HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING
If you think that conflict over church music is a new thing, I have news for you. For example, way back in the tenth century somebody got the bright idea that the organ would be a great instrument to play in church. The church fought it tooth and nail–bringing a secular instrument into the church was scandalous. Some 600 years later the reformer Ulrich Zwingli tried to purify the church by pulling the organs out. He was an organist himself, but he felt the instrument was to pompous for what should be a humble church.
For another example, in the 1700s, the American colonies were scandalized by all these terrible hymns coming out of England. Those horrible hymns of the Wesleys, like "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing" and abominations like "Amazing Grace" were being introduced in churches where everybody knew it was only appropriate to chant the Psalms. These new hymns came under attack because they were not Scripture texts...they were just theology and interpretation. Not only that, but the music was spiritually dangerous. Instead of the plain and worshipful chant, they were using tuneful melodies that might send those singing into all sorts of inappropriate reveries. We resisted those hymns for a full hundred years.
The Christmas carol I selected for this morning, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was also born reluctantly. I want to tell you about the conflicts that created this carol, because I think they can help us to see the role that Christmas can play in our lives. Charles Wesley wrote the words back in 1739. Charles Wesley, as you know, is the brother of John Wesley; and together those brothers forged the Methodist movement...John with his preaching and organization, and Charles by capturing Methodist beliefs in over 6500 hymns.
Charles wrote this hymn, not to tell the story of the angels and shepherds, but to tell all those who would sing it what, exactly, was going on in the Christmas event. If you didn't already know the Christmas story, you'd have a darn hard time piecing it together from this carol, but what you can't miss is the fact that Christmas is about God coming to dwell with us, in order to reconcile us with God. Drawing on the teachings of Paul, especially Philippians 2 and Romans 5, the whole salvation message is here in Wesley's five stanzas.
Right off the bat, the opening line was changed. Wesley's original is "Hark, how all the welkin rings." George Whitefield, a contemporary and often theological adversary of Wesley's took the words and decided that "welkin" (which means heavens) was way too obscure a word even for the 18th century. He changed it to the first line we have today.
Even though some of the words got away from him, Wesley specifically requested that his words be sung to slow, solemn music. In case you hadn't noticed, the tune we sing is not slow and solemn. We have the great musician Felix Mendelssohn to thank for this tune, even though in 1840, when he wrote the tune to honor the invention of the printing press, Mendelssohn specifically stated that this tune should be used for secular music only.
It was in 1857 that arranger William H. Cummings decided that neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn knew what they were talking about. Those words and that tune obviously belonged together and Cummings joined them for a Congregational hymnal, almost 120 years after the words had been written.
As it stands now, Wesley would be miffed at the change in words (and at the stanzas we have left out), and he would be frightfully upset at the tune we are using. Mendelssohn also would object to having his secular tune used for such blatantly religious words, and I'm sure even the arranger, Cummings, would have had some misgivings about the hymn being sung by animated comic strip characters standing around a Christmas tree, as we see every year in a Charlie Brown Christmas.
The carol, however, is now out of their hands. No matter what copyright laws may say, some music simply up and leaves its creator and makes a home with the people, who will do with it what they please. And isn't that, after all, what Christmas is about? Jesus could have stayed in heaven, united with God, and enjoying heavenly glory. But instead, He came to dwell among us, making his home in a body of flesh among a people who would do with Him as they pleased.
There are a number of religions who object to the Christian profession that Jesus was God in the flesh because they think that diminishes God. It's like Wesley saying that his words should only have slow, solemn music...he thought other music would diminish the news that the words contained. In the same way, it seems wrong to some to suggest that God would actually become a lowly human being. They see that as an attack on the glory and majesty of God, while Christians see it as the incredible extent of God's love for us.
Yet, even within the Christian faith, the Christmas story doesn't really come with the music we think it should have. Maybe we don't quite agree with Wesley that it should be slow and solemn, but certainly Christmas should be painted with grand, majestic strokes. Most of the nativity scenes in stores will show you this. They are often tinged with gold...those in attendance have long, flowing robes; the animals are all attentive, and Mary looks more like a store model than a woman who has just given birth in a stable.
