Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our Father's love

In what is becoming an annual event, as with last year Pastor Todd Wilken did a one hour segment of Issues Etc. today on a single Christmas hymn, by interviewing Dr. Arthur Just, professor at the Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

For Christmas Day 2008, the second hour of the (pre-taped) show is about the hymn “Of the Father's Love Begotten.” Dr. Just summarized its importance as follows:
This is perhaps one of the most sublime christmas carols there is. It is an absolutely magnificent hymn and one of the oldest hymns in our canon.
The poem was written ca. 400 by the Spanish Christian poet, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-c. 413). The first verse of the Latin original is as follows:
Corde natus ex parentis
ante mundi exordium
Alpha et Omeega cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula
Omnium quae sunt, fuerunt,
quaeque post futura sunt.
Modern hymnals owe their English version to a translation by John Mason Neale in 1854, among the many medieval texts he translated. However, we today use the modified version of the Neale translation, created by Henry Williams Baker, editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

In fact, Hymn #46 in Hymns A&M lists both the (Baker-modified) English text and the Latin original that they used for the translation. The first verse in A&M is:
Of the Father’s Love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
To Dr. Just, this hymn of joy at the incarnation of the Christ is also a hymn of praise and mystery. To this, I would add that this hymn — reaching to us across the centuries, from a time closer to Jesus’ time on earth than to our own — speaks to the eternal nature of God and his love for us. Such transcendent timelessness is (at least to me) an essential element of any Christian liturgy.

Neale is also credited with selecting (or at least finding) the tune that we use today. The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (1990) summarizes the tune as:
Divinium Mysterium is a plansong melody used by Neale for his translation of “Corde natus ex Parentis” in the collection The Hymnal Noted (1851). There it was captioned “Melody from a manuscript at Wolfenbutel of the XIIIth century.”
Wherever it was first printed, most hymnals refer to the tune as “Plainsong, Mode V, 11th cent.”

In addition to being among the most important (if not earliest) Christmas hymns, it is also among the most popular. YouTube lists 23 different videos, most (but not all) concert performances by school choirs.

Amazon lists 60 versions of “Of the Father’s love begotten.” Of these, after poking through them I bought the version performed by a choir from a special program at Rider University. It seemed like the most authentic, although it’s only verses 1, 6 and 9 of the nine listed in A&M.

I was disappointed and a little surprised not to find a recording of the Latin version anywhere, particularly since this would fit the recent interest in Gregorian chant. Sure, the words predate Pope Gregory by at least 200 years, but the tune is later than Gregory and is in the Gregorian style. I will keep searching, in hopes of finding a recording somewhere, hopefully by a church choir in a sanctuary with suitable medieval acoustics.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What child? Not just a child!

Earlier this week, I was debating with Vicar Josh over a throwaway line in his blog
Jesus is NOT the reason for the season
As I interpret the good vicar, he believes that the phrase “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is too much about the birthday of Baby Jesus, not enough about the death and resurrection of the grown Jesus. I choose to see the glass as half full — that celebrating Jesus’ birth could, in fact, be part of an acknowledgment of the reason for His coming.

As it turns out, this topic came up last week on the new Issues Etc. webcast radio show. On Wednesday (Dec. 17), Pastor Todd Wilken hosted a 12-minute segment inviting listener participation, entitled “What is your favorite Christmas hymn, and why?”

One reader emailed that his favorite is “What child is this?” (which made a recent list of most often-found Christmas hymns). Pastor Wilken read from the email by “Dennis” of St. Johns, Michigan:
Only this Christmas hymn puts the cross in Christmas — which is the true meaning of Christmas. The sole purpose of the Incarnation was the cross and our salvation. This is why he came and this is what he's done for us.
Set to the 16th century English ballad, Greensleeves, the 19th century words are by William Chatterton Dix. The strongest message of the cross comes from the last half of the second verse
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
This is the version reported in the 1982 LCMS hymnal, Lutheran Worship. (#61). I did not see it in the earlier 1941 LCMS hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal, nor in the PECUSA Hymnal 1916. It was not indexed in the 1865, 1906 or 1933 Church of England hymnals; in the 1986 New English Hymnal (#40), the nails, spear and piercing are there, but not “the Word made flesh,” a direct quotation from John 1:14.

Alas, Episcopalians (and we continuing Anglicans) get only part of the message from Hymnal 1940 (#36) and Hymnal 1982 (#115). While the first part of the verse (with the reference to sinners) remains, the rendition uses a common refrain for all three verses. This is a version I grew up with, and the use of the refrain makes it more singable; however, it dramatically changes the theology by dropping the direct and vivid reference to the cross and Crucifixion.

