Angels We Have Heard on High | Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Angels We Have Heard on High | Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Liturgy Lessons: December 23, 2018 (Advent 4)
Musical Introit
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)
Prayer of Confession: from Psalm 51
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 (Hauck)
Advent Reading: Matthew 1:18-24
Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Selections from 2 Chron. 6 and Rev. 21
Advent Doxology: The First Noel
Sermon: Rev. Shiv Muthukumar, “Immanuel”
Tithes & Offerings
Supper: O Savior of our Fallen Race; Thou Who Wast Rich (#230)
Closing Hymn: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (#203)
Sung response: Joy to the World

Little Gidding V, from Four Quartets
By T.S. Eliot (1943)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

On the wall of our bedroom there is a picture of my wife, Laura, in her wedding dress. It is a bridal portrait so stunning that the photographer chose it as a promotional picture for the catalogue, and it held a central place on display in the studio for many months. The lighting and the brushed satin finish create a luminescence that makes it appear like an oil painting. Laura is wearing an expensive gown from England. It is an elegant, soft-white dress. She is holding a bouquet of white roses in one hand, and with the other she is gently extending the hem of her dress just below the waist so that the silk fabric cascades out, like it would in full spin. Her hair is done up in girlish curls encircled by a wreath of tiny and delicate delphinium. Her face is angled down and to the right, and her smile would put Mona Lisa to shame. But for all the professional skill and staging that went into this shot, it is the subject that really makes it glow. Laura is 23 years old, and today her dream is coming true. She is a gorgeous storybook bride, and she is pure. She is madly in love, and so very, very happy.

Life is certainly not perfect, but there are moments of perfection. This is one of them, and it is captured forever inside this golden frame on the wall opposite our bed. I walk past it every morning on the way to the bathroom; and, if I roll out of bed on the right side, my princess bride is the first thing to greet my foggy eyes when I wake up. But most mornings I don’t see it, because…well…I’ve seen it. It’s all too familiar, and 20 years can wear away the sheen. But this morning, after I had returned from two weeks away, I lay there, lingering and looking at the portrait. All the luster and love of that day, it all flooded back. I rediscovered her beauty. And now that the thrill is anchored by 19 years of steadfast and deepening devotion, I was filled with profound and overwhelming gratitude for the gift of such a wife. And so, after I gawked at Laura’s portrait, I went downstairs, embraced her, and told her how much I loved her.

How easy it is for us to take God’s good gifts for granted, especially when they are regular or semi-constant things in our lives. This is the danger with the Christmas story and that handful of great hymns that define the season. The word ‘familiar’ shares the same root as the word ‘family,’ it suggests intimacy. We are all intimately familiar with so many Christmas carols. They adorn our Decembers every year. We can all hum the tunes while baking Christmas cookies or quote the lyrics in our heads. In fact, one could argue that the entire month-long cultural liturgy of December is dependent on the comfort and nostalgia created by familiar songs. The airwaves are full of the standard classics (even some that should have been discarded a while ago), and at church we turn to that section of the hymnal that is by far the most familiar, and not just to us, but also to non-churchgoers. And is there any other time of year where sing-alongs could work as well? Everyone knows the first verse of at least a dozen Christmas carols and even more holiday songs because we hear them non-stop for about five weeks out of every year. We embrace these songs in the same manner that Linus loves his blue blanket (the mere fact that reference works proves my point). But what would it take for us to rediscover these anew, or to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, to know them again “for the first time”? Well, perhaps Linus can help. It was he who quoted the gospel of Luke, reminding us every year “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Though Linus carried the blanket on his arm, he held the Christmas story in his heart; likewise, though my wife’s picture hangs on the wall, it is the story of our love that is carved on my heart.

Getting to the heart of the story of hymns like “Angels We Have Heard in High” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” will make them more than just tinsel on a tree. So, what is at the heart of these hymns? Well, it’s glory. Each of these two hymns ends with shouts of “Gloria in excelsis deo” and “glory to the newborn king,” respectively. This is the glory we have seen, “as of the only begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14-15). These songs tell a story that points to the Author. They are music about the Composer. They are the framed picture of the Eternal Reality. Christ is the image of the unseen God and the exact imprint of His nature. These songs are not telling some myth, some fantasy or illusion. They are telling the greatest tale ever told. It is true. It is real. It is glorious!

This is why I want you to take a moment with these hymns. Do not take them for granted. Read the lyrics, listen to the music and linger a bit; be grateful for the gift and the Giver. Then, having been inspired, you can then go to Christ, embrace Him, and express your love and gratitude to Him. He is altogether beautiful and worthy of your affection. As we sing together on Sunday, with hymnal in hand and faith in heart, let us release renewed and impassioned shouts of “glory” to the newborn King. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”

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, 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 fast to the manger. I don’t care how many miles it would have been, or how breathless it would make me, 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.

Sheet music
Suggested choir recording

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
Suggested recording