Singing the Christmas Story

December 21st, 2013

Christmas carols provide a rich form for God's people to praise God. More than at any other time of the year, we love to sing at Christmas. Singing the hymns and carols of Christmas puts us in touch with our past, brightens our lives, and reminds us of God's promises for the future.

This article presents a model for singing the Christmas story. Use it as it is written as a script or adapt it to fit your needs (as written it lasts about an hour).

A rich heritage of Christmas carols has been passed on to us. Through them we remember who we are and whose we are. As we sing them, we grow in faith. Let us begin with the very familiar "Adeste Fideles," "0 Come, All Ye Faithful."
(Sing "0 Come, All Ye Faithful.")

There's something about Christmas that can touch the hearts of people everywhere.

Carols are at the very heart of Christmas. In the Middle Ages, carols were a form of sacred folk music used by the church as a teaching tool. Doctrine was spelled out by the words of the carols of the day. Only in fairly recent history have the carols concentrated almost exclusively on Christmas and the events leading up to that special day.

One of Charles Wesley's earliest hymns was a Christmas carol recalling the hope of the nation Israel. Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Israelites looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One. In the midst of the years of captivity and exile, God had promised this Holy Child. He was to be the Redeemer of the world. Wesley's hymn echoes these hopes and expectations.
(Sing "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.")

Many centuries after the birth of Jesus, a young Episcopal preacher from Philadelphia visited the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve in 1865, he rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, passing through the fields where the shepherds had kept their sheep. He attended a service not far from the place where the Holy Child had been born. Phillips Brooks wrote to his Sunday school class,

"I remember ... when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the 'Wonderful Night' of the Saviour's birth" (One Hundred and One Hymn Stories, by Carl F. Price. Abingdon Press).

Two years later, his Sunday school needed a Christmas carol for their annual program. With memory of that earlier night still vivid in his mind, Brooks wrote the words, "0 little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by."

Now he needed a tune. He asked his friend Lewis Redner, the church organist, to set the words to a simple tune, one that the children Brooks loved so much could sing. Redner struggled for days. On the night before the program, he woke from his sleep singing the tune we know as "0 Little Town of Bethlehem."
(Sing ''0 Little Town of Bethlehem.'')

About the time Phillips Brooks was visiting the Holy Land, Benjamin Hanby was taking another look at this Baby. Perhaps he was searching for some insight on how one little baby could have such an impact on the world. Or he may have come to realize who the Baby was and wondered whether others were fully aware of the power and glory to be found in him. Whatever his reason, he wrote the beautiful hymn "Who Is He in Yonder Stall?" In the stanzas, he ponders over scenes in the life of Jesus, asking, "Who is He?" Then in a majestic chorus, he answers his own question: "'Tis the Lord, 0 wondrous story! 'Tis the Lord, the King of glory."
(Sing "Who Is He In Yonder Stall?")

Charles Wesley too was engaged in helping people learn the Christmas story. He especially wanted them to understand the message. In keeping with the tradition of using carols to teach, he wrote a poem in 1739. In this poem, he explained the doctrine behind the biblical story of the angel chorus. The first two lines (cited in Our Hymnody, by Robert Guy McCutchan; Abingdon Press) read

Hark! how all the welkin rings,
"Glory to the King of Kings"

George Whitefield liked the message but found a more singable way to express it. He rearranged the poem, and it was ready for music.

Felix Mendelssohn had written a piece of music which he felt surely not anything sacred. However, his music and Charles Wesley's words were perfect for each other, and so we have "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."

Perhaps we can appreciate this song even more when we realize that this was one of the few Christmas carols sung in England at that time. In 1627, the English Parliament had banned the celebration of Christmas and all other "worldly festivals." It wasn't until the 1800's that Christmas celebrations began again. In that time, Charles Wesley's carol had survived.
(Sing "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.'')

