Carol Stories, week 3

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (ELW #270, stanzas 1 & 2)

 You know, I’ve never repeated a sermon. I just don’t imagine it would work; it needs new words each time. But for this occasion, for a sense of history, I thought a flashback might be interesting. So this carol story is from the first week we did this, way back in the year 3 B.N. (that’s St. Stephen’s dating for “before Ned”). Let’s go back to 2008:

In our Bibles, we know the names of only two angels: Gabriel, who announced to Mary that she would bear a child, and Michael, who is sort of the prime heavenly warrior. We might add Satan to that list as a fallen angel. But there is definitely no angel named “Harold.”

In medieval times, a herald was an armor-bearer going in front of a noble. In this hymn, the noble is a newborn king. And what we have in the hymn is a call to “hearken,” an old English word for “hear,” the announcement of those angels who are heralding, or proclaiming, Jesus’ birth.

The hymn was written by Charles Wesley, whose brother John was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the early 1700’s. Actually, Charles was the youngest of 18 children in that family. Both John and Charles were priests of the Church of England, and also traveling preachers in the U.S. Charles wrote plenty of hymn texts. The ten of them in the ELW are a small portion of the more than 6000 total he wrote. And for this hymn, we sing only three of the ten stanzas he wrote.

The tune is named for Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was the son of a wealthy banker, and the grandson of one of the most famous Jewish philosophers, Moses Mendelssohn. Felix was a prodigy, not only in playing, writing, and conducting music, but in linguistics and painting as well. He revived Bach as a favorite, and he also gave rise to symphony orchestras, like the one that plays at Overture Hall.

This piece of music was written for a work celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. (An invention which, incidentally, made Luther’s reformation possible.) Mendelssohn didn’t think the music was fitting for a sacred text. Eight years after he died, though, Wesley’s text was added to Mendelssohn’s tune by William Cummings and that’s what we have here.

There you go. And though I’m not sure what the phrase “late in time” means, it might be about these passing years. So before we get any older and our voices lose their angelic triumph, let’s sing.


In the Bleak Midwinter (#294, stanzas 1 & 3)

While we’re doing some recollecting and reminiscing, let’s go back and be reintroduced to our good friend Gustav. Say “howdy, ol’ Gustav!” The Transition Team asked last weekend what brought you to St. Stephen’s—whether the music program or family connections or an invitation or for Sunday School. For Gustav, it was a place to get out of the cold and feel accepted when others were making him feel worthless. See, I spotted Gustav sitting on the curb over on Wallace Avenue, looking lonely and forlorn and definitely cast out. So I picked him up and we rode tandem on my bike (maybe it technically counts as a bicycle built for three, since Gustav also brought a lamb).

Well, Gustav got to be right at home here. In his early days, he had fun hiding around corners and creeping people out who were the last ones in the building after dark. Lately, he’s taken up residence inside the organ, where you’d probably be welcome to visit him sometime. You can, of course, also find him on Facebook. Last year he got to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at the 3:30 Christmas Eve service with our kids from church, so that is why he has the pointy hat. (He may be ugly, but he’s no dunce.)

So this shepherd man could’ve taken the name Wallace, as that nearby location of the road he came from. But instead, we’re going to go far afield, making this little shepherd into an astronaut and finding him with Jupiter, the planet connected with the tune of our next carol. See, The Planets is the most famous piece by our composer, with Jupiter’s tune found at hymns 710 and 880. (That tune was also used for a song for the sesquicentennial of Lawrence University, Rebecca’s and Deb Boushea’s alma mater.) For this moment, however, in this bleak midwinter, not in outer space but at a stable, we have a lovely poem set to a lovely tune by Gustav Holst. Thus, Gustav.

The original Gustav was a 3rd generation professional musician, born in England. It’s been said he believed it was a composer’s duty to write for practical purposes, and so he was inspired by Christina Rosetti’s poem to create the small masterpiece of this carol. Like our own rather reclusive Gustav, he was shy and didn’t like the attention of being famous. He also didn’t like when he had to give up his devotion to composing in order to earn some money by being a trombonist, calling it “a wicked and loathsome waste of time”. But his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams argued back that “the very worst a trombonist has to put up with…nothing compared to what a church organist has to endure.”

