Posts Tagged 'Christmas Carols'

Christmas Psalms: Psalm 98

Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!

As often as it appears in cards, plaques, and Christmas carols, the little word “Noel” evades precise definition. The old English Christmas shout “Nowell” can be traced back to the French form “Noel,” and from there the etymological road splits. On one hand, “Noel” could be derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “born”—thus, “He is born!” The second possibility, however, and the one that intrigues me more, links “Noel” with the French word nouvelle, meaning “news.” Rather than the direct statement “He is born,” then, “Noel” takes on a broader meaning: “Good news!”

Fire Island Lighthouse

Fire Island Lighthouse

This year, “good news” has become a recurring theme in many of my experiences. From enjoying the robust psalm-singing of the Reformed Presbyterian Church I attend at college, to singing with The Genevans Choir first in Ohio and then in southeast Asia, to hosting Geneva’s small vocal ensemble New Song at my home church, to participating in a TASC (Teens Actively Serving Christ) trip on Long Island, to preparing organ and choir music for The Genevans’ Christmas concerts this fall, the year 2014 left me both with a deeper understanding of what that “good news” means and with a more vigorous joy to proclaim it.

The good news, of course, is that God has provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself, through the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son Jesus Christ. But the ramifications of that statement—on either an individual or a global level—are hard to process for minds and hearts as thick as mine.

Heinz Chapel

Heinz Chapel

Just before the end of the spring semester, The Genevans sang for a wedding in the architecturally overwhelming Heinz Chapel in Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, we were visiting a chapel in rural Mindanao with one wall and a dirt floor. I got to sing psalms in locations as disparate as the summit of 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu and the cavernous tower of a Long Island lighthouse. The choir’s Christmas concerts drew a full house at Beaver Falls’s magnificent First Presbyterian Church, but our audiences in the Philippines sometimes consisted only of a few villagers and a dog. Yet almost anywhere we visited, there were signs that the good news of the gospel had been there.

In places like Heinz Chapel, the gospel has become so commonplace—so un-extraordinary—that the colossal building may represent nothing but a shell of once-vibrant faith. In other places, the physical amenities may be meager, but the good news has brought true hope and real transformation, incorporating new “living stones” into the spiritual edifice of the Church universal (I Peter 2:5). For me, some of the most powerful evidence of the gospel’s work emerged from the fellowship I enjoyed with Christian brothers and sisters in the congregations we visited, whether stateside or around the globe. What a wonder it is to belong to “one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4)!

Psalm 98 expresses the joy of these “glad tidings” better than any human tongue can:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The LORD has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. . . .

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

–Psalm 98:1,3 (ESV)

Perhaps the psalmist penned these words with ardent longing for the day when God’s salvation would be revealed to the nations as never before, when his “steadfast love and faithfulness” to his people would be remembered and the earth’s ends would see his redeeming work. That would be good news indeed—but it would be long in coming.

The angels’ first words to the shepherds in Luke 2—“Fear not . . . I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people . . .”—marked the beginning of the best announcement this tired world could hope to see. Christ has come! He has come, as he promised through Isaiah,

to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

–Isaiah 61:1-3

In the last few weeks of the fall semester I put together the following video (with footage from several of the sites we visited this year and audio from Geneva’s campus chimes and the First Presbyterian Church pipe organ) in an attempt to connect as many of these themes as possible—“The First Noel,” the good news of Christ’s coming, and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.


May this season offer you the opportunity to see the Lord’s salvation, to rejoice in his righteousness, to know his steadfast love, and to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Truly he has done marvelous things.


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

The Dawn of Redeeming Grace?

A URC Psalmody ChristmasThe God of the Old Testament was a God of judgment.  When Adam and Eve sinned, he expelled them from the Garden of Eden and pronounced a terrible curse on the earth.  On Mount Sinai he issued the Ten Commandments to his people Israel, and filled up multiple books with minute instructions for their everyday lives.  Their disobedience resulted in death.  As the centuries went on, the Lord was still angry with his people; eventually he forsook them and sold them into slavery in foreign nations.

