December 22, 2014

O Little Town of Bethlehem

by Bethany

Daily Reading
Zechariah 9 (Listen – 3:04)
John 12 (Listen – 6:18)

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

— Micah 5.2

Phillips Brooks was a Harvard graduate with a struggling career as a teacher. Although brilliant, he was frustrated with his students’ lack of ambition. After turning to pursue a career in ministry, he graduated from seminary in 1859. Two years later, he was called to lead the congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, where he met Lewis Redner.

Together, Brooks and Redner became well known for their music and children’s programs. By 1863, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, Brooks began to grow tired. In the midst of the Civil War, his congregation expected him to inspire them. They wanted peace and turned to him for assurance. As the war was drew to a close, Brooks was hopeful that things would settle down, but then the President was assassinated in April 1865. Although Brooks was not Lincoln’s pastor, he was asked to speak at the funeral because of his oratory skills.

Exhausted from the war, Brooks decided to take a sabbatical and set out for the Middle East. On Christmas Eve of 1865, he was in Jerusalem—far from his home in Philadelphia. That evening, he went to the fields outside of Bethlehem and meditated on the birth of the Messiah. He later told his family and friends that the experience was so overwhelming that it would forever be “singing in my soul.”

When he returned, he felt that he was at a loss of words to convey how meaningful his trip to the Holy Land was. He first wrote about it in his journal and then he wrote a poem in 1868. That year, on Christmas Eve, Redner composed music to accompany the poem. They shared the hymn with their friends in Philadelphia and, by 1874, it was published in The Church Porch music collection. 

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Listen: Sarah McLachlan – 3:50)

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep the Angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

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December 19, 2014

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

by Bethany

Daily Reading
Zechariah 6 (Listen – 2:26)
John 9 (Listen – 4:55)

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.

— Luke 2.8-9

In 1849, Edmund Sears was working a Christmas Eve sermon for his congregation in Massachusetts, but he was discouraged. The debate over slavery was growing in the nation and the dejection of poverty was rising in his community. In addition to preaching the divinity of Christ, Sears also preached and practiced ministry to the lost, helpless, and poor. Thus, the poverty and hopelessness of his neighbors was on his mind as he worked on his Christmas message. How could he write about the light of the world when the world seemed so dark?

Then he meditated on Luke 2:8-9. As he considered the miracle of the birth of the Christ, he wrote a five-verse poem, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” He then recalled another Christmas poem he had written a decade before: “Calm on the list’ning ear of night comes heaven’s melodious strains.” Starting his message with his older Christmas poem, he quickly wrote a short sermon and decided to end his Christmas service with his newest poem.

Although most people consider his poem-turned-carol to be joyful and uplifting, many of its original hearers thought it was challenging. Sears wanted his congregation to celebrate Christmas, but he also wanted them to feed the poor, solve the nation’s social problems, and consider how they could bear God’s image in their daily lives. Nowhere is this message more obvious than in the poem’s third verse.

The poem appeared in the December 29, 1849 issue of The Christian Register. Yet it was not set to music until the following year by Robert Storrs Willis, who studied under Felix Mendelssohn in Germany.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Listen: Ella Fitzgerald – 3:19)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

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Weekend Readings:

Saturday: Zechariah 7 (Listen – 2:02); John 10 (Listen – 4:42)
Sunday: Zechariah 8 (Listen – 4:04); John 11 (Listen – 6:48)

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December 18, 2014

What Child Is This?

by Bethany

Daily Reading
Zechariah 5 (Listen – 1:41)
John 8 (Listen – 7:20)

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 

— Luke 2:33-35

Born in Somerset, England, in 1837, William Chatterton Dix became an insurance man by trade and a poet by heart. His writing, however, lacked focus until he experienced suffering. At twenty-nine years old, he was struck with a near-fatal illness and confined to his bed for months. During this time, he often reflected on his faith and, after regaining his strength, he began to write hymns.