That makes us think of the endurance of Tim Mueller at these stump-the-organist events. Yet if we think that’s bad, just imagine what poor Gustav has to put up with, for all the racket he has to endure living inside the church organ. Pretty bleak! But maybe he wouldn’t give a lamb. Let’s sing!


Carol Stories, week 2

All My Heart Again Rejoices (ELW #273, stanzas 1 & 2)

Last week we started with a non-favorite Christmas carol, and we’re going to again. I discovered this is one of only two carols in the Christmas section of the hymnal we hadn’t used in the 8 seasons of these carol stories. So, like the proverbial shepherd Gustav thrown with garbage to the curb, this was feeling left out.

It’s a little odd that it’s been left out, since both the author and the translator are among the most common names in our hymnals. Catherine Winkworth is listed with 19 hymns, including “Now Thank We All Our God,” “Christ the Life of All the Living,” Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” and Advent’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People.” Though Paul Gerhardt is named with only nine hymns, that actually shortchanges doing justice to the role he’s played in how we Lutherans sing. One of my professors, Dr. Paul Westermeyer, wrote the Hymnal Companion that offers explanations along with ELW. He called Paul Gerhardt “one of the most important Lutheran hymn writers” and said “he had the rare capacity to express the depth of the Christian faith in understandable yet durable ways. He moved hymnody from the public ruggedness of Martin Luther to a more introspective poetry, without losing the communal marks of faith.” Though it shouldn’t be overstated, some have observed that whereas Luther’s central theme was grace, Gerhardt focused on the love of God.

That love and joy in his words is noteworthy. This carol rejoices. One from Easter is called “Awake My Heart with Gladness.” It’s surprising because Gerhardt’s life certainly was not overly pleasant. For some reason it took him 14 years to graduate from Luther’s school, the University of Wittenberg, in 1642. That was during the Thirty Years’ War, which was utterly ravaging and decimating Europe—just awful—and so not only he did he not have a chance at a career right away, but also Swedish soldiers burned down his family home. It wasn’t until nine years later that he landed a job in a church. He was 48 years old when he finally got married, and he had five children, but four of them died in infancy. He tried to negotiate between fighting denominations, but ended up losing his job because of it, and about that time his wife died, too.

And yet his hymns still speak of joy through faith. This one not only has the sweet angel voices, but we hear the baby Jesus speaking to us, calling us beloved brothers and sisters in the original German, telling us, “You are safe from danger.” That’s the joy and love of faith. So let’s sing.


Let Our Gladness Have No End (ELW #291, stanzas 1 & 4)

Continuing with joy and wrapping up loose ends, the one other carol we haven’t heard about in all these years is #291.

I haven’t told you about it before mostly because we really don’t know much of any story to tell. The composer, the author, the translator are all unknown or anonymous to us. It first appeared in a hymnal in 1602, yet the suspicion seems to be that it was written sometime in the 15th Century. The term of “Bohemian” heritage is an old name for a region that’s now part of the Czech Republic. Speaking of which, we often presume Lutherans to be Norwegians, or to have German roots. Poor Randy Romanski weeps with joy anytime somebody with a Polish name joins the congregation (most recently Ryan Bujnowski). So it’s good that we’re getting around to this carol to honor the heritage of Don Jambura.

Perhaps as a reminder that even old favorites are not the same as they ever were, we notice that things change. The Lord’s Prayer continues to update language. Some wordings we adapt to make less gender exclusive. Some we tweak to fit more with the moods of our times. Sometimes old favorites aren’t really favorites anymore. And sometimes change just happens; so both this tune and these words have gone with other pairings over the years.

Even more interesting is that we changed the notes between the last hymnal and this one. If you look at the 4th note of the carol, you see a B-natural. In LBW, it was a B-flat. Tim will play both for us to hear. Technically, whereas the green book was a simple major scale this makes a Lydian modal scale in the new version (which is actually the older, original version—reminding us that changes aren’t always innovations but sometimes a return to truer origins). Westermeyer thinks it “gives it a festive folk color.” He also says that the excitement of the Hallelujahs interrupt the narrative with a rejoicing that cannot be delayed.

Maybe it’s good for me to stop delaying your joy, too. With this, we’ll have sung every carol in the Christmas section of our hymnal. So let’s sing.