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!