24 December 2018

Songs on Christmas night that
proclaim a peace that is radical

The Christmas stories told in a Christmas Card produced by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge (click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas Eve, Monday 24 December:

8 p.m., The Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Readings: Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Instead of a Christmas sermon tonight, I have decided to read the editorial in The Irish Times earlier this morning:

The sound
of peace

At carol services in cathedrals and churches across these islands, the celebration of Christmas Eve truly begins with the well-loved carol Once in Royal David’s City, often with a boy chorister singing the opening stanza as an unaccompanied solo.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth in Dublin of the author of this hymn, Cecil Frances Alexander, who first published this all-time Christmas favourite in 1848 in her collection, Hymns for Little Children.

The author of more than 400 hymns, she was born at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin, in 1818. Her early work was strongly influenced by John Keble and the Oxford Movement, as was her husband, William Alexander, who later became Bishop of Derry and then Archbishop of Armagh.

This year, it is also 100 years since the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, began with this opening hymn as a Christmas Eve service in 1918.

This Christmas Eve service was introduced just weeks after the end of World War I by Eric Milner-White, a highly decorated former army chaplain, as a response to the still-echoing clamours of war.

A story of rejection and poverty

This carol and this service have been broadcast by the BBC almost with fail since 1928, and this carol was the first recording made by the King’s College Choir 70 years ago in 1948. Today, it remains the opening message of Christmas Eve when it is broadcast live from Cambridge by the BBC Radio 4 and from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, by RTÉ.

Despite the glitz and the glamour, the shopping and the over-spending, this carol is a reminder that the first Christmas is a story of rejection and poverty, the story of a family forcibly made homeless by officialdom, the story of a child who is born in poverty and humility in a ‘lowly cattle shed,’ and who grows up to live ‘with the poor, and mean and lowly.’

It is the story of a family forced into exile and to cross borders in the eastern Mediterranean because of cruel and capricious political leaders.

The Christ of this carol, who is ‘weak and helpless,’ even when he becomes an adult, is a counter-cultural challenge to leaders who assert they are ‘strong and stable.’

The Christ who is at one with those in ‘sadness’ has more in common with migrants and refugees than those who build walls and barriers to exclude them.

For many, this carol remains a reminder that love and goodness are rare and wonderful gifts, and for many to hear this message on RTÉ or BBC Radio 4 this afternoon still marks the true beginning of Christmas.

This year also marks the bicentenary of another favourite carol that retains its affection among people with nostalgic longings for an old-style Christmas. Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) was written 200 years ago by a young Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, and set to music by a local schoolteacher and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas Eve Mass in 1818 in their village near Salzburg.

When the guns fell silent

The lyrics of Stille Nacht were becoming popular globally in their German original when they were translated into the best-known English version in 1859 by John Freeman Young, later Bishop of Florida.

A second translation that never gained the same level of popularity, Still the night, holy night, was written by an Irish-born Anglican priest, Stopford Augustus Brooke, a poet and graduate of Trinity College Dublin who was born near Letterkenny, Co Donegal.

It would be simplistic to dismiss the lyrics of this carol and its authors as pious and sentimental. But Mohr was born in poverty and died penniless, having given away any money he had earned to care for the elderly and to help the education of poor children. Young expended his energies combatting racism and prejudice in Florida in the aftermath of the American Civil War. And Brooke, a cousin of the nationalist historian Alice Stopford-Green, used his position in English society to promote the values of Irish literature.

This carol became so popular in both English and German that when the guns fell silent in the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914, the German troops sang out Father Mohr’s Stille Nacht, and the British and Irish troops responded with Bishop Young’s Silent Night.

The story has been moved to the following year by Cormac MacConnell in his song A Silent Night Christmas 1915. Today, the ‘glories’ that ‘stream from heaven afar’ on that first Christmas night proclaim a peace that is radically different to the aggressive bellicose tweets that emanate from the White House night after night.

This song, and the carol it is based on, are reminders that the message of peace at Christmas can still the sounds of guns and silence the calls to war:

Sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace


The First Christmas in a panel on the Oberammergau altarpiece in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2:1-20 (NRSVA):

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


Almighty God,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)


You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:


Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

The Advent Wreath:

On the Advent Wreath on Christmas Day, the last of the candles, the central white candle, is lit, symbolising the Christ Child arriving as the Light of the World. The other candles in a circle surrounding it were lit during the Sundays of Advent and represent the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Purple), the Prophets (Purple), Saint John the Baptist (Pink) and the Virgin Mary (Purple).

As we light our Advent candles, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to join in praying for the world church as it responds to the needs of the people and communities it serves.

USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the last candle:

Christmas Day (White Candle), Jesus Christ

Holy God, your only son was born
with no home and laid in a manger;
fill us with compassion
for all in need today.
Bless all who work for dignity,
healing and peace
and give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.


174, O little town of Bethlehem (CD 11)
160, Hark! the herald angels sing (CD 9)
182, Silent night, holy night (CD 11)

The Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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