24 December 2014
A story that is
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
The opening words of Handel’s Messiah are linked by many with the Christmas story. They are the pleading and plaintive words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, repeated in the wilderness by St John the Baptist. But the Christmas story is not a comfortable story.
Despite Christmas being wrapped and packaged in the tinsel and baubles of shopping centres and the annual hijacking of carols for commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas story is less the comfortable tale of profits and more about the uncomfortable call of the prophets.
Isaiah’s words at the opening of Handel’s oratorio come at a time of exile and conflict. He wonders who is going to comfort a distressed and dispossessed people in their dark time. These words are a reminder that the Gospel story is not for one people at one time of the year but is a challenge at every time and to all societies.
There is no Christmas story in either St Mark’s or St John’s Gospel. Instead, they begin with the voice of St John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. When the Christmas story is told in the two other Gospels, St Matthew and St Luke tell it in a way that challenges the priorities of every generation.
St Luke tells of a young couple over-burdened with taxes who are forced by a cruel and demanding government to leave their home so they can register for even more taxes. At the end their journey, they find themselves homeless, in a city where St Luke tells us “there was no place for them”. And the young Mary gives birth to her Christ Child in dank and dismal conditions that are familiar to the increasing number of homeless families seeking shelter on the streets throughout Ireland on this lean Christmas. The good news of that first Christmas is announced first not to the rich and the powerful in the comfortable places in the city, but to poor agrarian workers, labouring at night outside the city and so, in a real way, on the margins of respectable society.
St Matthew alone tells us that soon after the birth of their child this couple find themselves homeless again when they are forced into exile in neighbouring Egypt. Once more, the voice of an Old Testament prophet is heard in the Gospel narrative of Christmas, as the words of Jeremiah are quoted to describe the suffering brought down on innocent people and their children by a cruel and tyrannical ruler:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled because they are no more.
At the heart of the Christmas story is an uncomfortable, stark reminder that the birth of the Christ Child is supposed to be the beginning of good news for the poor and the marginalised, for the homeless and the displaced, for the migrants and the refugees, for the victims of racism, war and genocide.
It is a story that speaks compellingly to our society in Ireland today, and that challenges a world wracked with violence. How much we need to see Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child in every homeless person sleeping in doorways or seeking shelter on our streets this Christmas Eve. How much we need to hear the voice of Rachel weeping and wailing for her children in Ramah echoed in the voice of mothers weeping for their children in the Gaza Strip this year. It is a voice heard throughout the world from the weeping mothers of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria to the wailing of mothers in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan.
Yet the voice of the angels to the poor and uneducated shepherds on the first Christmas Eve proclaimed God’s promise of peace, not in the future and not in heaven, but on earth and today. It is such a compelling promise that it silenced the guns in the trenches on the first Christmas in the first World War.
It is such a hopeful promise that instead of gunfire, the sounds heard on the battlefields 100 years ago this evening were voices singing in unison, in English and in German, “Silent night, holy night,” “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”.
It is a promise that Isaiah shouts too, and that is repeated as the opening words of Handel’s Messiah continue:
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
The true voice of Christmas is not one more sales pitch, one more effort to clinch a deal, one more hijacked image for a seasonal advertising campaign. Instead, it is the voice of the pregnant Mary before she sets out for Bethlehem, realising the birth of her child on that first Christmas night promises to scatter “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”, to bring “down the powerful”, to fill “the hungry with good things”, and “to send the rich away empty”.
We have come to the end of the Advent season for this year, and Christmas Eve has arrived. At carol services in cathedrals and churches throughout the Anglican Communion this afternoon, a shared tradition in many places on Christmas Eve is singing ‘Once in royal David’s city,’ often with a boy chorister singing the opening stanza as an unaccompanied solo.
As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I have been looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning [24 December 2014], as I come to the end of these reflections, predictably chosen for my Advent hymn today ‘Once in royal David’s city,’ which is No 177 in the Irish Church Hymnal and No 34 in the New English Hymnal.
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) took her position as an Anglican bishop’s wife very seriously. She accompanied her husband throughout his Ireland travels, taking a special interest in children.
She wrote a number of poems and hymns for children, and was the author of more than 400 hymns, including ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’ Her most famous collection was published in 1848, Hymns for Little Children. This collection included ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ A year later, the English composer and organist Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) found her poem and set it to music with the tune, ‘Irby,’ named after a village on the Wirral Peninsula. Gauntlett is said to have composed the music for more than 10,000 hymns; however, as this would mean he wrote three hymns a day for 30 years, this figure is doubtful.
