A Christmas Guide to the Psalter Hymnal

What I’ve decided to share with you today isn’t much more than a collection of personal reactions to the Christmas section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (numbers 331-346).  Enjoy, and feel free to comment with your own thoughts!

The Advent Carols – 331, 335

A URC Psalmody ChristmasThe distinction between “Advent” and “Christmas” has always been somewhat blurry.  Here’s a fairly simple definition: The Latin verb advenio means “to come”; thus, Advent carols are songs that speak of Christ’s coming as a future event.  There are only two such selections in the Psalter Hymnal: #331, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and #335, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”  Both of these songs are some of my favorite carols because they are thoroughly rooted in the promises and prophecies of Scripture.

There is a nearly inconceivable variety of possible stanzas for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and the assortment given here is quite decent.  However, I often wonder if these verses ought to be re-ordered, perhaps with v. 5 inserted between verses 1 and 2.  (Incidentally, this isn’t the only instance in which I think the Psalter Hymnal gets the order of stanzas muddled up—see also #480, whose second stanza should actually be the fourth.)  Also, since it lacks a pause after the first line and before the last line of the refrain, this version of the tune VENI EMMANUEL is slightly atypical.

I have much less to say about #335.  My only caution would be to guard against playing the stout tune STUTTGART too rapidly.

The Lukan Canticles – 332, 333, 334

Song of Zacharias“Lukan canticles” is just a fancy name for the divinely-inspired songs recorded in chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Luke—the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.  I hope to unpack these brimming treasure chests sometime next week, but for now, suffice it to say that all three are excellently versified in the Psalter Hymnal (#332-#334).  While the tunes of #333 and #334 might initially seem daunting, they are very rewarding for an ambitious congregation or choir.  Additionally, these three selections are unique as the only Scriptural paraphrases in the Christmas section of the Psalter Hymnal.  Use them liberally!

The Chorales – 336, 344

How Bright Appears the Morning StarAlong with the Lukan canticles, the Psalter Hymnal’s two chorales, “How Bright Appears the Morning Star” and “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” set it apart among modern hymnals.  Both originated in the 16th/17th centuries and were later arranged by J. S. Bach, who imparted to them stunning (and challenging) four-part harmonies.  It may be overambitious to expect a typical congregation to manage all four parts, but these chorales would make breathtaking choir pieces!  Although not directly derived from Scripture, the texts of #336 and #344 are solid and memorable—especially the second stanza of #336:

Though circled by the hosts on high,
He deigned to cast a pitying eye
Upon His helpless creature;
The whole creation’s Head and Lord,
By highest seraphim adored,
Assumed our very nature.
Jesus, grant us,
Through Thy merit to inherit
Thy salvation;
Hear, O hear our supplication.

The Psalm Paraphrase – 337

It’s not commonly known that “Joy to the World!” is actually Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98:4-9.  Nor is it commonly known that the tune ANTIOCH was supposedly adapted from various melodies of Handel’s Messiah!  Although it’s certainly not literal enough to merit a place in the psalm section of our songbook, “Joy to the World” (this version, at least) is firmly rooted in Scriptural truth.  Some debate exists over an additional stanza which is omitted from the Psalter Hymnal:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

Once again the Psalter Hymnal throws modern hymn-singers a curveball by omitting the usual pause at the end of the second line (“Let earth receive her King…”).   This takes some getting used to, but ultimately results in a better flow.  The antiphonal repeat on the last line (“And heaven and nature sing”) is always fun—but then again, so is the entirety of this tune!

The Narratives – 338, 345, 346

The Psalter Hymnal contains three Christmas songs that more or less follow the account of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20.  These are the familiar carol #338, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”; Luther’s hymn #345, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”; and the sizable selection #346, “Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.”  Since the first two are basically paraphrases of Scripture, their texts are quite trustworthy.  “Christians, Awake” includes some extrabiblical words of application in the fifth and sixth stanzas; its language can be somewhat obtuse, but not at all unusable.  All three tunes are straightforward and singable.

The Classics – 339, 340, 341, 342

Not much needs to be said about these four familiar Christmas carols—“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.”  Sometimes I get a little fidgety when addressing the angels in #340, or singing lines like “Light and life to all He brings” and “With the dawn of redeeming grace” (an idea we discussed last week).  Nevertheless, I’m not ready to argue that these carols should be altogether removed from the Psalter Hymnal.

The tunes for these classics are the same as always, in the conventional harmonizations and keys (except for #341, which is a bit high).  I appreciate the adaptations made to the text of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to make its meter consistent.  Personally, I would much prefer a Christmas repertoire rooted in the psalms and songs of Scripture than only in these ever-present carols, but I do believe they can be utilized properly and effectively.

The One in a Different Language – 343

It’s strange that Reginald Heber, the author of such a lucid and familiar hymn as “Holy, Holy, Holy!” (#318), is the source of the impenetrable lyrics of “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning.”  I find it equally puzzling that this song earned a place in our Psalter Hymnal; besides its nearly unintelligible text, the fact that it addresses a star raises some significant concerns.  Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s a synopsis of the lyrics in modern English:

  • Verse 1 requests the brightest star in the sky to “dawn on our darkness” and lend us its aid by guiding us to the resting place of the infant Jesus.  (An additional omitted verse describes Christ in poetic detail lying “low…with the beasts of the stall” with cold dew-drops on his cradle.)
  • Verse 2 questions whether we should show our devotion to Christ by bringing him rare and costly gifts as the Wise Men did.
  • Verse 3 answers this question by stating that these gifts are vain to secure the Lord’s favor; richer and dearer to God are “the heart’s adoration” and “the prayers of the poor.”

The tune, MORNING STAR, is pretty much unique to this text.  It may be unfamiliar, but it flows quite predictably and is not hard to learn.  Perhaps “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” can be sung intelligibly and reverently in the proper setting, but all in all, I must confess I wouldn’t shed tears if number 343 were dropped entirely.  The Psalter Hymnal contains plenty of excellent Christmas content anyway.


Psalms 117 & 118

8 Responses to “A Christmas Guide to the Psalter Hymnal”

  1. 1 Tony Jelsma December 15, 2012 at 7:43 am

    With regard to the refrain in Hymn 331, I think the Psalter Hymnal has it right. The sentence is, “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel” so having a stop between the first two words of this sentence wouldn’t make sense.
    As for not having a break between the first two lines, even these commas seem superfluous but it does seem strange, given that the other lines do have a break.

    • 2 Michael Kearney December 15, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Agreed! I like the Psalter Hymnal’s version for these reasons, but also because it seems to better preserve the “plain-song” feel of the music. It does tend to throw unfamiliar congregations for a loop though. 😉


  2. 3 Reita Julien December 15, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Actually #343 is more appropriate for Epiphany. Since we seldom do much with Epiphany, it is a song that is not very useful. If the service is about the wise men–Epiphany–then it and Psalm 72 would be useful.

  3. 4 Reita Julien December 15, 2012 at 9:29 am

    The star, of course,refers to Christ in it’s significance. Heber was from a very liturgical group apparently, where there would be an emphasis on Epiphany or 12th day. Perhaps it would be good to check “The Dictionary of Hymnody” by Julian. There would be more info on Heber and the hymn.

  4. 6 Villatoro December 15, 2012 at 9:59 am

    You’ve got me wanting to sing some Christmas hymns!

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