The text to our first hymn “Of the Father’s love begotten,” dates to the late third or early fourth century. It is part of a longer poem by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), a Romano-Spanish magistrate who retired from public service at the age of 57 to dedicate his life to prayer and the composition of devotional verse. While his poetry was not intended for liturgical use, some of the stanzas have been adapted for use as hymns.
In his Sacred Latin Poetry (1874), Abp. R. C. Trench noted that Prudentuius “writes as a man intensely in earnest, and we may gather much from his writings concerning the points of conduct which were deemed the most important in Christian living at a time when a great portion of mankind were still the victims or slaves of a morality which, heathen at the best, was lowered and corrupted the more as the universality of its influence was more and more successfully challenged by the spread of the Gospel of Christ.”
The tune to which we sing this hymn, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, was not originally used with this text. It is a melody used in a late medieval Sanctus; the tune’s name refers to the Divine Mystery of the eucharist. This melody was subsequently published in 1582 in an influential collection of music called Piae Cantiones (“Pious songs;” more on this work in future posts).
Our sermon hymn for this service is “He, whom joyous shepherds praised.” You’ll note that the Hymnal attributes this melody to a 1410 manuscript from the Hohenfurth Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in South Bohemia. The tune, QUEM PASTORES, was discovered at the same time, linked (as the tune name suggests) with this text. They were published together first in 1555.
You may recognize the melody to the choir’s Offertory anthem, “Earth with joy this day doth ring.” Our hymnal uses this tune (DIES EST LAETICIAE) with a different text, “Dost thou in a manger lie” (#29) which sang on Christmas Eve. The text that the choir sings with this tune is more commonly associated with it, and for centuries it has been one of the favorite Christmas songs in German-speaking countries; Martin Luther often praised this hymn in his sermons, going so far as to call it “a work of the Holy Spirit.”
During Communion the choir will offer a simple Appalachian carol, “Sing we the Virgin Mary.” The words and tune were collected by balladeer John Jacobs Niles from some tenant farmers in Mayfield, Kentucky in 1933. It bears a striking likeness to a 15th century English carol text, “I sing of a maiden that is makeless,” but then Appalachian folk had a way of preserving quite a bit of folk culture from their British roots.
The Communion hymns are “A babe lies in the cradle” and “Joy to the world.” The first of these first appeared in 1631 in a Viennese collection of Christmas songs. We’ll sing a different tune to “Joy to the world,” the text of which is part of a paraphrase of Psalm 98 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Here you’ve been singing this song every Christmas of your life and had no idea it was based on an Old Testament text!
Our closing hymn (and our last Christmas music together for the season) is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The familiar text was written by the Rev. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) for his Sunday School class at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. The tune (FOREST GREEN) was one of the folk melodies collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams when he was doing research for the English Folk-Music Society. It was from a song called “The ploughboy’s dream.”