Songs from the Gospels
These three songs for Advent and Christmas are scheduled for inclusion in a forthcoming hymnal based directly on New Testament texts copublished by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Faith Alive Christian Resources. The committee charged with selecting Scripture texts that are most likely to be connected to preaching texts for the collection has found it a very interesting exercise.
The difference between hymns and Scripture songs is, in a way, analogous to the difference between Scripture and sermon in a worship service. Sermons are the proclamation of Scripture, and many “sermon hymns” proclaim the truths of Scripture, though we also sing hymns that are prayers and testimonies.
The texts for this collection include scriptural narratives and teaching, sometimes using words straight from the New Testament, but more often they use arrangements in metrical form, similar to the metrical tradition of singing the psalms.
In Matthew’s Gospel There Are Five
The gospel according to Matthew begins with the long list of Jesus’ ancestors. Forty-two generations are listed in three sets offourteen, from Abraham to David, to the exile in Babylon, and then to the birth of Christ. I don’t remember hearing much preaching on this passage—until the past few years, when I’ve heard two excellent sermons on the topic.
Traditionally, one’s lineage was traced from fathers to sons. But Matthew includes the names of five women as well—women who were strangely out of character for the family tree of someone who was to be the Messiah. These women were all on the fringes of society, and not all of them were Jews. Their lives tell fascinating stories about God’s vision for salvation for all people, and their stories bring hope to everyone, especially the outcasts of society. (See pp. 22-23 for more information on these women.)
The song begins with its theme, followed by a refrain that connects each of these women to us, encouragingeveryone who might be on the fringes of society to rejoice in God’s power: “If God could find a use for them . . . then surely God can use us too.” Stanzas follow for each of the characters (see the Scripture references at the bottom of the song credits).
Sing the first and last stanzas, plus one inner stanza if preaching on a passage including just one of these women. Or sing the first and last stanzas and have someone read the inner stanzas.
The following comments could be used in bulletin notes or in a spoken introduction:
- Stanza 2 is about Tamar, a widow who seduced her fatherin- law, Judah, who had denied her justice. Tamar hoped for a child who would provide her with security, but in the long view, she gained a Child who would be her Savior!
- Stanza 3 celebrates Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho who protected Joshua’s spies. As a reward, she was spared when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down and was adopted into God’s family.
- Stanza 4 tells the story of Ruth. Like Tamar, she was a widow; like Rahab, she was a Gentile. But when she moved to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, she became the wife of Boaz and the great-grandmother of King David.
- Stanza 5 sings of beautiful Bathsheba, whom King David wanted for his own. He shamefully arranged to have her husband killed so he could marry her.
- Stanza 6 brings us to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was unmarried when she became pregnant.
All these stories of interracial marriage, adultery, and “illegitimate” children offer hope and encouragement today to people who are on the fringes of society but who are called to be our sisters and brothers in Christ—part of our own family today.
- Have musicians play this song as a prelude to introduce the melody before it is sung during the service.
- Have a soloist, choir, or worship team sing the stanzas, and have everyone join on the refrain.
- If this music would be difficult for your congregation (or small group or education class), consider singing to a familiar Common Meter Double tune, perhaps even one with an Advent or Christmas connotation such as noel. In that case, you would need to omit the refrain.
Here are some other worship ideas from Time Now to Gather, where this hymn was first published:
This hymn will encourage persons in a twelve-step recovery program or life situations that cause them to fear rejection by their faith community. It may also be used when any of the stories is the assigned text for the day. The hymn could also be used as the basis for a six-week adult class, a unit for a women’s Bible study group, or a project for an arts group in the church. Each weekly session could focus on the story of one of the “faith mothers” and issues it raises for women intoday’s world. The last session could be used to plan a creative dramatization for worship, possibly incorporating scripture accounts or paraphrases of the women’s stories and contemporary examples of women facing similar plights. Solo speakers, singers, or dancers could be assigned individual stanzas.—Mary N. Keithahn and John Horman, Time Now to Gather: New Hymns for the Church Family, Abingdon Press, 1998.
About the Author and Composer
The text was written by Mary Nelson Keithan, a pastorin the United Church of Christ based in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is the author of many hymns, articles, and materials for church education. John Horman wrote the music for her text; he is a retired elementary music teacher and minister of music at Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church in Kensington, Maryland. Both have extensive experience in leading workshops and have collaborated fruitfully on many anthems and on several published collections of new hymns. For more informationon both of them, see http://www.hymnsetc.com/biography.htm.
Angels in the Field Appear
Part of the joy of working on a newhymnal is trying to find just the rightmatch for texts and tunes. Sometimes,as in our first song, a poet and composerwork together, and sometimes, as in thesetting of the Magnificat on page 32,a composer works quite directly fromScripture. But in many cases, a poetworks in a structure that calls for a tunecomposed by someone else.
In this setting of the Christmas storyfrom Luke 2, Daniel Merrick chose the particular meter of 77 77, meaning that each of the four lines of poetry is seven syllables long. Only a few hymns have that same structure, so there are not many 77 77 tunes. henden is one, traditionally sung to “Take My Life, and Let It Be,” but that tune is not a good choice for this Christmas text.