At the time, Christmas was not the commercial celebration that it is today. In fact, fearing that Christmas would become a pagan ritual rather than a time of worship, many conservative churches did not permit giving gifts, decorating, or recognizing the day. In this context, it was unusual for Dix to focus on the birth of Christ. He entitled the poem, “The Manger Throne” because it points to the divinity of the baby born in a manger.

Dix, however, most likely did not have the tune “Greensleeves” in mind when he wrote his poem. After all, it was rumored that “Greensleeves” was composed by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, whose alleged rejection of his advances inspired its original lyrics (“cast me off discourteously”). Also, for most of its early life, “Greensleeves” was associated with English pubs as a popular drinking song. By the nineteenth century, although the tune was beloved in England, it was not associated with the Christian faith.

An unknown Englishman, however, coupled Dix’s lyrics with “Greensleeves” when it was published. It quickly became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and, in the United States, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  

What Child Is This? (Listen: Sarah McLachlan – 3:30)

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, 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.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

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December 17, 2014

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

by Bethany

Daily Reading
Zechariah 4 (Listen – 1:59)
John 7 (Listen – 5:45)

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

— Luke 2:14 KJV

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows, which the world knows not; and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.” He himself had secret and public sorrows. In 1835, when he was only 27 years old, his wife died of illness. After remaining single for seven years and then remarrying in 1843, he and his second wife had six children. In 1862, however, a fire started in their home and his wife died of severe burns. That same year, the American Civil War began. Throughout these years, Henry battled long period of depression—even taking a six-month sabbatical at one point to visit a health spa in Germany.

In 1863, his oldest son, Charles, joined the Union Army against his father’s wishes. Charles sent him a letter: “I have tried to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it, if it would be of any good.” A few months later, in November, Charles was injured during the Mine Run Campaign.

That Christmas Day, faced with the on-going loss of his wife and the suffering of his son, Henry wrote the poem “Christmas Bells.” Two stanzas in the poem rarely appear in the carol, but they clearly point to the war:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The last stanza, of course, shows Longfellow’s hope in the midst of the war:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Although Christmas was celebrated before and during the American Civil War, it did not become an official Federal holiday until 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant declared it so in an attempt to unite the South and the North. [1] In 1872, the poem was set to music by John Baptiste Calkin, an English organist, who used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he previously used (“Waltham”).

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Listen: Johnny Cash – 2:28)

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

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December 16, 2014

We Three Kings of Orient Are

by Bethany

Daily Reading
Zechariah 3 (Listen – 1:54)
John 6 (Listen – 8:12)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

— Matthew 2.1-2

Although John Henry Hopkins, Jr. was an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, he preferred the pen to the pulpit. Over the course of his life, he pursued a variety of occupations—law, journalism, illustration, and design. Even though he never married or had a family of his own, he loved children—especially his nieces and nephews.

In 1857, Hopkins decided to give his brother’s children a special gift for Epiphany, which is the last of the twelve days of Christmas (January 6). Also known as Three Kings’ Day, Epiphany marks the day that the wise men found Jesus and brought him gifts. In the 1880s, families celebrated Epiphany by taking down the Christmas tree and giving children the gifts and treats that had been hanging on it. Yet many children, including Hopkins’ nieces and nephews, had forgotten the meaning of the holiday. It had become commercialized.

Hopkins, therefore, decided to write a tribute to the wise men based on the gospel according to Matthew.  Recognizing that little was known about the wise men, he had to use his imagination. He gave the song a Middle Eastern feel and crafted lyrics that combined the biblical account with the legends that passed down for almost two thousand years. That year, he organized an elaborate holiday pageant (which featured his hymn) for the students of the General Theological Seminary in New York City. This was his gift to his nieces and nephews.

Hopkins later served as rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In 1885, Hopkins delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant. Six years later, in 1891, he died in Hudson, New York.

We Three Kings of Orient Are (Listen: Irving Bible Church – 3:48)

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Chorus

O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Chorus

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.

Chorus

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Chorus

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.

Chorus

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