At some point between the Testaments, however, God had a change of heart.  Suddenly he was filled with love for his people.  In fact, he loved them so much that he sent his Son to be born of a virgin and free mankind from sin and death.  The birth of Jesus marked the definitive turning point in history: on one side was a God of damnation; on the other, a God of love.

If you smell a rat by this point, you should.  The heresy I’ve outlined above comes in many forms and through many avenues, but its central thesis is always the same: equating the Jehovah of the Old Testament with wrath, and the “Abba Father” of the New Testament with love.  As a result of our covenantal theology, we roundly reject this teaching in our Reformed churches—and rightly so!  But that doesn’t mean we can safely file it away in the False Doctrine drawer as just another heresy to be forgotten.

Take, for example, a modern Christmas carol by Ken Bible, which begins, “Love has come—a light in the darkness!  Love explodes in the Bethlehem skies.”  The clear implication of these words is that Christ’s birth marked the debut of God’s love on the human stage.  Even the beloved carol “Silent Night,” #342 in our blue Psalter Hymnal, includes this perplexing stanza to the same effect:

Silent night! holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!

But how should we react?  Although “the dawn of redeeming grace” might raise a red flag in our minds, it’s tempting to let this one pass.  “Silent Night” is one of the most familiar carols in existence.  It’s mostly correct, and what’s more important, it’s sung from the heart.  And, after all, it’s Christmastime!

Perhaps “Silent Night” could be safely ignored if it weren’t for a piercing three-word statement we mentioned while discussing Chapter 4 of Sing a New Song: “Heretics sing hymns.”  This statement isn’t meant as a condemnation of uninspired songs; instead, its point is that music presents one of the primary avenues through which false doctrine infiltrates the church.  From that perspective, maybe we ought to give the above stanza of “Silent Night” a second thought.  (For a deeper explanation, head back to Tuesday’s post on Three Christmas Music Theses.)

My real intent isn’t to embark on a Christmas-carol-bashing expedition, however.  Instead, I’d like to consider how the psalms and the whole of Scripture can properly shape our response to this heresy.

As always, our entire perspective on Christ’s coming should be framed within the timeless refrain of the psalms: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1 ESV).  True, as a holy and righteous Judge, God condemns sin and punishes the wicked: “For behold, your enemies, O LORD, for behold, your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered” (Psalm 92:9 ESV).  Yet his steadfast love to his chosen people extends all the way from the confrontation in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15) to the consummation of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:17).  The Lord manifested his love to the nation of Israel as he led them out from Egypt; he manifests it to us, his chosen people, by calling us out of sinful darkness and into his marvelous light.

May we never accept the notion that the birth of Christ marked a turning point in the Lord’s attitude.  No—Jesus’s advent occurred at the “fullness of time” determined by God, from of old, in his all-wise providence!  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, provides us with this divinely-inspired summary:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

–Luke 1:68-79 (ESV)

Song of ZachariasSinging the songs of Scripture, as always, can help us recover the true teaching regarding God’s salvation plan.  Psalms that speak of the Lord’s steadfast love are too numerous to list, but some of the most applicable are Psalms 65, 67, 92, 99, 103, 107, 111, 118, and 145.  A few well-placed Christmas hymns that focus on the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies could also be a welcome addition to worship (such as #331, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”).  And don’t forget that the Psalter Hymnal even contains an excellent version of the Song of Zacharias set to music: #333, “Blest Be the God of Israel.”  A thoughtful combination of these Biblically-grounded songs won’t leave us stranded in the darkness of an unreal “Silent Night.”  Instead, it will illumine our hearts with the psalmists’ continuous refrain: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

All in all, may Jesus’ birth mark for us not the mere “dawn of redeeming grace,” but rather its consummation—the climactic point at which, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4,5 ESV).