Instead of humbling ourselves in the way that God did to live life as a human being, we try to make that first lowly Christmas a bit more dignified. Only the finest ornaments on the tree, only the grand music with the instruments that we think are appropriate for God. When it comes down to it, it is uncomfortable to remember that Jesus was born...not to a home of privilege...but to a poor home. We know that, because when Jesus is brought to the Temple for circumcision, Mary and Joseph bring the offering specified for the poor. Not only was it a poor family, but the birth itself happened in a smelly stable.
The news was given to shepherds...one of the lowest classes of people in Palestine...so low that a shepherd's testimony was not accepted in court. The news was also given to pagan astrologers who lived far, far away but who were alert enough to understand what the night sky was telling them. Anybody else that God might have been trying to speak to that night was oblivious...perhaps because they knew that such circumstances were not fitting for God, and therefore couldn't be true. Such words should have only slow, solemn music.
This is one of the teachings of Christmas to those of us who profess the Christian faith. Don't be too quick to decide what is fitting and proper for God and what is not. We once opposed the organ, we once opposed "Amazing Grace," and the first people who tried to translate the Bible into English we literally burned at the stake for the heresy of thinking that God's word should be accessible to the common people who did not know Latin. With that first Christmas, God came to dwell among us. As soon as God made that radical decision, all bets were off about what God would and would not do. God's reckless and wild love for human beings will go to lengths not at all fitting for a proper deity in order to bring us back into relationship with God. Why, it is rumored that God would even go so far as to die on a cross like a criminal, if that would help.
Even the Scripture scholars and priests had no idea that God was talking to them, healing them, warning them, and loving them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We are not likely to be any different, unless we follow God's example and humble ourselves...unless we realize that we can't say for sure that God would do this but would never do that, or that this form is true worship and this other is not. We might say with Wesley that the words should only have slow, solemn music, but God might get involved and prove otherwise. What, exactly, would you do if the herald angels sang again, and it sounded like Elvis instead of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Would you be willing to hear God's message?
Christmas also has a message to those who, like Mendelssohn, would prefer that some parts of life be off limits to God. He wrote a tune for a non-religious purpose, and, by golly, he didn't want anybody sneaking around and putting God into it. Well, you may as well try to keep the tide from rising. There is no part of life where God cannot reach, even though you specifically say that God shouldn't be allowed to reach there.
Oftentimes, even those of us who profess faith want to be sure that God is kept within the church walls...that we are not going to encounter uncomfortable reminders of God when we are trying to go about our regular business. How inappropriate for God to step into my business and point out that I am doing special favors for my richest clients and ignoring those who couldn't give me more business even if they wanted. How dare God suggest that I should guard my speech in my own home in the same way that I do in church! And if I go to church every week and say my prayers every night, God certainly has no business making me think that my faith and my checkbook are connected. Mind your own business, God. Stay in church where you belong. And yet we are no more successful than Mendelssohn. The tune of human life was always meant to be filled with the Word of God, no matter how much we might have insisted that we play that tune only for secular purposes.
It is Christmas that brings the world of Wesley and the world of Mendelssohn together. It is God who says to Wesley, "Don't box me in! Don't tell me that there is any approach to me, any gift brought in love to my manger, that is unsuitable. I am in the slow and solemn, but I am also in the lively and simple. I am in the organ and in the drummer boy. I am in English and Latin and Swahili; rich and poor; lofty art and the work of a child's clumsy hands.."
And it is God who says to Mendelssohn, "There is no such thing as secular art. The act of creating, itself, draws upon My essence, and sooner or later, your tune will find its true home." Simply being born means to be stamped with the image of God. Even the most adamant atheist bears that stamp and will not find the soul's true music until God is allowed to play the tune. As St. Augustine once said, "Our hearts are restless, until we find our rest in Thee."
Charles Wesley eventually learned the lesson and began to find tunes for his lyrics from the local taverns; even as his brother, John, left behind church pulpits and began preaching in the streets and fields. Hark! The herald angels are singing of God's glory, announcing that the Kingdom of God has come in a baby, born to a family on the poor end of the working class. They are singing Wesley's words in Mendelssohn's fields, bringing the news to unsuitable shepherds, while they are at work, no less. They hear the news and run to the manger. Will you give up your solemn words to Mendelssohn's joyful music? Will you give up the secular song of your life to Wesley's message of salvation?
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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