World and Modern Songs of Incarnation
Discovering fresh worship music for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphanycan certainly be a challenge. In no other season is the pressure to singfamiliar songs so evident. And yet, in this season we are surrounded bywhat we already know. We hear the old Christmas strains on our commute,at Starbucks, and in the mall.
To help my faith community stay spiritually awake in December, I usetwo methods: creatively arranging old favorites and introducing newworld and modern songs. Here are a few suggestions for doing both.
He Came Down
I introduced my former congregation to this lively world song. That first year our children’s choir, made up of kids age three to seven, taught us a new stanza every week. We worshiped across the generations joyfully together. (See p. 12 for an example of how this song was incorporated into a worship service.)
Lyrically, the song is simple. Its clarity removes the distractions of the Christmas season; its text presents to us the simple but profound questions “Why did Christ come?” In doing so, it echoes Heidelberg Catechism question and answers 35 and 36. The song speaks of hope, peace, joy, love, and life. Living into that abundance is possible because Jesus “took on our flesh and blood, yet lived with innocence and perfect holiness” (Q&A 35-36). We have the wonderful responsibility of reminding our congregations that Christmasis about God coming in the flesh.
Musically, “He Came Down” is energetic and enthusiastic. It fits well in an opening set of songs, particularly if your congregation sings a blend of Advent songs and standard worship songs during the first two weeks of Advent. The song can be learned during Advent and sung throughout the year as a reminder of the benefits of Christ’s incarnation. Each stanza is only eight measures, so don’t be afraid to play it all the way through as an introduction, especially when teaching it. Most folks don’t see triplet rhythms every Sunday, so it is best to teach this song how it is learned in Cameroon: by ear. It can be easily led by djembe, bass guitar, and acoustic guitar. Let the rhythmic instruments drive it. A melodic instrument such as a flute or recorder is great for introducing the melody. A piano could also provide melody, but don’t get near the sustain pedal! If we’re singing all five stanzas, I like to drop the piano and use my guitar for the third and fourth stanzas. The congregation will be joyfully singing over only bass guitar and percussion. Guitarists, add to this percussive feel by continuing your right-hand rhythm while muting the strings with your left hand.
This song comes to us from Cameroon via Scotland, thanks to John Belland the Iona Community. A group of Presbyterians from Cameroon taught John this song at a worship conference in 1986. He transcribed it on the spot. It was first published in 1990 and appears in Sing! A NewCreation, Sing With Me, Songs for LiFE, and Worship &Rejoice.
How Many Kings
Another modern worship song that tells of Jesus coming down at Christmas is “How Many Kings,” written by Marc Martel and Jason Germain of the band Downhere and featured on their Christmas album released in 2009.
The text of this song calls us to imagine all that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did for us in the incarnation. The opening line compels us to “follow the star to a place unexpected.” And while the geography was prophesied, our minds are taken to an unexpected place: God as a baby. This is the radical Christmas gospel we all need to hear.
The chorus contains the line “How many greats have become the least for me?” In doing so, it harkens back to the apostle Paul’s hymn in Philippians 2:5-7: “. . . have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, didnot consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” In clear terms, Marteland Germain remind us of the power contained in Jesus’ humility.
Musically, the song has a typical pop structure: stanza, chorus, stanza, chorus, outro. It requires some editing to make it congregationally appropriate, as my arrangement has done. I have removed many of the vocal gymnastics found in the outro so that it can be easily taught and led. The song is recorded in the key of B major (G major chord shapes with a capo at the fourth fret) but I have moved it down to G major for congregational singing. It can be accompanied well by a band comprised of piano, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and drum kit.
The melody of the chorus is much more varied than that of the stanza, so you’ll want to use the last half of the chorus as an introduction. Have the piano play it an octave up to distinguish it from the guitar. Guitar and piano can support the song by themselves until the chorus, at which point you should add bass guitar, drums, or percussion. Keep the rhythm section on board from that point forward, playing roots and fifths in the bass guitar on the stanzas.