In the U.S. in the middle of the nineteenth century, the relationship between southern and northern states was tense over the issue of slavery. This was also the time of the industrial revolution and the gold rush. Young America was struggling to grow, and in the process, was losing some concern for others.

During this time Edmund Hamilton Sears, an American preacher, carried a heavy burden because of the social injustices in our country. Sears wondered how the birth of the Christ Child fit into nineteenth century America. As he read the story over and over, he was moved by the message of the angels: peace on earth. Was that message still for the people of the nineteenth century and yet to come? From Sears' deep concern came the carol "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."
(Sing "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.'')

Some of us may be uncomfortable with questions of social injustice at Christmas time. We would rather put off thinking about controversial matters until the Christmas tree has been taken down and the wrapping paper is out of sight. Shall we sing about something more comfortable, like the Baby in the manger? This is one of the best known Christmas carols, particularly among children.
(Sing "Away In a Manger.")

Children and adults alike love the legends surround­ing the night Jesus was born. People have written songs and stories about the power to speak that was supposedly given to animals that night. One of those songs commonly called "The Friendly Beasts" tells the story of the role each animal played in carrying out the drama of that night. Written in France in the thirteenth century under the title "Jesus, Our Brother, Strong and Good.''
(Sing "Jesus, Our Brother, Strong and Good.")

From nineteenth century France, "He Is Born (II Est Ne)" is a lively song which expresses the joy surrounding the birth of a child, but especially the birth of the Son of God. In the pattern of the Psalms, this song is about celebrating with instruments the fulfillment of the prophecy of his coming. In the true spirit of Christmas, it encompasses the whole world in its prayer for heavenly peace.
(Sing "He Is Born.")

People in almost every culture around the world have told the story of the birth of Jesus. The variety of music to which the familiar story has been set provides a colorful background for its retelling in any language. Poland has given us a carol about the baby in the manger. It is a lilting lullaby for the Baby.
(Sing "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.")

In Salzburg, Austria, in the early nineteenth century, a young priest and his musician friend discussed the lack of a perfect Christmas hymn. After learning that his church organ was not working and repairs could not be made until after Christmas, Father Joseph Mohr decided that he must write his own Christmas hymn. Father Mohr wrote a poem and sent it over to his friend Franz Gruber. Gruber read it and exclaimed, "Friend Mohr, you have found it—the right song—God be praised" (101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck; Kregel Publications). Gruber set the poem to music, and the hymn was completed in time for the Christmas Eve Mass.

After Christmas, the organ was repaired. The repairman obtained a copy of the new hymn, and through his influence the carol spread all over southern Germany and Austria. Soon it traveled around the world to become one of the all-time Christmas favorites. The song Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber presented that night was ''Silent Night, Holy Night.''
(Sing "Silent Night, Holy Night.")

Christmas just isn't Christmas without ''Silent Night" It gives us a feeling of security and contentment. Like so many other carols, it takes us back to the peace and quiet of that stable two thousand years ago. And as long as the baby Jesus is there, what harm can come to us?

But Jesus is not there. Jesus didn't remain a baby. He left the stable. He grew and learned and told God's story to all who would listen. If Christmas is to be all that it is meant to be, we too must leave the stable, grow, and learn. We must move beyond the silence of the night. In the fullness of the day we must tell the story of Jesus, the Savior of the World. The African-American spiritual says it so well. Let's close our time together with "Go Tell It On the Mountain."
(Sing "Go, Tell It on the Mountain.")

Lord God, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank you for all the lives you have touched over the centuries. We thank you for those who have been so deeply moved by your Spirit that they have told his story through song. Remind us often that as we enjoy singing those Christmas carols, our task is to retell the story to everyone who will listen. We pray for peace and for power; in the name of the Baby in the manger who was the Savior of the World. Amen.

If you use this for a Christmas Eve service intersperse scriptures related to the birth of Jesus throughout the readings and singing. You might have your choir begin singing "Joy to the World" as a benediction. 

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