Share |

Songs for the Christmas Cycle

Psalm 126/When God Restored Our Common Life; In the Heavens There Shone a Star; Psalm 30/I Will Praise You, O God; Psalm 111/The Fear of the Lord

Every year Christians celebrate the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter that give meaning to our lives: Christ’s coming to earth in human form and in humility, and Christ’s return to his Father in a glorified human body. This year, Advent begins on November 27 with the Scripture passages in the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B.

Here are four songs: a psalm for Advent, a hymn for Christmas, and two psalms for the season of Epiphany. Three psalms were chosen because there has been a lot of energy generated on which psalms to include in the forthcoming hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, to be released in 2013 by Faith Alive Christian Resources.

The research on the psalms turned up so many wonderful settings that a whole separate volume of psalms has now been planned. Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship, will be copublished in 2012 by Baker Books, The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Faith Alive Christian Resources. Every psalm will have multiple settings: for reading, chanting, and singing the psalms in many different old and new styles. Here is a foretaste of a few psalms under consideration, along with a lovely Christmas hymn from the Philippines.

Psalm 126: When God Restored Our Common Life

For those who use the lectionary, Psalm 126 is scheduled for singing on December 11, 2011, the third Sunday of Advent. Many churches follow the Old Testament reading with a psalm; for this year the selected reading is Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, the passage Jesus quoted at the beginning of his ministry: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. . . .” That was joyful news to the people of Israel, and it is joyful news today. Christ came to “bind up the brokenhearted . . . proclaim freedom for the captives . . . release from darkness for the prisoners . . . to comfort all who mourn.”

Psalm 126 is a very appropriate response to that joyful news, and the third Sunday of Advent is often characterized by joy. Ruth Duck, author of many hymns and professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, wrote this setting in a traditional metrical form, covering the psalm in two stanzas and then adding a third in the form of a prayer “for all who are oppressed.” This setting was included in her 1994 collection Dancing in the Universe (GIA, 1992).

This text, she says, was “inspired by Psalm 126 . . . for all who have dedicated themselves to a journey of liberation and justice. Although at times the journey appears to lead through a never-ending wilderness, the Spirit is at work among us, transforming tears to life-giving water.”

Some hymnals set this text to resignation; others set it to salvation. Both tunes are appropriate, and both delightfully include a bit of “text painting” with upward movement on the words “spring up” in the last line. I also enjoy the allusion to Psalm 23 in resignation, historically associated with “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” Both of these American folk tunes serve the hymn well, whether accompanied by organ, piano, or a worship team.

In the Heavens There Shone a Star

This Christmas song from the Philippines is full of gentle beauty—for singing by congregations, children, and/or choirs during Christmastide, perhaps for a service of lessons and carols. The congregational setting here is also included in Global Songs for Worship (Faith Alive, 2010). Thanks to Joel Navarro, composer and professor of choral music at Calvin College and former professor at the University of the Philippines in his native country, we also have a complete anthem available for purchase at www.faithaliveresources.org (under Worship/music downloads).

Stanza 1 describes a star in the night bringing light to herald the birth of Christ. Stanza 2 tells the story of the shepherds. But rather than focusing on the glorious message of the angels, the text continues with quiet awe as the shepherds greet the Christ child. The star returns in stanza 3, leading wise men on a journey until they too bow down to worship the Christ child and offer gifts befitting the birth of a king. The final stanza invites us also to adore the Holy Child “with wonder and with awe.”

The melody evokes the quiet and wonder of a starlit night, and the little refrain at the end invites an echoing repetition on the “Christmas Day,” as heard on the lovely recording on the Global Songs for Worship CD, also available from Faith Alive. The accompaniment could be played by keyboard, though the music begs for something more evocative of night skies and the vast and soundless speech communicated by the heavens (Ps. 19:1-4). A hymnal version like the one provided here almost always includes melody for the right hand and a lower bass accompaniment for the left hand. But the celestial setting invites a more treble, shimmering accompaniment. So I asked Joel Navarro if he would be willing to make some performance suggestions using higher instruments and perhaps adding a descant. He responded by composing an entire anthem for unison choir, handbells (or plucked guitar or harp), recorder (or flute), and cello (or possibly organ pedal as a substitute), with several performance suggestions.

You may purchase one copy of this anthem and make as many copies as you need for use in your school or congregation. This anthem is available for purchase as a download at Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.faithaliveresources.org.