Even with the simplified refrain, in the final verse from Hymnal 1940 we sing of Christ’s purpose for coming:
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
come, peasant, king, to own him;
the King of kings salvation brings,
let loving hearts enthrone him.

This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.
So while the hymn starts with an emphasis on Baby Jesus, it ends with a discussion of his kingship and his role in our salvation. This is at least one hymn that begins from the “Jesus is the reason” theme, but links that directly to the Good Friday and Easter message.

Pastor Wilken said that he didn’t really appreciate the hymn until last year, when on the old Issues Etc. (then distributed by LCMS Inc.) he conducted an interview about it with Dr. Arthur Just, professor at the LCMS seminary in Ft. Wayne. As Dr. Just says in the interview, “Christmas is about the fact that Jesus is born to die.” He also notes that Dix wrote this as an Epiphany hymn (hence the incense, gold and myrrh).

As it turns out, I thought the Dec. 30, 2007 episode with Dr. Just was so memorable that I blogged on it at the time. The interview with Dr. Just also emphasized Christmas as a season — the season that runs from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, not from Nov. 1 (or Oct. 1) through Dec. 24.

Jesus is the reason for the season. Q.E.D.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Draw nigh, Emmanuel

The hymn we now know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is variously attributed to 9th and 12th century Latin texts. The tune “Veni Emmanuel” is more reliably attributed to a 15th or 16th century French tune.

However, the English translation of these texts is known to be by John Mason Neale and his 1851 book, Medieval Hymns and Sequences. The Google online PDF of the book Hymns of the Breviary and Missal says this about the Rev. Neale:
Dr. Neale was an eminent hymnologist and a most felicitous translator of Greek and Latin hymns. His translations of Latin hymns appeared in his Mediæval Hymns and Sequences, 1851, and in the Hymnal Noted, 1852 and 1854, in which 94 out of the 105 hymns therein are translated from the Latin by Dr. Neale.
Somewhere along the line, Neale’s “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel” became the now familiar Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” (More on this some other time).

Vicar Josh (with help from his blushing bride) suggests the use of a “word cloud” to analyze the text of a hymn. Below is the cloud for the Cyberhymnal version of “O Come, O Come,” analyzing all the words as they would be sung:

I think this map shows why (to apply the Vicar’s test) Neale’s (adapted) translation of medieval Latin texts does a better job of celebrating Advent than the ego-centric approach of typical CCM praise music.

Update: For more detail, “Veni Emmanuel” is the subject of November 1959 article in The Musical Times.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baby Jesus' greatest hits

An entire blog has been started to discuss the most popular Christmas carols. “Liberal Baptist” blogger Leland Ross lists the 12 “greatest hits” for Advent and Christmas carols, as measured across 24 hymnals:
  • Angels from the realms of glory
  • Angels we have heard on high
  • Away in a manger
  • Hark the herald angels sing
  • It came upon the midnight clear
  • Joy to the world
  • O come, all ye faithful
  • O come, O come, Emmanuel
  • O little town of Bethlehem
  • Silent night, holy night
  • The first Noel
  • What child is this
I understand all of them except “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” Why is that ahead of these next four?
  • While shepherds watched
  • Go tell it on the mountain
  • Come thou long-expected Jesus
  • We three kings of orient are
The last of these is obviously for Epiphany.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Next hymnal: Schism II without Schism I

Exactly a year ago, (following Peter Toon), I asked “A new US church - a decade away?” Looking at the progress of Common Cause Partners, I said “Five years seems like a best case.”

But exactly a week ago, the recent TEC and ACC defectors held a ceremony in Wheaton, Illinois to form a new Anglican province (hereafter NAP). AnglicanTV has a wide assortment of videos from the event.

While this is just a milestone en route to a full ecclesiastical authority — not to mention recognition in the broader Anglican Communion beyond the GAFCON bishops who visited Canterbury last week — it’s obvious that things are moving much more quickly than I predicted in December 2007. So if it takes a few years to become fully legal, then 2009 or 2010 (as I said in September) seems more likely.

However, this paragraph from David Virtue’s report caught my eye:
Asked about what Prayer Book would be used, [ACN Moderator Robert] Duncan said that that would be left to the various diocese and networks. There would no official Prayer Book, some will use the 1662 and others will use the 1979, he said.
This is troubling on two levels.

First, why continue to use the deeply flawed, revisionist PECUSA prayer book? As Peter Toon notes, it has so seriously broken the continuity with the original BCP that it should be called A Book of Alternative Services (1979). In fact, these alternative (Rite II) services that are exactly the services that the Evangelicals are using and why they adopted the 1979 prayer book.

