Posts Tagged 'Christmas'



Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasLong, long ago, in a blog series far, far away, I tried to summarize and evaluate some different positions regarding appropriate music for Christian worship.  The first is exclusive psalmody—the view that the Book of Psalms is the complete and sole songbook for the church.  On the other end of the spectrum is a position known either as “inclusive psalmody” or “inclusive hymnody” (depending on one’s focus), whose adherents support the use of non-inspired extra-Biblical songs in worship.  Between these two views lies a lesser-known middle ground.  To my knowledge it doesn’t have any widely accepted name, so I’ll call it “exclusive Scriptural hymnody.”  According to this view, we ought to sing only the songs of the Bible, but these include canticles outside the Book of Psalms—usually the three songs recorded for us in Luke chapters 1 and 2, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

What’s particularly interesting about exclusive Scriptural hymnody is its prominence in our own Dutch Reformed tradition.  Since I’m fairly sure none of our readers remember the Christian Reformed Church in the 1930s, this excerpt from the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal explains the previous practice of our former denomination:

Up to the present time our Church has always adhered faithfully to its purpose to sing only the Old Testament Psalms in public worship, barring a few exceptions mentioned specifically in Article 69 of the Church Order. This article, until its revision in 1932, read as follows: ‘In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung.’  In our American speaking congregations even these few hymns were not all in use since only three of their number were found in The Psalter, namely, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

So how should we view these Lukan canticles today?  Do they merit a place in our worship?  This is a question that has puzzled many scholars over the centuries.  Rowland Ward, for one, answers “no.”  In Chapter 5 of Sing a New Song, he says:

Mary’s song (the Magnificat) has at least nine references and allusions to the Psalms, and the Song of Zacharias at least eight…I have always found it surprising that one should argue for their regular use in public worship given that it is so obvious that they are unique songs for unique personal situations.  However, they certainly demonstrate that the Psalter was woven into the spiritual life of ordinary pious people.

While Ward opposes including the Lukan canticles in worship, at the same time he points out an important facet of these songs: They are built on the foundation of the Psalms.  As you can see from the online ESV Bible, for instance, every verse of the Song of Mary is linked to at least one passage from the Psalter.

At the same time, it is essential to realize that these canticles are not simply “New Testament psalms.”  Since the Psalter was the songbook of God’s people, its contents—though they may have been tied to a particular situation in the life of the psalmist—are always applicable to any believer’s life.  These New Testament songs are beautiful doxologies (praises to God), but their purpose is to express the thoughts and reactions of their original singers, not necessarily the whole of Christendom.

Thus, if we sing the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon in worship, I believe we ought to do so only with the understanding that they are not ordinary psalms or hymns.  So the line “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” needs to be explained and understood as the words of Mary which we are repeating in praise to God; the same with the words of Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”

Nevertheless, all three of these songs contain concise yet powerful messages of redemption which, I believe, deserve a spot in our worship, especially during the Advent season.  My all-around favorite is the Song of Zacharias, which I’ve quoted in full elsewhere on URC Psalmody; it expresses the culmination of centuries of promise and prophecy in one exultant poem of praise.

I ought to mention that the 2010 URC Hymn Proposal, in line with the orthodox Dutch Reformed tradition, contains all three of these canticles.  But whether or not we agree that the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon ought to be sung in church, we can study them with gratitude in our hearts for their beautiful descriptions of God’s unfolding redemption plan.

–MRK

Christmas Psalms: Psalm 72

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

–Psalm 72:1-4 (ESV)

In the aftermath of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, CT, last Friday, the variety of emotions and opinions expressed has been astounding.  Facebookers and newscasters alike are demanding everything from better psychiatric care to tougher gun control.  Reactions have varied from abounding compassion to unrestrained outrage.

Amidst all of the chaos, one word rises above all the others: “Why?”  What could motivate a human being to kill twenty young children who had done nothing to hurt him?  How could a good God allow such an atrocious act?

Psalm 72 happens to be the subject of the next installment in this “Christmas Psalms” series.  While it’s surpassingly appropriate for Christmas, Psalm 72 can also impart Scriptural clarity to the perplexing muddle surrounding this tragic story.

From its inscription we learn that Psalm 72 is “Of Solomon,” which, according to the ESV Study Bible, could mean that it was composed either by or about Solomon.  In either case, this is a royal psalm which describes the glorious rule of the Lord’s anointed ruler while foreshadowing the arrival of the ultimate Son of David—Jesus Christ.