URC Psalmody’s Countdown to Christmas

We’re fast approaching the joyous and festive season of Christmastime, widely viewed as the crown jewel of the calendar’s holidays.  It’s a time of decked halls, trimmed trees, wrapped gifts, and hearty carols—all in all, a heartwarming time of year.  Believers and unbelievers alike tend to love Christmas for a variety of reasons, but only Christians can appreciate its deeper meaning: a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

This will be URC Psalmody’s first Christmas, and Jim and I would like to make the most of it.  There are a few reasons we believe this is a particularly important subject for some thoughtful discussion and interaction.

Firstly, Reformed churches tend to find themselves in an awkward place when it comes to Christmas traditions.  With a hybrid background of pagan and Christian elements, Christmas (think “Christ” + “mass”) is somewhat of an oddity in the liturgical calendar.  American culture all but demands that it be celebrated, but how?  Can we sincerely commemorate the birth of the Messiah through a tangle of elves, snowmen, and reindeer, or are such inventions idolatries that must be pried away at all costs?  While a variety of views are possible, we must admit that Christmas marks the point at which the church tends to pick up the greatest number of extra-biblical, and sometimes downright unbiblical, practices.  Traditions such as tree lightings and advent candles might not be forbidden in Scripture, but it’s dangerously easy for us to forget their original purpose.  Thus, we believe that Christmas ought to be a time in which we examine our worship especially closely to ensure that it remains faithful, true, and acceptable to the Lord.

Secondly, the United Reformed Churches in North America in particular don’t seem to have any concrete convention regarding Christmas practices.  We have the following general guidelines for corporate Sunday worship from our Church Order:

Article 37.  The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship twice on each Lord’s Day.  Special services may be called in observance of Christmas Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, a day of prayer, the national Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, as well as in times of great distress or blessing.  Attention should also be given to Easter and Pentecost on their respective Lord’s Days.

Article 38.  The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.

Article 39.  The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.  Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

From these articles it’s clear that our worship must remain grounded in God’s Word at all times.  Sabbath services are a divine ordinance; Christmas services merely “may be called.”  Whatever holiday traditions may be in place, our Lord’s Day worship must include preaching, confession, praise, thanksgiving, and gifts of gratitude.  Our musical repertoire should, as always, be rooted in the 150 biblical psalms, and any hymns we sing—even Christmas carols—must “faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of Scripture” and be approved by the Consistory.

The grave words of Lord’s Day 35 (Q&A 96-98) of the Heidelberg Catechism also come to mind: the second commandment forbids us to “make any image of God [or] worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”  Candle ceremonies?  Nativity scenes?  Individuals as well as congregations must be willing to reevaluate each of their holiday traditions in light of such words.

Thirdly, and most specifically, Christmas music has a peculiar habit of dwarfing the psalms in our churches during the month of December.  To be sure, many carols are quite solid and easily deserve a place among our other hymns.  But why do we continue to rely so heavily on other Christmas songs that fall drastically below the Scriptural and doctrinal standard?  Besides, if the psalms are really so Christ-centered (an argument we’ve been advocating for the past several months here on URC Psalmody), why shouldn’t they be just as applicable to the Christmas season as non-inspired carols?

Since this is, of course, a blog devoted to psalm-singing, we’d like to spend a significant amount of time (most of the month of December, in fact) wrestling with these questions.  Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking about various topics related to our churches’ celebration of Christmas.  I’ll be walking through some favorite Christmas carols to see how well they mesh with the Reformed faith.  Meanwhile, Jim intends to introduce some of the oldest and richest Christmas carols in existence–messianic psalms–and suggest ways in which they could complement our holiday celebrations.  Our aim, as always, is to promote Biblical worship in a practical and constructive manner.  With this in mind, we’d be delighted to have you join us along the way with your comments or feedback.

Sorting through these matters may be difficult; Christmas music, on the whole, possesses an extraordinary dimension of emotional and sentimental attachment for most if not all of us.  But while we might occasionally come down a little hard on your favorite carol, we don’t want these discussions to ruin your holiday spirit.  Instead, we hope that the month of December on URC Psalmody will present an opportunity for all of us to refocus, refine, and revitalize our Christmas celebrations, so that we may with all our hearts celebrate Christ’s birth by worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth.

Blessings to you this Christmas!


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