Gauntlett has been described as the “Father of Church Music,” for he was the creator of the school of four-part hymn tunes, although it is debatable whether he deserves this accolade. He was admired by Mendelssohn, who wrote of him: “His literary attainments, his knowledge of the history of music, his acquaintance with acoustical law, his marvellous memory, his philosophical turn of mind as well as practical experience —these render him one of the most remarkable professors of the age.”
Cecil Frances Humphreys was born in 1823, the second daughter of the late Major John Humphreys, of Miltown House, near Strabane, Co Tyrone. As a small girl, she wrote poetry in her school journal.
In 1850, she married the Revd Dr William Alexander, who later became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in the Church of Ireland, and then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. She showed her concern for disadvantaged people by travelling many miles each day to visit the sick and the poor, providing food, warm clothes, and medical supplies. She and her sister also founded a school for the deaf.
Mrs Alexander was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement and by John Keble’s Christian Year. Her first book of poetry, Verses for Seasons, was a “Christian Year” for children. She wrote hymns based on the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Eucharist, the Ten Commandments, and prayer, writing in simple language for children. Her more than 400 hymn texts were published in Verses from the Holy Scripture (1846), Hymns for Little Children (1848), and Hymns Descriptive and Devotional (1858). She also contributed to the Lyra Anglicana, the SPCK Psalms and Hymns, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and other collections.
Some of her narrative hymns are rather heavy, perhaps even dull. But a large number remain popular and well-loved, including ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (ICH, No 25), ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (No 177), ‘There is a green hill far away’ (244) and ‘Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult’ (No 335).
This morning’s hymn was one of a series of hymns written to provide simple explanations of clauses in the Apostles’ Creed, with this hymn based on the words “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Stanzas 1 and 2 describe the birth of Christ in simple terms. The city, of course, is Bethlehem, his birthplace and the birthplace of his ancestor, King David. As we all know, Mary and Joseph were there to be counted in the census, which, as in our day, determined the tax distribution and burden of many communities, and was a real hardship for the poor who had to travel across difficult terrain.
Stanzas 3 and 4 look at Christ’s childhood as a pattern and example for children in living their lives.
Stanzas 4 and 5 proclaim the divinity of Christ and point to his heavenly glory, which is in sharp contrast to the humble circumstances of his birth. The Christ Child who was born in humility and poverty is not only our pattern and example but also our Redeemer, seated in glory at God’s right hand in heaven.
Over the years, many changes have been made to the wording of this hymn. Some alterations changed the original “lowly maiden” to “lowly mother” concerned that the word “maiden” might imply the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. However the original words have been restored in the fifth edition of the Irish Church Hymnal.
Since 1918, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, has begun its Christmas Eve service with Dr Arthur Henry Mann’s arrangement of ‘Once in royal David’s City’ as the processional hymn.
Mann was Organist and Director of Music at King’s from 1876 until his death in 1929. In his arrangement, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister of the Choir of King’s Chapel as a solo. The second verse is sung by the choir, and the congregation joins in the third verse. Excluding the first verse, the hymn is accompanied by the organ. This carol was the first recording that the King’s College Choir under Boris Ord made for EMI in 1948.
This carol has had the distinction of being is one of only two carols or hymns that are sung annually at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in King’s College ... ‘Hark! the herald-angels sing’ (ICH, No 160).
Now, every year without fail, at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, this is the opening carol from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and it is broadcast live from Cambridge on the BBC Radio 4. The opening words are always the same: “And now from the Chapel of King Henry VIII, King’s College Cambridge, a service of Nine Lessons and Carols.”
The boys of the choir are all capable of opening, but the choirmaster only chooses the choirboy shortly before the broadcast and it is considered a great honour. For many, this carol is a reminder that Love and goodness are rare and wonderful gifts, and for man too to hear it live on BBC Radio 4 marks the true start of Christmas.
We used this carol in a similar way at the opening of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Monday evening [22 December 2014].
Once in royal David’s city, by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed;
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, and mean, and lowly
lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all his wondrous childhood
he would honour and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms he lay;
Christian children all must be
kind, obedient, good as he.
For he is our childhood’s pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love,
for that child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned
all in white shall wait around.
Tomorrow: Carols and Hymns for Christmas (1): ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ (No 162)