Liturgy Lessons: Christmas Eve 2018
Our Christmas Eve service this year is 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, the 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 the tender tradition of transforming our sanctuary into a heavenly hearth by lighting the candles as we sing “Silent Night” (scroll down for full order of liturgy and info on “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.
Last year it snowed on Christmas Eve. The roads were treacherous, but still we had a full sanctuary. I had a transcendent moment during that service in which I was flooded with joy. It was unexpected because December is an exhausting month for us musicians. But as I was listening to the singing and looking out at the faces that night, I was invigorated by the scene, and filled with gratitude at the privilege of serving this church. In memory of that moment, and in honor of my faithful brothers and sisters at CPC, I offer you the following poem (more of a rewrite, actually) as an early Christmas present. Enjoy!
A Visit from
St. Nicholas Jesus
By Ross Hauck
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the church
All the people were singing, hearts and voices did merge.
The room was bedecked with the finest of care
In hopes of blessing the song and the prayer.
The old folk were nestled all snug in their pews
But were not slow to rise at the standing cues.
Our children, too, joined in the song
With finger in hymnal, they followed along.
Mamma at the mic, and I on the bench,
She sang a lullaby, I sang in French.
The pastor was sporting his best Christmas tie
For “Hark! The Herald”, he held hands high
The room was brimful, the singing loud,
This church a temple, with holy cloud.
When in my heart arose such delight
“Summer in winter! day in night!”
I rejoiced at this miraculous night
That made the darkness yield to light.
I closed my eyes, flew like a flash
Before the throne and the sea of glass.
The Lamb was the light, born to reign,
No more night, and no more pain.
Then what to my wondering eyes did appear
All creatures falling down to revere.
My heart was touched with hallowed fire,
And I joined my voice with the angel choir.
Then I returned, opened up my eyes
But the door was not shut to paradise.
I saw an earthbound Revelation throng,
Yet instead of angels leading the song,
The people were now the “heavenly host,”
Hearts aflame with the Holy Ghost.
Living rocks crying out in praise
Had built a tabernacle in this place.
They were singing of that glorious birth
By which heaven stooped down to earth.
Music from the other spheres,
Now manifest in mortal ears.
Love came down and struck a chord
Inside each heart that calls him Lord.
The all-powerful Word in flesh became
Emmanuel, he called each by name,
“Now, Eric! Now, Kurt! Now, Julie and Shiv!
Life abundant to you I freely give!”
For unto you a Savior is born
And every Rose shall lose its thorn.
Then at the sound of that trumpet call,
We shall dash away, dash away, dash away all!
So to his cradle the faithful flew,
The eternal One is now made new,
A song of sorrow was their Lullaby
For the Prince of Life came to die,
To wear a crown upon his head
So that we may no more dread
The terror by night, nor the arrow at day,
The power of Sin shall not hold sway.
Love’s flame melts away the dross
When he spread his arms upon the cross,
And humbly laying his glory aside
At the will of the Father he suffered and died.
But on the third day He arose and now
At his name every knee shall bow.
And so, we exult, for this is true,
All honor be given where it is due.
Ransomed hearts sing and are blessed,
Love is not complete till it’s expressed.
We shout His praise, we spread His fame;
After all, Christmas bears His name.
And as the service ended that night,
Faces aglow with candlelight,
I knew that we had worshipped aright,
HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
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 (Bill Price)
John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.
Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” (#203)
Homily: Rev. Eric Irwin
Lighting of the Candles: “O Holy Night”; “Silent Night”
Text: Joseph Mohr (1816)
Tune: Franz Gruber (1818)
This year is the 200th anniversary of the world’s most beloved Christmas carol. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” is to Christmas as turkey is to Thanksgiving. The celebration of the season would not be the same without it. 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, have you heard this romanticized story about the carol’s origins (or some version of it)?
It was Christmas Eve 1818, and Joseph Mohr, a curate and organist in Oberndorf, was practicing for the Christmas service. But the organ wasn’t working because mice had chewed through the bellows. Later that day, as Mohr travelled to visit a family with a sickly baby, he stopped to visit his flock of sheep in the picturesque snowy hills. Overwhelmed by the serenity of the scene, he was inspired by lyrics to a song, which he quickly wrote down when he returned home. He took them over to his friend, Franz Gruber, a schoolteacher and fellow organist in the neighboring village. Gruber composed a simple melody on the spot, one that could be accompanied by guitar instead of organ. The two performed the music that night for the Christmas Eve service, and “Silent Night” was born.
If it sounds too good to be true, well, that’s probably because it is. At least the part about the mice. And the sick baby. I would, however, love for the “Sound of Music” moment of inspiration in the Austrian hillside to be true. Alas, here’s what we do know for sure. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1818, Mohr, a 26-year-old priest of St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf, Austria brought six stanzas of a poem to his colleague, Franz Gruber. Mohr had written the poem 2 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. Ho-hum.
My intent here is not historical accuracy, and I apologize if I burst anyone’s snow globe. I simply want to reiterate how easy it is for Christmas to become sentimental. We idolize songs and we idealize the story. Perhaps because the truth is often less spectacular. That was certainly the case with circumstances of Christ’s birth. A baby in a barn in a backwater town is not the all-conquering hero that many expected. The angel’s fanfare is dramatic and the wondrous star is dazzling, but the moment the savior slipped in through the back door was indeed, by cosmic standards, a “Silent Night.” Because of the familiarity of this hymn, 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!