23)
“O Radix Jesse”: Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)
“O Oriens”: Dayspring, Morning Star (Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79)
“O Clavis David”: Key of David (Isaiah 22:22)
“O Rex”: King of Gentiles (Isaiah 60:3)
“O Adonai”: Lord of might, give of the law, Ruler over house of Israel (Exodus 19:16)
“O Sapientia”: Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24)

The first seven letters of these titles form an acrostic, which in Latin would spell “Ero cras,” which means “I am coming tomorrow.” This playful and prayerful puzzle points to the birth of Christ, and gives Him a silent but very present voice in the chant. With a form like this we are taken into dialogue with God Himself. As these verses unfold, Christ is whispering in our ears and writing on our hearts the truth that sets us free. “I am coming, and even now, I am here.” What a beautiful embodiment (an ‘incarnation’ if you will) of that profound and mystical reality of Emmanuel—God with us! Remember, worship is not a meeting about God. It is an encounter with God. During this sublime chant, if only for a few moments, we can approach Emmanuel, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; we can kneel before him and hear him breathe. Each exhale of His spirit is saying, “I am here, I have come, and I am coming again.” As you sing, lean in closely and listen. You may even hear heaven’s antiphony, an ancient echo of the prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people” says your God, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, and her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:1-2).

Sheet music

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates!
Text: Georg Weissel (1642), tr. by Catherine Winkworth (1855)
Tune: Anonymous (ca. 1789)

This hymn, based on Psalm 24, was written by a Protestant minister for his congregation in the small German town of Königsburg (“Town of the King”). Normally associated with Advent or Palm Sunday, it is a fanfare-like declaration of the coming of the Messiah. The celebratory spirit of the anthem is especially meaningful when we consider that it was written at the height of the Thirty Years War, which by 1642 had decimated the population of Germany by 40% or 50%. Some historians speculate that the Swedish army’s invasion and the famine and disease that resulted, dwindled the German male population by two-thirds. 18,000 villages and over 1,500 towns were destroyed in Germany. Because the war was largely fought in rural areas, Weissel’s town was deeply affected. This brings added meaning to his authoring of the second and third stanzas, which declare,“O blest the land, the city blessed, where Christ the Ruler is confessed,” in which “happy hearts and happy homes” can look to Christ as “the helper just” who brings “pity in distress.” The final three stanzas are a personal plea for Christ to enter in and be “Sovereign” in our hearts. This longing for Christ to be on the throne of our hearts makes me think of the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11), which is our sermon text for this week.

Last Sunday we began our worship with “Joy to the World.” One interesting thing to note is that the opening melodic line of “Lift up your heads” is an exact inversion of “Joy to the World.” In their opening four measures, these two fraternal “tw-hymns” (ok, that’s a stretch) both span the whole octave and are identical in rhythm. They are only separated by one page in our hymnal. As a fun experiment, try singing the opening line “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”, and then sing the opening phrase of this hymn as an immediate response. You will end up right back where you started. This mirrors the biblical journey that starts and ends in paradise. I had a buddy once that tried to argue that baseball was the most Christian sport because the whole purpose is to make your way back to where you started. Unlike other sports that take you from here to there, the point of baseball was to find your way back home. Well, I don’t really like baseball, but at least he tried to sanctify the sport. Anyway, my friend’s point applies almost universally to music. All music starts at “home,” a tonal center. At the end of most western music, it seeks to resolve back to the tonic key (with perhaps the exception of Wagner, and a good deal of 20th-century atonal art music), and though the piece may wander, it finds its way back home. If we look at our hymns this way, then the music, irrespective of the text, is frequently taking us from Genesis to Revelation. This journey from creation to re-creation, of course, applies not just to the Advent season, but the entire Christian life.

This brilliant tune is from an anonymous source and was published in Psalmodia Evangelica in 1789 by Thomas Williams. Some historians attribute the tune to Handel, who famously set the text to Psalm 24:7 in a chorus from Messiah, which can be heard here. The great composers always know how to be economical in their writing. They achieve great effects with minimal effort. In that manner, this tune has evidence of a master’s hand. It has a grace and uniformity from start to finish. It’s one long brush stroke, a direct flight without layover, where each phrase leads seamlessly into the next. This sort of writing helps illuminate the full meaning of each verse of text, particularly when the sung text is a long, extended thought. This is the case in the fourth verse, which is an uninterrupted sentence, and by itself is a brilliant summary of the liturgical purpose of our call to worship:

“Fling wide the portals of your heart; make it a temple set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy.”

Sheet music
Choir/organ version
Guitar-only version

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, then they proceed to provide the answers. I love all the language of kingship in this hymn. The first verse tells us that “This is Christ the King,” and the second verse reminds us that “the King of kings salvation brings.” Beginning from this position of wonder and amazement, we are placed at the manger scene alongside the Magi to behold and marvel at this miraculous thing that 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.” It reminds me of a line in Milton’s great ode “On the morning of Christ’s nativity”:

See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

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!

Sheet music
Suggested recording (Vaughan Williams)