The committee decided that the tune lauds had just the right sparkle of joy to carry this narrative text and provide a fresh setting. Five stanzas recount the story of the angels and shepherds, each ending with the refrain
Unto you a child is born
on this blessed Christmas morn!”
The refrain is repeated untilthe final stanza, which turns the announcement of the angels into a sung confession:
This, our Christ, has come to earth;
Hail, all hail his wondrous birth.
Suggestions for Using This Song
Here again, the several stanzas call for variety. You could have the congregation sing with organ or worship team. Or you may want to turn this song into a little “concertato” involving adult choir, children’s choir, congregation, handbells, organ, and trumpet, as follows:
- Introduction: Bell fanfare
- Stanza 1: Adult and children’s choir in unison with bell descant and organ; bell fanfare as interlude between stanzas 1-2.
- Stanza 2: Children’s choir in unison with adult choir humming on harmony, organ as needed; no interlude between 2 and 3.
- Stanza 3: Same as for stanza 2, this time followed by interlude.
- Stanzas 4-5: Add congregation; after stanza 5 play complete fanfare.
- Stanza 6: Everyone sings with full organ, and add the trumpet descant.
Bonus tip: Use these same ideas again at Pentecost for this tune with the words of “Holy Spirit, Mighty God” (Psalter Hymnal 278).
About the Author and Composer
Text writer Daniel B. Merrick (1926- 2004) was a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and was editor of the Chalice Hymnal (1995).
John Wilson (1905-1992) was a major force in the British “hymn explosion” during the second half of the twentieth century as a composer, hymnal editor, and teacher. He taught music at the Royal College of Music in London from 1965-1980.
My Soul Does Magnify the Lord
The Song of Mary, also called the Magnificat, is always in season, but never more so than during Advent and Christmas. Here is a setting by African American composer Grayson Warren Brown, an internationally known liturgical song writer, author, recording artist, and speaker (www.graysonwarrenbrown.com).
This setting is accessible to any congregation. The tune has a narrow range with plenty of repetition. Phrases of text alternate with rests while the accompaniment picks up the movement, sustaining and building the energy for each successive phrase. In fact, because this song is so simple and easy to sing, the repetition in seven stanzas requires creativity to keep the momentum; it would be deadly to sing every stanza the same! Following are several ideas that will ensure that this song is not only singable the first time, but a joyful experience for young and old alike.
- Have a young girl sing the first two stanzas as a solo, then add the congregation.
- Alternate some stanzas between women and men: women on 2 and 4, men on 3 and 5. To be more inclusive of children, consider “sisters” and “brothers” rather than“women” and “men.”
- Consider singing the first five stanzas during the service and the last two as the doxology for a joyful conclusion to the worship service. Music Suggestions
- Use piano, and if at all possible add a bass guitar, either electric or acoustic. If you don’t have a bass player, have the organist play the bass line with strong support on the 16 foot stops.
- Choose a tempo that moves yet lets the text come through well (around 92 beats per minute).
- After the initial strong downbeat, keep the accompaniment to a minimum for the rest of that opening measure, or even drop out the rest of that first measure on each stanza, for the joy and contrast of hearing only the text on that measure each time.
- The notes on the page are minimal; feel free to improvise, adding variety and energy based on the text. For stanza 3, for example, play quietly on the first half, and then build up for the second half.
Celebrating Hymn Writers’ Anniversaries
2007 marks major anniversaries for many significant hymn writers. Here are a few of them, along with some suggestionsfor remembering and honoring their contributions to our worship life:
- 400th Paul Gerhardt (b. 1607), German pastor and author of many hymns, including the Advent hymn “O Lord, How Shall We Meet You” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
- 400th Johann Rist (b. 1607), German pastor, physician, and poet, author of “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.”
- 300th Charles Wesley (b. 1707), English pastor and author of more than 6,500 hymns, including “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
- 275th Franz Joseph Haydn (b. 1732), Austrian composer of the tunes cr eation and austrian hymn.
- 200th Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (b. 1807), American poet, author of “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine.”
- 200th John Newton (b. 1807), former slave trader; English pastor and writer of hymns, including “Amazing Grace” (also see the recent movie by this title), “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and “Glorious Things of You Are Spoken”
- 200th Christopher Wordsworth (b. 1807), English writer and Greek scholar, author of “Alleluia! Alleluia!” “See, the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph,” and “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.”
These are just a few; see the Winter 2007 issue of The Hymn (Vol. 58, No. 1), published by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (www.thehymnsociety.org) for a much larger list.
Here are three ideas for celebrating these anniversaries:
- When choosing hymns by any of these hymn writers for worship, include a bulletin note; for information, consult the companion to your hymnal (such as the Psalter Hymnal Handbook) or Austin Lovelace’s little gem Hymn Notes for Church Bulletins (available from the Hymn Society Book Service; see web address above).
- For All Saints Day or the first Sunday in November, plan to include some of these songs with song notes and prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts of these hymn writers.
- Plan a hymn festival of songs and anthems featuring texts and tunes by these hymn writers.