Christmas Day Sermon

Date: December 25, 2016

Title: “Behind the Carols”

Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture: Psalm 98; John 1:1-14

            So, Merry Christmas. Here we all are, a mere 9 or 10 hours since the last Christmas Eve candle was extinguished, and today, we will take a little jaunt “behind the carols”.

Long before Jesus was born, people sang and danced with seasons and festivals in mind, everything from harvest festivals to purification rituals to solstice celebrations incorporated music dedicated to the occasion. In the fourth century after Jesus’ birth, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Latin hymns of praise began to emerge, including songs for Christmas. These didn’t make it to the top of the hit parade, however, because they were all written in Latin, a language not understood by the majority of people. In the meantime, alongside this elitist music, pagan songs – the original “carols” – continued to gain popularity.

This created a problem for the early church hierarchy, which at various times from the 7th century to the 12th, prohibited the singing of carols in church. That all changed when a Parisian monk named Adam of St. Victor began to merge popular songs and sacred music. In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced Nativity plays in the language of the local people, complete with live Nativity scenes and – you guessed it – Christmas carols!

While carols enjoyed increasing acclaim throughout much of Europe, England under Oliver Cromwell took a giant step backward, once again prohibiting any spong with pagan or Roman Catholic roots. So it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that carols came into their own in England and America, thanks in part to Clement Moore’s classic prose poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Which brings us to this first carol of our Christmas morning, Angels from the Realms of Glory. First published on Christmas Eve 1816 in the Sheffield Iris newspaper, its author James Montgomery originally included a final stanza which is now omitted from most hymnals. That stanza went like this:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,

            Doomed for guilt to endless pains,

            Justice now revokes your sentence

            Mercy calls you, break your chains

            No wonder it has long since fallen out of favor! It doesn’t exactly scream out “joy to the world!” does it? And yet – that last stanza does make a certain point, reminding us that Christmas is more than a sweet manger scene, and that the Incarnation (God’s coming to dwell with us) is a proclamation of liberation for us all. This last stanza helps us see that God comes to live with us in every instance of oppression.

Next, we come to O Come All Ye Faithful. Now nobody knows for sure where we got this carol. Some think the words came fro the Franciscan Order of monks. Some think the 13th century Italian theologian St. Bonaventure wrote them, and some suggest that the author was the Portugese King John IV. Still others suggest that Handel may be responsible, but there isn’t any clear evidence that this song existed before the middle of the 18th century.

In 1743 John Francis Wade, a Catholic hymn writer and supporter of Bonnie Prince Charles’ rebellion against King George II of England, fled across the sea to France in order to escape persecution. Wade wrote in Latin, beginning with the words Adeste fideles, which became the familiar name for this hymn. Some scholars believe that the “faithful” Wade appeals to were those who would support Prince Charles, making the carol a sort of political manifesto in disguise.

There is something appealing about that notion, for surely the faithful have always been those who are willing to put themselves – their opinions, their actions, their motivations, and their very lives – into their beliefs. We could do worse this Christmas ourselves!

The next carol we’ve sung is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this carol is that neither Charles Wesley, who wrote the lyrics, nor Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote the music, would have wanted their words and music paired together! Written in 1739, the words were originally a poem meant to be recited on Christmas Day. George Whitfield edited it some in 1753 – a fact that displeased Wesley because it brought a slightly different theological nuance to the poem.

Then, almost 100 years later, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press, and in 1855 – after Mendelssohn had died – organist William Cummings put the melody and the words together. This probably would have irritated both authors – Wesley because he preferred a slow tempo for his religious music, and Mendelssohn because he wanted his tune to be a secular one.

Which just goes to show you, when it comes to sharing the good news of God’s love for us, sometimes the organist knows best! It also goes to show us that God’s love always brings newness to life. Because of Christmas, we can imagine life in new ways. Thanks to Christmas, we can create new music, new partnerships, and new possibilities, beyond our wildest dreams.

The carol Love Came Down at Christmas was written by Christina Georgina Rossetti, who also wrote In the Bleak Midwinter, hymn number 221 in our United Methodist hymnal. While the first stanza of that hymn paints a vivid picture of an unwelcoming and desolate landscape (a bleak midwinter), and a dire description of the world Christ enters, Love Came Down at Christmas gives us an inviting image of incarnate Love descending to earth. If you include the word “lovely”, love is mentioned 12 times in three short stanzas of this carol. Which may not be surprising, when you realize that the lyrics are based on 1 John 4:7-11, in which love is mentioned 11 times.

We all know that life changes. And we all need to know that life can change even now, when Love enters into the world’s bleak midwinter once more. My friends, do not forget that God has entrusted you with that love, that you are meant to speak it, to sing it, and to share it in ways that everyone can receive it.

Which brings me to one final carol. This is a new one for me, called The Huron Carol. It was written in 1643 by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary working with the Huron Indians of northern Canada. It occurred to Brebeuf that shepherds abiding in fields, and babies lying in mangers would have no meaning for these hunter/gatherer people. So he used imaged from their own lives to bring the story alive for them:

Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled

            That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead

            Before their light the stars grew dim and wandering hunters heard the hymn

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in Excelsis Gloria!

            Within a lodge of broken bark the tender Babe was found

            A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round

            And as the hunter braves drew night the angel song rang loud and high

            Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in Excelsis Gloria!

            The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair

            As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there

            The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fur and beaver pelt

            Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in Excelsis Gloria!

            O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou

            The Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you

            Come kneel before the radiant Boy who brings you beauty, peace and joy

            Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in Excelsis Gloria!

I love this carol. And it serves as a great reminder to me, that the Christmas story – and the Incarnation itself – only really makes sense when we make it our own. As German Dominican monk of the 13th century once wrote:

            We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

What good is the Christmas story if it doesn’t become my story and your story today? Merry Christmas! Amen.

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