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01.03.16 Christmas Around the World Musical Proclamation, Luke 2:25-32

by on January 5, 2016

Introduction: This is a proclamation of the gospel offered on the Second Sunday, the Tenth Day, of Christmas, January 3, 2016. Please follow the links to the hymn/carol selections from Glory to God, the hymnal of the Presbyterian Church, USA, which this proclamation uses.

Today is the Tenth Day of Christmas, the twelve day season which begins December 25 and ends with the arrival of Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany has three traditional meanings, all of which refer to the “revelation” of Jesus, which is what “epiphany” means.

  1. The baptism of Jesus, including the descent of the Spirit upon him
  2. Jesus’ first “sign” of turning water into wine
  3. The Adoration of the Magi from the East

Together, Christmas-Epiphany reveals that:

  • Jesus’ birth is “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10)
  • “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile” (Galatians 2:28)
  • “God so loved the WORLD, he gave his only son.” (John 3:16)

The “devout and righteous man” who was “seeking the consolation of Israel” and upon whom rested the Holy Spirit, Simeon, expressed this truth when he praised God saying, “My eyes have seen God’s salvation: A light—for revelation for the Gentiles, and for glory to God’s people Israel.”

Based on this truth, the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, today we celebrate “Christmas around the World.” We are guided by hymns and carols from Glory to God, our new hymnal, hymns and carols we have inherited from world Christianity. Today we will move from “me” to “we,” from “our time” to “all time,” and attempt to conform more to the Christ of Christmas, not the culture of Christmas. In other words, we desire to emulate God in Christ, who gave himself for all the world.

“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” No. 130

We begin in Germany, where so many of our Christmas traditions began, including the Christmas tree and the Advent wreath. This is a piece of music perfected by Johann Sabastian Bach. It is a chorale, which is a choir piece of highly regulated composition. While chorales are very challenging to sing and to write, they represent the building blocks of Classical Western Music. As we sing this hymn, try to appreciate the beauty, art, and creativity it expresses even within the rigid restraints of rules. And remember that God can create beautiful art despite whatever constraints your own life presents.

“Jesus, the Light of the World” No. 127

Here we encounter the latest adaptation of one of the most popular carols, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. “Hark” was composed by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, in 1737. Charles wrote over 3000 hymns! The original opening line was, “Hark how all the welkin rings, glory to the King of kings”. “Welkin” refers to the vault of heaven, and so the line accurately depicts the scripture to which it alludes, that “there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest . . .’” Note, the Bible does not say the hosts were singing.

But Charles’ good friend and famous preacher George Whitefield changed the words to the ones you have memorized: “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Wesley was infuriated. But the evolution wasn’t complete. William Cummings set Whitefield’s revision to Mendelssohn’s music—the setting you have memorized—in 1856. The rest is history.

This most recent evolution arises from the African American community. It gives us opportunity to recognize, appreciate, and enjoy the evolution of music in the church.

“The First Nowell” No. 147, verses 1-3, 6

We turn to an example of how popular devotion often trumps official church doctrine. According to linguistic scholars, The First Nowell appears to have been written not by a skilled poet or theologian, but by an illiterate lay-person. For example, he refers to a star appearing to the shepherds, of which there is no mention in the Bible. Such a mistake could be explained by confusing various Nativity depictions, as might appear on stained glass windows.

In England, popular practice combined the carol with a Yule Log devotion that had been received from Scandinavian Vikings. This was a domestic devotion, not official church teaching, in which the log was lighted on the first day of Christmas and families hoped it would burn through the twelve days to bring good luck to the household. The First Nowell accompanied this devotion.

From England it migrated to France in the 15th century, and eventually found its way back to England to be finally published in 1833. As we sing The First Nowell, appreciate anew the creativity of combining stories. Like Christmas card depictions and children’s pageants, these combinations may get the details wrong, but the main point remains—we have been redeemed by God’s love for us in Christ.

“Still, Still, Still” No. 124

We turn now to Austria, and to a carol whose message in its entirety is “value simplicity.” With the first and last lines repeating, it invites us to replicate simplicity in our own lives, a message that is especially important to remember during Christmas. In its depiction of a “still” Jesus who “sleeps,” it reminds us that the busy world—and we ourselves—may also rest in God.

