The Treasures of Christmas
January 4, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor
Montgomery United Methodist Church
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! One of the greatest treasures of the Christmas season is the gift of singing. Today we continue to celebrate Christmas carols – the treasures that we sing.
My goal and hope in this message is to bring you deeper insight into some of the songs we love to sing at Christmas, that you may come to love these Christmas treasures even more. And so this morning I will be portraying several people that were instrumental in the writing of carols so that we might understand more about how those carols came to be, what they can mean to us, and what they meant to the original writers.
We’re going to take a look at four carols this morning, three old friends and one brand new one: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and a new carol that was written by members of our church, called “Tonight a Star Is Shining.”
But let’s start by going back in time to the early 1700s, to England, and see what’s happening there.
[Dylan Boger plays “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” on the piano]
My name is Nigel Livingston, and I lived in England in the early 1700’s. Now you may think that Christmas in England was always a jolly time, with Christmas trees and lights and candles and carols and feasting and such. Oh, it was not so. The hearty celebration of Christmas the way you Americans do it we owe to a certain Mr. Charles Dickens and his wonderful “Christmas Carol” story.
Oh no, friends, we did not celebrate Christmas at all back then. December was a weary and dreary time of year. The celebration of Christmas was considered worldly, with all the merriment and frivolity and such. As a matter of fact, the celebration of a jubilant Christmas was actually outlawed! And in church, oh it was just dreadful. The music was always slow and sad and rather mournful.
So, my friends and I gathered by the fire in my home one Sunday evening after church, and began to wonder. Shouldn’t Christmas, the birth of our Savior, be a joyous time? Shouldn’t we sing of it with rousing tunes? Didn’t the very psalms urge us to make a joyful sound?
So here is what we did. Although you mustn’t ever tell the Pastor, we wrote a song. Now, the words are in an older form of English, so please understand - the word merry means not just “happy” but also strong - strong and joyous and confident. Think of Robin Hood’s merry men. And the words “rest you” meant not simply taking a nap - it meant “make you” or cause you to be, as in “rest assured.”
And so, we wrote a song that winter’s night - a song called “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” - or, as we understood the words, “God make you mighty, everyone, let nothing you dismay - Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.”
Oh yes, and in the sixth verse, that awkward word “deface” - back then, it meant overshadow or eclipse. In other words, this holy time of Christmas ought to outshine every other celebration:
Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface.
Well, the song caught on like wildfire. All of London was singing it. Eventually, our great queen Victoria would like it, and it would even be sung in church. So sing it full and strong, even as we did back then, won’t you?
God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Let me tell you what happened sometimes. We were so happy to be singing this song that the musicians would pick up the tune and tempo would get faster, and people would begin to clap and dance. Won’t you clap along? Dancing is allowed, but optional.
[Festive, rich, spirited rendition of the carol in jig time]
My name is Isaac Watts. I was born in July of 1694. I was a very energetic man. Please don’t let my looks fool you. I know I’m only 5 feet tall and that my small blue eyes look out from a bony face that looks quite pale to some. That fact led to some significant personal disappointment, but that is a story for another day.
Anyway, I have many things in my favor, you know. You see, God has given me a feisty and determined spirit, and a gift of words. I’ve been making up rhymes ever since I can remember. Even when I was a child, I would rhyme everything, sometimes driving my parents crazy! Sometimes my father would want to spank me for it, but I would say, “Father, your spanking me in time/Would simply all the more make me want to rhyme.” So he thought the better of it.
One day, God touched my heart with an idea. My family and I have always loved the Lord and loved the church. But what if, instead of the dreary, dreadful slow, sad songs we sing in church, we were to sing something more lively and tuneful... something that, well, rhymed? Oh, I know that the pastor says we’re only supposed to sing songs that are straight out of the Bible, mostly those Psalms, but what if we were to make them rhyme? After all, it’s all in the translation, isn’t it?
