Today is the last day of Christmas, and the readings, hymns, and the choir’s music all serve to recap what we’ve been meditating on since Christmas Eve, and anticipate what is affirmed with the season of Epiphany.
Today’s Introit, from the Book of Wisdom, uses vivid imagery to recount the cosmic context of the birth of Jesus:
While all things were in quiet silence, and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.
The swift course of night was decisively interrupted by the coming of the true Light into the world, as is affirmed in today’s Collect:
Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
But before we receive these elements of the liturgy, we sing together our Processional hymn, “A great and might wonder.” The text to this hymn was by St. Germanus (634-734), patriarch of Constantinople and a stalwart defender of the use of icons. His hymn is sung in Orthodox churches in Christmas Eve vespers services.
The text was translated by the tireless John Mason Neale (1818-1866), and was first published in English in his Hymns of the Eastern Church (1861). The editors of The English Hymnal (1906) adapted the text to fit the tune to which we sing “I know a rose-tree springing” (more popularly known as “Lo, how a Rose, e’er blooming”). Those editors took what had been the third stanza of the hymn and converted into a Refrain, sung at the end of the remaining five stanzas.
The editors of our Hymnal altered the first two stanzas; here is Neale’s original translation:
A great and mighty wonder!
A full and holy cure!
The Virgin bears the Infant,
With Virgin-honour pure!
The Word becomes Incarnate,
And yet remains on high:
And Cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.
And we with them triumphant
Repeat the hymn again:
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”
While thus they sing your Monarch,
Those bright angelic bands,
Rejoice, ye vales and mountains!
Ye oceans, clap your hands!
Since all He comes to ransom,
By all is He adored,
The Infant born in Bethlehem,
The Saviour and the Lord!
And idol forms shall perish,
And error shall decay,
And Christ shall wield His sceptre,
Our Lord and God for aye.
The tune to which we sing these words is the familiar tune called ROSA MYSTICA in our Hymnal, more commonly called ES IST EIN ROS. This tune is from the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and was sung either as a Christmas or Twelfth night carol. It received a definitive harmonization by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), without whose music the celebration of Christmas would be poorer. The tune is usually sung with the words about roses and the stem of Jesse.
That harmonization served as the starting point for a 1994 arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by Donald Cashmore, which our choir sang on Christmas Eve, 2014. Here it is sung by the Hanover Boys Choir.
That melody is a recurring motif in Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (“The Christmas Story”), a 1933 composition by Hugo Distler (1908-1942). The work runs about 40 minutes, and includes numerous reiterations of the carol melody, each time harmonized differently. Below is a sample of how Distler transformed this lovely tune, sung here by the Camerata Vocale Freiburg, conducted by Winfried Toll.
It is the last day of Christmas, so I’m going to extend our enjoyment of this carol with one more recent arrangement. This haunting setting by Swedish composer Jan Sandström is for two choirs. One choir sings the Praetorius harmonization in four-part harmony, verrrry slooowly. The other choir, with eight parts, wordlessly provides a thick harmonic backdrop for the familiar carol. It is sung here in a mesmerizing performance by Siglo de Oro, under the direction of Patrick Allies.
The sermon hymn is another medieval song of Christmas. The music to “Unto us a boy is born” dates back at least to the fourteenth century. The Epiphany hymn, “What star is this, with beams so bright” (#47), which we will sing next Sunday, uses the same tune (PUER NOBIS), but in a more bouncy triple meter (i.e., three beats to the measure). That triple meter is also used when the tune is used in the Easter hymn, “That Easter day with joy was bright” (#98) and in the hymn for morning worship, “O Splendor of God’s glory bright” (#158).
Below is a fairly straightforward rendition of the hymn sung by The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers. Note that they include a fifth stanza which, for some reason, was omitted by our Hymnal editors:
Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
while the choir with peals of glee
shall rend the air asunder,
shall rend the air asunder.
The Offertory anthem is from a large oratorio by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) called L’enfance du Christ (“The Childhood of Christ”). Composed in the 1850s, the work focuses on the story of the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. The chorus that our choir sings (“The Shepherd’s Farewell”) was the first section of the work that Berlioz composed. It is a unique text, written by the composer, which (perhaps fancifully) imagines what might have been said to Mary, Jesus, and Joseph upon their departure.
Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling,
The humble crib, the stable bare.
Babe, all mortal babes excelling,
Content our earthly lot to share.
Loving father, loving mother,
Shelter thee with tender care!
Blessed Jesus, we implore thee
With humble love and holy fear.
In the land that lies before thee,
Forget not us who linger here!
May the shepherd’s lowly calling,
Ever to thy heart be dear!
Blest are ye beyond all measure,
Thou happy father, mother mild!
Guard ye well your heav’nly treasure,
The Prince of Peace, The Holy Child!
God go with you, God protect you,
Guide you safely through the wild!
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
At Communion, the choir sings a chorus from another large Christmas composition. “The blessed Son of God” is from Ralph Vaughan WIlliams’s 1954 work, Hodie! (discussed here). The chorus is sung here by the Tudor Choir, with conductor Doug Fullington.
The blessed son of God only in a crib full poor did lie;
With our poor flesh and our poor blood
was clothed that everlasting good.
The Lord Christ Jesu, God’s son dear,
was a guest and a stranger here;
Us for to bring from misery, that we might live eternally.
All this did he for us freely, for to declare his great mercy;
All Christendom be merry therefore,
and give him thanks for evermore.
Our Communion hymns are “How sweet the name of Jesus” and “Joy to the world.” The first of these is by John “Amazing Grace” Newton (1725-1807) and is sung today in reminder of our celebration earlier this week of the Feast of the Circumcision, the day on which Jesus was officially named. The alternate tune to “Joy to the world” is by Thomas Haweis (c. 1734-1820), a priest and correspondent of Newton’s.
Our closing hymn — “All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine” — was discussed at length last year. It caps off our Christmas celebration with another reminder of the power of the Name that was conferred on the infant Jesus, the Name at which every knee shall bow.