“In the Heavens Shone a Star” No. 131

This carol is written with a pentatonic scale: It uses only five notes. Such scales are characteristic of Asian music, and this song from the pacific island archipelago of the Philippines shows this influence. The most famous pentatonic hymn you know is Amazing Grace.

This hymn has personal significance to me, as my family emigrated from the area in the Philippines where this carol originated. My dad is celebrating this Christmas there, in fact.

Listen for how the star-light symbol offers a commentary on the birth-incarnation relationship, and how the Shepherds and Magi refer to people both near and far, both the empty-handed and those with treasures. It is an invitation for all of us—whether near or far, whether poor or rich—to “bow at the cradle and adore the holy child.”

“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” No. 128

From the Philippines we go to Poland. The word “infant” literally means “incapable of speaking”. Even when Jesus doesn’t speak, he still testifies. We are reminded of Psalm 19 which states, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” We are encouraged by the fact that those with faith see and hear beyond the obvious, like the Shepherds who “glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen.”

This carol also reminds us that Jesus redefined “holy.” Whereas the Holy used to be transcendent and terrifying, here “holy” is revealed to include that which is “lowly”. And so this carol invites us to “be holy as God is holy” (see this refrain in the “holiness code” of Leviticus, but cross reference Jesus’ paraphrase of it in the Sermon on the Mount). Holiness in Jesus means living lives of humility and service as Jesus did.

“‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” No. 142

We turn to the first North American hymn which dates from the 17th century. It was written in the Native American Huron language by a French Jesuit missionary. The Huron nation lived in Canada, near Lake Ontario. It was translated into French, and later paraphrased into English, and this is the text we sing today.

There is some controversy regarding these lyrics, specifically, do they include racist perspectives? Do the images reflect European caricatures of Native American life? Or does the text appropriate native language and narrative for the purpose of sharing the good news of Christ?

Criticism aside, the larger point to appreciate is that all language is malleable, which is why it is so important that God’s Word became flesh. Our best understanding and description of God is not contained in words, but presented to us in Christ. The important message is that God always accommodates himself to our needs.

“That Boy-Child of Mary” No. 139

In African culture, the name given by a community expresses the hope the community has for a child. This hymn from Malawi reflects this cultural understanding. Here we are reminded that “Jesus” reflects the Hebrew word for “Savior.” It also alludes to the name Matthew applies from the prophet Isaiah about the child born to Mary, that he is “Emmanuel” which means “God is With Us.”

This hymn makes a further point. It describes God’s salvation in terms of God’s helping us, suggesting that God helps us not primarily by intervening in our circumstances, but by being with us through them.

“Once in Royal David’s City” No. 140

This hymn originated as part of a collection of children’s hymns from Ireland. The hymns were intended to help children understand the classic testaments of Christian faith, including the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn comments on the Creed’s statement that Jesus was,  “conceived by Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” What does it mean to be a child of God and humanity?

Part of the answer, according to this carol, is that “Jesus is our childhood’s pattern”. He is like us in all ways. He is human. But the answer also includes the lyric that Jesus “leads his children on to the place where he is gone.” The promise is that we will be like Jesus when we follow him. We too can be children of God and of humanity.

“He Came Down” No. 137

This is our Carol of Preparation for Communion. It comes to us from the African country of Cameroon. When we celebrate communion, we pray together and “lift up our hearts.” The reason we can “lift up our hearts,” is because Christ first “came down.” This dynamic is the fundamental movement of Christianity: God moves first; and we respond. God’s first move is grace; our response is gratitude.

Remember from last week’s reading in Romans 1 that Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh,” and “declared Son of God according to resurrection.” This dynamic of God’s coming down and our lifting our hearts, of grace and gratitude, of the sacrament of Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”), reminds us of one of the earliest Christian teachings: that God became human so we could become God. It isn’t that we replace God, but that we reside and participate in God. “He came down, that we may have life.”

“Jesus Entered Egypt” No. 154

Having celebrated Christmas around the world, we return finally to a hymn found only in Glory to God. This hymn reminds us that Jesus came to all the world, so that we who faithfully follow Jesus may also go to all. But what if the world should happen to make the journey and come to us? This hymn reminds us that to be faithful to the Spirit of Christmas, we must welcome all.

Benediction

As we receive the Child of God, we become a child of God. Let us go, therefore, into all the world, proclaiming the good news of Christ’s birth. If necessary, use words. If possible, use songs.

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One Comment
  1. Steve Ryan permalink

    Thanks, Tom. Beautifully done.

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