Our opening hymn — “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” — has in our Hymnal two options for tunes, WINCHESTER OLD and CAROL. As it happens, there are hundreds of tunes to which these words have been sung. One reason for this proliferation of melodies is the fact that for most of the eighteenth century, this was the only Christmas hymn approved for singing in the Church of England, a story which you can read more about here. And on this page, you can sample some of the other tunes to which this popular Christmas hymn has been sung.
The text first appeared in the supplement to the New Version of the Psalms by Dr. Brady and Mr. Tate (1708 edition). Nicholas Brady was an Anglican priest and poet, Nahum Tate an Irish poet from a family of Puritan clerics who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. Their collaboration on metrical paraphrases of the psalms had a huge influence on English-language hymnody. Like their Psalm paraphrases, “While shepherds watched,” is a straightforward metrical paraphrase of the Gospel account of the angels appearance to the shepherds (St. Luke 2:8-20).
Our sermon hymn is “I know a rose tree springing.” The text is one of a number of English translations of the folk carol Es ist ein Roess entsprungen. Both text and tune are believed to have originated in the diocese of Trier in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. In some versions of the carol, there are 23 stanzas, narrating the events of the Annunciation, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the Nativity (including shepherds and angels), and the coming of the magi.
The New Oxford Book of Carols explains: “In medieval iconography, the tree of Jesse is often depicted as a rose plant. The messianic prophecy of Isaiah 12 declared that ‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.’ Allowing for the characteristic mirror-imaging of Hebrew verse, this means that a rod/branch (the Virgin Mary) will grow from the stem/root of Jesse (father of King David and patriarch of Christ’s genealogy in popular medieval form) and will bear a ‘little flower’ (the Christ-child).”
During the Offertory, the Messianic imagery shifts from roses to apples, as the choir sings an arrangement of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” by Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987). The poem on which this anthem is based was first published in 1761 in the in London-based Spiritual Magazine, and was probably the work of the Rev. Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist clergyman from Northhamptonshire. The imagery of the poem is taken from Song of Songs 2:3: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”
The original poem had seven stanzas, two of which (in italics below) are omitted in Poston’s setting:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compar’d with Christ the Appletree.
This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the Appletree.
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I miss’d of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the Appletree.
I’m weary’d with my former toil—
Here I will sit and rest awhile,
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the Appletree.
With great delight I’ll make my stay,
There’s none shall fright my soul away;
Among the sons of men I see
There’s none like Christ the Appletree.
I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit’al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the Appletree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the Appletree.
Here are the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter, singing “Jesus Christ the Appletree.”
December 28th is the day in which we commemorate the Holy Innocents, those children slain by Herod in his effort to eliminate the threat of the prophesied Messiah. In recognition of that event, during Communion the choir sings the “Coventry Carol.” This familiar carol gets its name from its origin in one of the medieval mystery plays performed in Coventry every year. Near the end of the play, women sing a lullaby to their children (hence the words “Lully, lullay”) in the hopes that they will sleep quietly and not be detected by Herod’s soldiers.
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
Our Communion hymns are “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” and “Of the Father’s love begotten.” The text to “Let all mortal flesh” is the Cherubic Hymn from the Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem as used in Orthodox churches, and it may have been sung since the 5th century. The tune is based on a French folk melody first written down in 1860.
The text to “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”).
Our closing hymn (not in our Hymnal) is a Christmas poem by Charles Wesley. As is common in poetry about the Incarnation, Wesley emphasizes the mysteries it contains.
Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend;
God comes down, He bows the sky,
And shows Himself our friend!
God th’invisible appears,
God the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is His name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humble Lord
They now to mortals bring;
Emptied of His majesty,
Of His dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s Source begins to be,
And God Himself is born!
See th’eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of Man,
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom Heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heav’ns, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies
Humbled to the dust He is,
And in a manger lies!
We the sons of men rejoice
The Prince of Peace proclaim,
With Heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name;
Knees and hearts to Him we bow;
Of our flesh, and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own!
The tune AMSTERDAM is attributed to James Nares (1715-1783), deputy organist at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; organist in York Cathedral, and organist in the Royal Chapel and composer to the King George II.
You may download a copy of this hymn for personal use here.