Check out this video for a version of "In the Heavens There Shone a Star" performed with dance at the Global Music Celebration, March 2, 2011, Second Christian Reformed Church, Grand Haven, Michigan.

Two people are credited with the text of this anthem: Jonathan Malicsi, professor of linguistics at the University of the Philippines, and Harry Ellsworth Chandlee, a longtime professor of liturgy at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines.

“Kalinga” refers to a highland people group in northern Philippines. Their pre-Christian music culture has survived Christianization, mainly by the Episcopal Church in the Philippines. Their music is characterized by the use of flat gongs, bamboo stomping tubes, zithers, and flutes.

—Joel Navarro

Psalm 30: Te Ensalzaré, Señor / I Will Praise You, O God

Psalm 30 is a joyful testimony of deliverance, of moving from the depths to the heights, from weeping in the night to joy that comes in the morning. The Revised Common Lectionary assigns this psalm for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B (this year on February 12, 2012). The psalm most typically would follow the Old Testament reading scheduled for that Sunday, which is the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14), who reluctantly followed Elisha’s direction to go down into the Jordan—seven times!—and came up healed from his leprosy.

The psalmist also tells a story of deliverance from a time of trouble: he cried out to God and God lifted him “out of the depths” by healing him. The response of the psalmist to this great deliverance is to joyfully go to the temple to give God thanks in public: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” We join in that joyful response to this story, which is a microcosm of the great rhythm of the Christian story: we are “buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

This setting of Psalm 30 by John Bell certainly invites dancing; the music swings! Here are three possible ways to sing and/or read the entire psalm:

1.  The music provided here is a refrain that the congregation could sing before and after the responsive reading of Psalm 30.

2.  The refrain is actually part of a longer anthem (GIA G-5156) with the refrain for choir and the psalm verses sung by a cantor in a more chant-like but still rhythmic singing of the entire psalm adapted by John Bell. To hear a clip of this song go to www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title id=278.

Perhaps the chanting of a psalm would be strange for your congregation, and you feel you’d rather read the psalm. If so, the most important question to ask yourself is this: What would help the congregation best take these words on their lips and hearts as they pray?

Responsive reading may be the most accessible in our culture, and yet chant has a way of reaching deeply into our beings. In adult Sunday school classes, I’ve been impressed by the positive responses of those who were moved by this most ancient way of singing the psalms.

Communities that worship daily can learn to chant together very well; chanting psalms together unites people in a profound way—they even learn to breathe together. Eventually, the psalm is memorized through repetition. But congregations who worship weekly will be more challenged. A cantor can learn to chant the psalm almost as if reading, using speech rhythms so that the text is proclaimed as close to natural speech as possible. But that seemingly simple task takes practice. Like any new practice, it takes time to settle in.

3.  The simplified refrain could also be combined with the chanting of the text to the psalm tone provided. Each pointed verse is divided into two half verses that correspond to the two parts of the Tone melody. (The second half verse is indented.) Each half verse has a red dot within it indicating when the singers move from the reciting tone (v) and continue with the rest of the melody.

A competent and confident pianist is needed to help the music swing. Whatever way you sing Psalm 30, enjoy the exuberant melody, adding if possible a flute and trumpet (from the choral score) for an even more festive song of praise.

John Bell, lead musician, worship leader, and composer for the Iona Community in Scotland, is scheduled to come to the Calvin Symposium on Worship, January 26-28, 2012 (for more information visit www.calvin.edu/worship. If you are able to come and sing under his leadership, you just might find yourself dancing too. Other presenters include N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann.

Psalm 111: The Fear of the Lord

Here is one more psalm to consider. Psalm 111 is the first of a whole set of psalms of praise (Psalms 111-118) that begin with the word Hallelujah and recount the great works of our covenant God. (Note that Hallelujah is often translated “Praise the Lord” in current translations, including the new NIV and the NRSV; the small caps on Lord indicates the way Christians and Jews have often addressed God rather than speaking the name “Yahweh.”)

Psalm 111 ends with wisdom instruction in the often-memorized final verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That wisdom verse must have been a commonly recited proverb in Israel as well, since it is found also in Job 28:28, Proverbs 1:7, and Proverbs 9:10.

Psalm 111 is set here with a refrain by Jay Wilkey, a retired Presbyterian church musician.  Consider asking your children to lead the congregation in this refrain, and then have a cantor read—or chant!—the entire psalm.