Hark the Herald Angels Sing :: Advent’s Peace

Christmas is a musical outlier—no other modern holiday is set to its own soundtrack. The downside to seasonal music is that nearly everyone has a Christmas song that they can’t stand. Little Drummer Boy, Feliz Navidad, and Santa Baby occur frequently on modern lists of annoying Christmas songs.

For Charles Wesley, the 18th century theologian, the song that bothered him so much that he refused to sing it was Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Now a popular carol, it was originally published by Wesley’s student George Whitefield. Most of the lyrics, however did not belong to Whitefield, they came from the pen of Charles Wesley himself.

When Wesley originally wrote it as a Christmas Day hymn for his church. “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings,” he wrote, echoing the angel’s praise in Luke,  “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” Welkin means sky, and while the skies were filled with praise, there is no Biblical record of the angels singing.

Whitefield went further than narrative adaptation, however. And the verses he chose to drop from the hymn demonstrate Wesley’s ability to capture robust theology in verse:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruin’d nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Ultimately the song has stood the test of time, in part because of both men’s work. Whitefield shaped what we now know, but Wesley’s theology still resonates with our longings in Advent as we sing:

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.

Listen: Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Paisley Abby Choir (2:59 – lyrics below)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 18 (Listen – 5:51)
Revelation 7 (Listen – 2:56)

The Hallelujah Chorus :: Advent’s Joy

“Charles Jennens was a collaborator of Handel’s who struggled with depression following the suicide of his younger brother,” says Mitch Davis who wrote a documentary on Handel’s Messiah. Jennings’ brother was reportedly talked out of his faith at university and subsequently took his own life.

“Jennens craved the spiritual solace he found in the exalted strains of Handel’s music and sought to combine that music with the scriptural words that comforted him during his depressive bouts,” writes Davis. Jennens composed the libretto of Messiah from translations of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Handel bounced from patron to patron throughout his career. Poor management of money and the resulting large shifts in his income, led him to become significantly indebted in London. Handel’s first biographer John Mainwaring recorded that the artist, ”paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man.”

Handel eventually became overweight, but was known far wider for English tabloid reports on his temper. In one argument he threatened to throw a soloist out a window, in another he escalated a verbal fight until a friend stabbed him with a sword (Handel was spared as the sword was blunted by a metal button).

During the feverish composition of Messiah (he completed it in less than four weeks), Handel had what some call a spiritual epiphany. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself,” Handel wrote as he composed the Hallelujah Chorus. “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not.”

Messiah was a turning point for Handel; its success freed him from his debts, and he became extraordinarily generous with the wealth his fame allowed. ”Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,” observes Harry Bicket, the director of The English Concert chamber orchestra.

Jennens and Handel’s lives declare through Messiah that Christ is sufficient in the chaos of the world.

Listen: Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah by The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir  (4:23 – lyrics below)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 17 (Listen – 2:48)
Revelation 6 (Listen – 3:12)

 

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus :: Advent’s Peace

“It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror,” Charles Dickens wrote of Scrooge’s meeting with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.

The future of Christmas came as a warning to Scrooge—change your ways, or this is what will become of you. The miser pleads, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” As a tool in Dickens’ narrative, this transition serves Scrooge well. As a motto to live by, it would lead readers to misery.

Our hearts and flesh fail us too regularly for this to work—go try harder is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps it’s best to contrast Dickens vision with the words of another literary giant, John Wesley. The pastor and theologian composed dozens of books, wrote thousands sermons, and published over 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. In one of his most famous hymns he wrote:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus<
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,Let us find our rest in Thee.

In this, Wesley captures the fulfillment of the first Advent while directing our attention on the brilliance of the second advent. What a miracle that the long expected Messiah was born into our world! How we long to be released from this brokenness. How we long for rest.

The message to Scrooge never lead him beyond himself (which was his problem in the first place). The message of Wesley is for those who have met the end of self. For those who haven’t found true joy in success, those who can’t live past their failures, those who cannot find satisfaction in the messiness of this world; Christ is the “Joy of every longing heart.”

Listen: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus by Christy Nockels (2:59 – lyrics below)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 16 (Listen – 2:51)
Revelation 5 (Listen – 2:39)

 

Risks of Faith :: Advent’s Love

It is God’s love for us, not ours for him, that is the context for faith. Our ability to love God is imperfect—though spiritual disciplines and the rhythms of community can shape them greatly, as C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity:

People are often worried. They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it.

Lewis isn’t deceived—“go and do it” only works until you can’t, or simply don’t—then what becomes of faith? He continues:

On the whole, God’s love for us is a much safer subject to think about than our love for Him. Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about.

Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’

He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

There is no faith without risk, and no reward in heaven for returning spiritual armor without dents. The armor of God is to protect believers as we apply our faith in a broken world—will not our hearts grow weary? The gospel is that Christ has succeeded where we have failed.

We do not shrink back because we are inconsistent in our love for God—we take risks of faith because God is relentless in his love for us.

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 11-12 (Listen – 6:00)
Revelation 2 (Listen – 4:59)

 

Love’s Journey :: Advent’s Love

The town of St. Joseph, 60 miles north of Kansas City, MO, originally served as a starting point for the Oregon Trail. In its heyday, the streets would have been filled with thousands of pioneers provisioning for the final time before “jumping off”—a term used for leaving civilization behind for the nearly half-year journey west.

Almost thirty years after the Civil War, in 1892, Katherine Kennicott Davis was born into a second-generation pioneer family who had settled in the old trailhead town. By the time Davis was born the railroad had expanded and St. Joseph was no longer as influential. Much like the town they lived in, Davis’ family was neither culturally elite or affluent, but even as a child she showed unique talent which would shape her life.

While pioneers risked everything to travel from St. Joseph into the promise and peril of the Wild West, Davis would take her own risks, cutting her own path east. After graduating from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she braved trans-Atlantic travel to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Davis returned to the US and, with a world-class education, dedicated herself to teaching children music at various schools across New England. The majority of the more than 600 pieces Davis composed during her lifetime were for the children she taught.

In 1941 Davis penned, “The Carol of the Drum,” which would be popularized as, “Little Drummer Boy” when the Trapp Family Singers picked it up in 1955. Despite her volume of work and level of talent, Davis isn’t widely known for any other song.

The story of the “Little Drummer Boy” embodies part of the beauty of Davis’ story. The song begins with a boy taking a risk to travel and sit with someone great. The boy is aware of—but undeterred by—his simple heritage, offering his musical talent with great diligence. Though many might overlook such a musician, he receives the prize upon which his hope was set: the love of the One whom he has been playing for all along.

Listen: Little Drummer Boy by Burl Ives (3:17)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 10 (Listen – 3:01)
Revelation 1 (Listen – 3:43)

 

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