One important thing Psalm 72 shows us is that Christ’s kingdom is not limited to the people of Israel.  “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!…May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (vv. 8, 11).  Jesus’s coming is good news for the entire world, because in his days “the righteous [will] flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!” (v. 7).  It’s not hard to hear echoes of the angels’ chorus in Luke 2: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Yet these idyllic promises seem to clash horribly with the events we see in the world every day.  As Jim described the state of the world in his meditation on Psalm 9, “We look around and see injustice, hate, and oppression.  We look inside and see idolatry, pride, and greed.  And in despair, we bow our heads.  There’s no hope for salvation anywhere in the human race.  There’s no hope for ultimate peace or goodwill anywhere on this earth.”

In light of the Newtown shooting, which transpired more than a week after Jim wrote these words, Psalm 72 seems even more distant:

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!  (v. 4)

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.  (vv. 12-14)

“Why,” arises the cry, “did God allow this to happen?  Where was he when those twenty innocent children were brutally murdered?”

The problem lies not with God, but within man’s own heart.  Psalm 14 provides a grave description of our true nature: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”  The Bible presents us with a terrible truth, as hard as it may be to receive: The fundamental reason for Adam Lanza’s senseless rampage is present in all of our hearts.  It was present even in the hearts of the unoffending victims of his attack.  It’s called sin.  And sin leads to death—not just for the murderer and those he murdered, but for the entire human race.

But at this point, we must stop—Psalm 72 begs to be read again with new eyes.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.

In his abounding love and mercy, Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, defends the cause of the poor in spirit.  He gives ultimate deliverance to the children of the needy by crushing the real oppressor—Satan.  He delivers our needy souls from their bondage to sin.  He has pity on the all-too-weak human race, and saves his chosen ones from the power of death.  From oppression and violence he redeems our lives!  Precious is our blood in his sight—so precious that he sheds his own to ransom it!  This is the message of the Christmas season, which shines brightly as the sole beacon of hope in this dark world.

Readers, are you trusting in this Messiah, this Son of David, this Jesus Christ, for your salvation?  If not, though you may not suffer the agony of brutal murder, you will eventually suffer the far greater agony of eternal damnation—eternal separation from God, eternal punishment for your sins.  This is not exaggeration.  It is not hyperbole.   It is the truth of the Bible.  The prophet Malachi described it this way:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.

–Malachi 4:1-3

And who is this Sun of Righteousness but Jesus Christ, the one who will be worshiped “while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations” (Ps. 72:5)!  Those who humble themselves before this mighty God will surely be redeemed from sin and death.  Faced with the promise of eternal life in God’s presence, the violence and oppression we must endure on this earth begin to seem light and momentary.  Even the children among God’s elect who died in Newtown are now enjoying an everlasting life infinitely better than anything they could have had on this earth.  Psalm 72 is completely correct—the Lord has redeemed their lives from oppression and violence.  Fear God and take refuge in the work of Jesus Christ, so that you too may “be blessed in him”!

But you, my fellow Christians!  I urge you not to sit back in your chair and absently nod as you read this familiar gospel message; Psalm 72 calls you to action as well.  How will the desert tribes, the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands, the rulers of Sheba and Seba, and the peoples of all the nations come to know Jesus Christ?  It is your duty and mine to proclaim his gospel to the ends of the earth!  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).  Make no mistake, it is the Lord who changes hearts and grants eternal life.  Yet he calls all of us to be his ambassadors to a despairing world.

Whatever may come along with it, the Christmas season offers an unmatched opportunity to share the good news of salvation with our friends and family.  The Newtown tragedy has multiplied the need for this gospel sevenfold.  Might God, through your diligent service to him, save twenty children you know from an eternal fate worse than that of these victims?  Might he use your words to bring even one soul to salvation?  May it be so!

Because we know that our God is sovereign, we can be sure that Christ’s name will endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.  People will be blessed in him; in fact, all nations will call him blessed.  At the final judgment, oppression and violence will be overturned, and, as Isaac Watts wrote in his paraphrase of Psalm 72:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Until then, the solution to this world’s problems can never be found in heavier government involvement, readier psychological care, or tougher restrictions.  Our only hope is focused on a Child who was born in a stable about two thousand years ago—one perfectly innocent Child who would die the most excruciating death in history, and rise to life again, to save His people from their sins.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:18-20)

–MRK

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.

