The Music of Christmas

Music is simply a way of blending tones, rhythms and oftentimes lyrics, to tell a story.  But it is more than that.  Music connects our minds and our hearts…our emotions…in a different way than spoken language.

This is why the great stories…they are told, and they are also often sung.  Music is written about them, both to deeply memorialize what happened, and to tell the story in a way that touches our souls.

And so, the greatest of our stories, the story of the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, has an entire library of songs written about it.  This both to remind us, and to tell the story in a way that our heart understands.  And so today, on this last Sunday of the Christmas season, we hear this most important story, told through music.

Together, we will sing is “Away in the Manger.”  This is one of the most familiar and well-loved of the Christmas carols.  In fact, it is often one of the first songs children learn in Sunday School.  With just 3 short verses and a simple tune, children learn it often before they can even read.  And the beautiful and serene picture painted in the carol’s lyrics define “peace on earth” better than most books or sermons.

Away in the Manger’s origin is shrouded in mystery.  The original name for this classic Christmas carol was “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” It was believed that Martin Luther had not only written this Christmas carol, but had sung it to his children each night before bed.

This is, in fact, a myth.  Europeans had never heard of this hymn until the song arrived from the United States.  But the story stuck.

In truth, the first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were written by an anonymous American sometime in the mid-1800’s, and the song was passed down orally for years before it was published in 1887.  The third verse was added later.

But the carol’s popularity grew, and the real author never came forward to claim credit.

But today the carol stands as a testament to the simplicity and beauty of the Christmas story.

Many images accompany Christmas:  Fun and frolic, snow and decorations, laughter and family gatherings; images so ingrained in most people’s minds that they find it difficult to imagine the celebration any other way.  Yet, in truth, Christmas only recently became the festive holiday we now cherish.

For the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, the observation of the birth of Jesus was not a widely recognized celebration like it is today.  Because the Bible was written down only in Latin, and not in languages that people could read or understand, Christmas was celebrated almost exclusively by the early church priests and monks.  It was after the reformation, when the Bible was translated into common languages, that the celebration of Christmas became widespread.  But these early church monks had been faithful, and left their fingerprints on the world, on the church, and on the way we celebrate Christmas.

Because of the Biblical imagery found in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” along with the chorus, which is in Latin, it is assumed that this hymn was written by one of these monks or priests.

Many assume that the author lived in France, because the first published version of the song used French for the verses.  But there is also evidence that at least a part of this great Christmas hymn was sung before Christianity took deep root in Europe.  A portion of the carol was used in early church services even before the Roman empire adopted Christianity as its state religion.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” was first published in 1855, with the same melody we hear today.

The composer of this great hymn is a mystery.  But whoever it was wrote this song to share the story of Jesus with others.  Though the author is long forgotten, what he or she believed is alive not only in this music, but in the hundreds of millions of souls around the world who have heard and sung it.  The hymn writer’s prayer has been answered:  The angels are still heard, the Savior still welcomed, and the soul is still stirred.

William Chatterton Dix was an insurance agent who grew up in England in the 1800’s before relocating to Glasgow, Scotland.  He had the heart and soul of a poet.  But at age 25, a near-fatal illness robbed him of his strength and confined him to his bed.  As he lay near death, he reflected on his faith.  Reading his Bible and studying the works of respected theologians, Dix reaffirmed his belief not only in Christ as Savior, but in the power of God to move in his own life.  He began writing hymns.

There is no record of why Dix decided to write of the first Christmas.  But he did write, and he wrote his most famous poem, entitled “The Manger Throne” in a single afternoon.

The piece was published in Europe and the United States in 1865, just as the American Civil War was coming to an end.  Perhaps it was because of the fragile state of America’s collective spirit, bruised and torn by four years of brutal war, but Americans latched on to this simple, Christmas poem.  And when an unknown Englishman coupled Dix’s lyrics with the melody to a bar song called “Greensleeves,” the carol became immensely popular.  It was renamed “What Child is This?”

This Christmas hymn was called “a healing balm for a nation in pain.”

It still is.  The words bring a reassurance of the love and grace of a God who came to be with us.  “The King of Kngs salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.  Joy, joy for Christ is born, the babe, the son of Mary.”

Thanks be to God, for the story of Jesus we get to tell.
Thanks be to God, for the songs of Jesus we get to sing.
Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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