And so, I set out on a project to make all of the psalms rhyme. I must say, I got a bit carried away, and rhymed some of them more than once. Here’s a familiar favorite; let’s see if you can guess which psalm this one is.
My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
Recognize that one? The Twenty-third Psalm.
Well, then there came a challenge to set the 98th Psalm to rhyming. Let me read to you psalm 98 the old King James way, the Darby translation:
1Sing ye unto Jehovah a new song: for he hath done wondrous things; his right hand and his holy arm hath wrought salvation for him.
2Jehovah hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the nations.
3He hath remembered his loving-kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
4Shout aloud unto Jehovah, all the earth; break forth and shout for joy, and sing psalms.
5Sing psalms unto Jehovah with the harp: with the harp, and the voice of a song;
6With trumpets and sound of cornet, make a joyful noise before the King, Jehovah.
7Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein;
8Let the floods clap [their] hands; let the mountains sing for joy together,
9Before Jehovah, for he cometh to judge the earth: he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Hmm… let’s see what we can do with that. The main theme is joy: mountains singing, floods clapping their hands, the skies above, the earth below, all singing together for joy. It’s about the Kingship of the Lord and letting all of nature praise Him. Joy, joy…
Joy to the world…the Lord is come... let earth receive her king... let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing.
The words would later be joined to a tune by a friend of mine, Mr. George Fredrick Handel, and I think that marriage of my words and his tune produced a song you still sing. That joining was done by a man from New Jersey, a certain music teacher named Lowell Mason.
It would gladden my heart from heaven’s brow
If you, dear friends, would sing it now!
The hymn is number 246, “Joy to the World!”
Joy to the
world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
My name is Father Joseph Mohr. I am privileged to be the pastor of a little church in Oberndorff, Austria. It is a church of wonderful people in a beautiful setting. Everywhere I look, I see the beauty of the Alps mountain range. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, it is unspeakably beautiful here.
The year is 1873, and it is near Christmas. A family in my church recently had a little baby, and I went to visit them. We had a delightful visit. Their home is a fair distance from the church, and even though I began my walk to their house in the afternoon light, the days are short, and night fell as I began the long walk home.
The moon was wonderfully bright that night. The snow created a kind of silence that was at once deep and profound and holy. As I walked, it was easier than usual to talk with God. I told God about my worry about the music for Christmas Eve. The organ just would not play properly. Some say a mouse had eaten through the bellows. It would be spring before the master organ repairman could come to our little village to fix it. And here it was, just a few days before Christmas Eve.
My mind returned to the beauty around me. The silence of the snow, the glow of the moon upon the majestic mountains, the sparkling starlight above, and a particularly bright star that reminded me of the star of Bethlehem. I also thought of the mother and father and little baby I had just visited.
A poem began to take shape in my mind. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, alles schläft, einsam wacht. Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. I began to think about the fact that I didn’t have enough music for Christmas Eve, and it worried me. But God was giving me this beautiful poem. As soon as I got home, I took my gloves off and wrote the poem down. It seemed to just flow from my pen.
I took it to my friend, Franz Gruber, the local schoolteacher and organist of the church. I asked him to set it to music. He looked at it, and said it reminded him of the words to a lullaby. He would do his best.
The next day, there was an excited knocking at my door. It was Franz. He had come to tell me the song was ready. We were both excited about the result. He taught it to the choir the next evening (choirs are used to such last-minute things, aren’t they?), and it was ready for Christmas Eve.
The organ tuner came that spring and fixed the organ. He liked the tune, too, and took it to other villages. Little did we know that that song would spread from one church to another till the whole world was singing it.
we wrote was “Silent Night.” Won’t you imagine the beauty of that Austrian night
and the wonder of the Savior’s birth as we sing a verse of this hymn, number
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Well, I really am Pastor Tony, and there is one more carol we want to celebrate this morning….
Ed. Note: Please read the conclusion of this sermon, “The Treasures of Christmas, Part 2B,” to hear this wonderful new and timeless Christmas carol.
© 2008 Anthony J. Godlefski