–MRK

Psalms 117 & 118

Christmas Psalms: Psalms 113 and 146

Last week, we examined Christmas as a time when we realize that all is not as it should be – neither in the world nor in our own hearts.  Using Psalm 9, we meditated on the need for Christ to give us hope in the midst of the oppression and injustice we see around us.  He truly is the source of “peace on earth and goodwill to men.”

This longing is nothing new.  God’s people in all ages have longed for the restoration that Messiah brings.  In the Old Testament, the children of God looked forward to the coming of Christ with eager expectation.  Isaiah over and over paints vivid word pictures of the healing, restoration, and joy He brings (Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-7, 11, 25, 26, 27, 40, 41, etc.).  In the New Testament, we look both forward and back – forward to Christ’s return as the ultimate healing and restoration, and back to Christ’s birth as the inauguration of the Last Days, the dawn of “the Sun of Righteousness, risen with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).

When the birth of Jesus was announced, both Mary and Zechariah responded by singing.  Mary’s song is found in Luke 1:46-55, Zechariah’s in 1:67-79.  Both of them picked up on these themes of hope for healing.  They recognized that Christ’s birth meant restoration for the lost, healing for the heartbroken, and justice for the oppressed.

Mary recognizes her humble estate and praises God for looking upon her with favor and blessing her (Luke 1:48).  With strong echoes of Hannah’s song (I Samuel 2:1-10 – note the parallels between the two miraculous-birthday-songs), Mary goes on to praise God for bringing “down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.  He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy” (Luke 1:52-54).

Zechariah, too, praises God for giving “knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins” and giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” and guiding “our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:77, 79).

Let us pick up on these ancient themes and rejoice in our Immanuel and the healing He brings.  Two psalms that do exactly that are Psalms 113 and 146.  Both are short hymns of praise that “celebrate the way in which the great and majestic God who rules over all takes note of the lowly” (ESV Study Bible).

  • Psalm 113 praises God as Creator and rejoices in His vindication and healing of the poor, the needy, and the barren (note how Psalm 113 picks up on the common biblical theme of miraculous birth).
  • Psalm 146 encourages God’s people to continue to look to God – and Him only – for salvation.  He sets prisoners free, He opens the eyes of the blind, He lifts up the weary, He loves the righteous, He watches over pilgrims, He upholds widows and orphans.

This is the paradigm that Christ brings to the world.  This is the hope He gives us.  Eugene Peterson writes that “the story of every soul in Christ has an upward thrust and a joyous goal.”

Eastern Orthodox theologian Patrick Henry Reardon writes extensively of the parallels between Psalm 113, the Magnificat (the Song of Mary in Luke 1), and the entire gospel of Luke.  “Psalm 113 may be read as a prayerful compendium of that Gospel.  Conversely, Luke’s Gospel itself may be used to illustrate the psalm.”  Throughout the gospel (and the other three), Jesus illustrates His divine mission through miracles of healing and care, showing in a physical way the redemption He came to accomplish.  Psalm 113 reads like a checklist of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Psalm 146, in turn, corresponds almost exactly to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11, describing His own ministry as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (found in Isaiah 35:4-6, 49:8-9, and 61:1): “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).

#224, “Praise God, Ye Servants of the Lord” (Psalm 113)

For a full examination of the music of #224, see Michael’s previous examination, HERE.

This selection is well-suited for singing at Christmas, especially with its celebration of miraculous birth in stanza 5, and its Philippians 2:6-8 and John 1:14-tinged stanza 3 (“The Lord our God who reigns on high, who condescends to see and know the things of heaven and earth below”).

#301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (Psalm 146)

Let’s be honest, this selection is delightful for singing at any time of year.  Lowell Mason’s confident, exuberant tune (RIPLEY) combined with a straightforward rendering of the text make it a really excellent choice for singing during Advent.

These two Psalms, 113 and 146, speak beautifully, simply, and triumphantly, about the work of Christ and the transformation He brings, “risen with healing in His wings.”

-JDO

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).

–MRK


Welcome to URC Psalmody

We hope you'll join us as we discuss music, worship, the psalms, the church, and much more here on URC Psalmody. You can learn about the purpose of this blog here. We look forward to to seeing you in the discussions!

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