Second, AMiA and Toon produced a 1662 prayer book with modern words. So if theology and words and beliefs matter, why continue to perpetuate the flawed theology of TEC née PECUSA?

But what really bothered me is what’s missing: the 1928 BCP. Yes, I know there are arguments about whether it is a faithful interpretation of 1549 or 1662, but those arguments are fewer than for the 1979 prayer book. More seriously, the earliest generation of Anglican rejectionists — who I term “Schism I” — formed around their rejection of the 1979 prayer book and its associated theology.

And back to the theme of this blog, what does this say for our next hymnal, one that does not enrich the TEC retirement fund? Alas, traditionalists are happy to continue using (and reinforcing the themes) of the TEC Hymnal 1982.

From a liturgical standpoint, I would think that the FiFNA (anti-WO) part of NAP should partner with Schism I parishes to create a traditionalist hymnal that is a worthy successor to Hymnal 1940, my favorite hymnal. If so, sign me up!

However, my fear is that NAP will make a watered-down, compromise hymnal in an attempt to maintain bureaucratic control and span the gulf that separates its Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings. This will bring us politically correct hymns that mangle doctrine, rather than building upon tradition and liturgy that reach out to us across the centuries.

Christmas hymns before December 24?

Jim Bonewald, Presbyterian minister in Iowa who is also a blogger has posed the question: “When should churches start to sing Christmas hymns?” He’s running an online poll with these choices:
  1. It's ok to sneak in an occasional Christmas hymn or two during the season of advent, just don't make it a regular practice.
  2. Be strict about Advent - no Christmas hymns until Christmas Eve.
  3. Who cares? Dive right in and start singing Christmas hymns on the 1st Sunday of Advent.
  4. What? You mean there is a difference between Advent and Christmas hymns? 
  5. Wait with the Christmas hymns until the third or fourth Sunday of Advent.
The comments section at the bottom of the poll are interesting, in that they represent a cross-section of Christian thought on the subject.

Pastor Bonewald himself comes down on the side of #1. But what I find interesting is that in reviewing his blog, he has a flurry of activity every year connected with Advent. So he takes the season seriously, also also evidenced by this exchange in the comments:
December 1st, 2008 at 9:33 pm
Interesting conversation, but please excuse me for asking the dumb question. What’s the difference between Advent and Christmas songs? Can you give me some examples and explain why they fall into those catagories? I’ve never heard there was a difference!

Personally, I think any song that helps someone feel the love of Christ is a good song, no matter what season. I love listening to the Go Fish version of Little Drummer Boy all year long. It’s a great rocking song that makes me remember God’s sacrificial entry into the world with great awe.

December 1st, 2008 at 9:58 pm
Bonnie, great question….If you take a close look at our blue hymnal, you will notice that the very first section of songs is referred to as “advent,” the next section is then “christmas.”

The advent songs play on themes of advent (coming, waiting, preparing the way) they allude to the hope and promise of the Messiah, but they don’t sing about or celebrate his coming as a reality. The two most prominent and best known advent songs are “O come O come Emmanuel” and “Come Though Long Expected Jesus.”

Christmas songs tell the story of the nativity and birth of Christ and celebrate the reality of his coming. “joy to the world” and “o come all ye faithful” announce the arrival of christ and call us to worship him.
This is a surprisingly clear and traditionalist viewpoint for a co-leader of the postmodern, emergent church group called Presbymergent.

To me, this is one of the starkest examples where the canon of hymns compiled into a hymnal intersect liturgy, if not theology. Familiar hymns serve to put us in the mind of the meaning of a given season in the liturgical calendar, whether All Saints Day, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost or Trinity Sunday. In some ways, the messages of the hymns are more stirring and effective than anything said from the pulpit: hymn singing is a participatory event, the music strengthens the emotional impact, and we repeat the exercise every year using the same message.

So botching the choice (or wording) of Advent or Christmas hymns at best misses a great opportunity to prepare the faithful for the meaning of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child, at a time when the secular world has expressed either hostility to the Christian message or has turned it into the year’s largest marketing push.

To enable the latter, we get Christmas songs (nowadays Christian carols are rare) playing as Muzak in every shopping mall from mid-November through December 24. In other words, the retail world deliberately violates the liturgical calendar by promoting Christmas cheer during (and before) Advent. Because there’s no money to be made, they stop the Christmas message exactly when the 12 days of Christmas begin.

For several years, the local Christian radio station used to run billboards proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Advent carols — kept apart from the Christmas message being exploited by secular marketers — are a powerful way of reminding us of this truth by preparing us for the true meaning of Christmas.

Hat tip: Vicar Josh