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
One of my favorite developments of the last decade in worship music has been the arrangement of classic hymns for a worship band; perhaps best popularized by Kevin Twit and his crew at igracemusic.com. This allows the theological depth of the songs to be recontextualized for modern ears and hearts. And it has a solid historical precedent! One such example is found in the Epiphany hymn “O Sing a Song ofBethlehem” (CH 291, PH 308, WR 242).
This hymn, which I first discovered in The Presbyterian Hymnal:Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs (1992), summarizes the life of Christ. It takes us on a journey from Bethlehem to Calvary, from incarnation to death to resurrection. The Sunday after Christmas is an opportune time to remind our congregations that the child in the manger became the man on the cross. On Epiphany, many of our pastors preach on Luke 2:25-35, the prophecy of Simeon. This hymn serves that passage extremely well. It was composed in 1899 by Louis F. Benson, a Presbyterian minister and hymnologist.
I have also included an arrangement by Greg Scheer. The tune, known as kingsfold, is an English folk tune. Scheer’s voicings are lively and unexpected (particularly in measure three). The melody goes up to a B but is harmonized with a C2 chord. Can you hear the jazzy warmth of that harmony? That melodic motif is found again at measures seven and fifteen, but this time it is harmonized with an A minor chord.This variety keeps the arrangement simple but interesting—a needed balance.
If your guitarist is comfortable with finger-picking, you’re well on your way to getting the folksy feel this melody calls for. Add some dynamic variety in stanzas 3 and 4 by moving to a straight strum. I keep my picking or strumming steady throughout, except at measure eleven. At that point I let that full C major seven chord ring out! At that point, we finally have a B in both the melody and the harmony. This gives variation and a breadth to your accompaniment. The congregation will love singing that measure almost a capella.
An appropriate turnaround is needed between stanzas. On the fourth beat of the final measure, have the piano or a saxophone reprise the melody from measures fourteen and fifteen. Give a breath and a visual cue on the E minor chord and you’re back in at measure one. To close, you may wish to repeat that last line: “and Christ, our Lord, by heaven adored, is mighty now to save.” What a promise, what a hymn!
My final selection for a fresh modern Christmas song is a hidden gem from the early 1990s. “Manger Throne” was written by Julie Miller, a singer-songwriter who is a Christian. Along with her husband, Buddy Miller, she has recorded for Myrrh and High Tone records since 1990. Originally featured on the 1991 album He Walks Through Walls, this song was re-recorded by Julie, along with Third Day and Derri Daugherty, for the 2005 compilation Come Let Us Adore Him.
At Christmas, we remember that God has come to us. “Manger Throne” responds in wonder and praise. It is a reflection on the goodness of our God, who sent himself to “a humble stall, a dirty manger.” The stanzas tell of God becoming flesh, and the chorus responds in gratitude: “Jesus, Jesus, precious One, how we thank you that you’ve come. A manger throne for God’s own Son.” It awakens us to the mysterious nature of Immanuel. What other king is enthroned in a manger?
Musically, the song is delivered in a flowing 6/8 tempo. The melodic range is only one octave and moves mostly stepwise. You will want to beaware of the two changes in time signature, at measures eight and seventeen. Consider repeating the chorus at the end for added emphasis. The two-measure turnaround between chorus and stanza serves the text well. This song is best led by guitar or piano with a rhythm section if available. A skilled violinist will add a nice texture to this tune as well. The chord changes are on beats one and four throughout. This contributes to the open, flowing feel.
Jesus has come to earth to rescue us. These songs remind us of that life-changing good news, which should be celebrated at Christmas and throughout the year.
Editorial Note: “Manger Throne” is an example of a common issue with much of contemporary/modern music in that it does not use gender inclusive language for humanity. It would be simple to make this song inclusive but we were not able to secure permission to do so.