Singing the Christmas Gospel

One of the surprises of Christmas is who was “in the know”: a group of shepherds, an old man and an old woman, a group of foreigners. The good news of Christ’s birth went forth into unlikely places and was spread among people of all backgrounds. For centuries, missions meant taking the gospel message and going or sending people to another place in the world to share it. Today, the world is no longer far away, and one of the ways we experience the global church is through our worship music.

Each of the songs that follows originates on a different continent. They were selected because they remind God’s people that we are both recipients and ambassadors of God’s gift of love. While not all the songs were originally intended for the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, the texts directly address this season of waiting, hoping, giving, and receiving. Whether you select one or all of these songs this season, take advantage of the opportunity to be publicly grateful for the gift of worship songs from other lands as a reminder of God’s missional work that has borne good fruit.

If these songs are new to your congregation, be creative and intentional about teaching them. Teach the song first to a smaller group, such as the choir, your youth group, the elders and deacons, or a Bible study group. Use the tune as prelude or offertory. Plan a “Cookies and Carols” night that provides a more casual setting for singing some of the oldies and for teaching new songs. Select the song as the “hymn of the season” and sing it each week of Advent. Next year you’ll be able to pull the song out for a one-time singing and your congregation will confidently sing along.

God’s Love Made Visible

As the story goes, jazz legend Dave Brubeck wrote this tune, then told his wife Iola that he’d written a new Christmas carol. “Oh, no you haven’t,” she said, and began to sing out short phrases of adoration based on John 1:14. Together they penned a strong text that joyfully celebrates the power and love of God shown in Jesus.

Many Christmas songs tell the story of the birth of Christ. We sing about the characters: Mary and Joseph, angels, stars, wise men, and shepherds. We sing about scenes: the hills, the stable, the wintery setting of the Northern Hemisphere during the Christmas season. This song is different. Instead of recounting the story, it offers a simple theological truth embedded in the story: God’s love is made visible! The second half of each verse applies this truth, inviting us to pray for the world and to live with open hearts filled with good will toward all. It is a full sermon in a song!

Dave Brubeck is known for interesting polyrhythms, which he claims were inspired by long hours of sitting in a saddle on his father’s ranch. Don’t be intimidated by the 5/4 time—it makes perfect sense once you start to play and sing. The tempo should move along, but please don’t push it as fast as the examples on YouTube do! Keep it slow enough to feel the rhythm and to sing it at a pace that allows the congregation to take in the fabulous text.

A good recording of this song can be found on the CD Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity. For more information on the life and music of Dave Brubeck, visit tinyurl.com/brubeckpilgrimage or davebrubeck.com/live/.

He Came Down

This song of just eight bars may seem too short, and its melody may feel child-like in its simplicity, but those characteristics offer you many creative options for singing:

  • Have a bold soloist sing a verse extremely slowly with freedom of expression, moving around in the melodic line as desired.
  • Teach the song to children and have them teach it to the congregation.
  • Learn the simple signs for the significant words (see p. 15).
  • Sing by memory (no screens or books) and encourage people to focus their eyes and attention on either the Advent candles, the cross, or some other significant object or place in the sanctuary.
  • If a sermon series follows the same pattern of hope, peace, joy, love, and life, use this as the song of response sung a cappella to end the prayer of application.

The advantages of brevity and simplicity also benefit your musician. Younger or less experienced musicians can easily learn to play this song and lead the congregation. More experienced musicians wanting to break away from reading music can learn this short melodic and chord pattern by ear or by heart and then play it in multiple keys. We’ve included a few keys here, but some musicians might be ready for the challenge of just imagining the song in its new key and playing it on their own.

These songs remind God’s people that they are both recipients and ambassadors of God’s gift of love.

I frequently start with two verses played with a simple style in the key of D, then move up to E using a three-note transition (see the last measure). An island beat seems to sneak its way into the song at this point, as we sing about the gift of joy. Move up again to F for the “love” verse, and end in the original key of G for the “life” verse. (Note that the soloist line “Why did Christ come?” will need to be changed or eliminated as you change keys.)

The key changes are not only a good musical exercise, they add increased energy and anticipation to the congregation’s singing as they exuberantly declare the accumulating gifts of God.

Mikotoba a kudasai/ Send Your Word, O Lord

The pairing of this tender tune with its plaintive text conveys the lament of our waiting in Advent. It invites us to admit the painful truth that “we would all be lost in dark if without your guiding light.” We can then reflect with compassion on those who remain lost in darkness without the good news of the Light that has come to give life.

This song can be sung throughout the church year as a call to confession, a prayer for illumination, or a response to the reading of the Word. The lyrical melody is well suited for various solo instruments: strings, oboe, French horn, and others. Ask an instrumentalist to play while the words are projected and invite the congregation to silently pray as they listen.

The tight but simple harmonies allow a choir to sing with minimal accompaniment. Piano or organ work well, as do a harp or simple guitar chords. A soloist with a lower voice could sing stanza 1 with in the open chords of A minor before moving to C minor.

Though not originally intended as a seasonal song, the direct translation of the Japanese title hints at a Christmas connection: “Make a gift of your Holy Word.” The text also pleads for the Word that brings life to come and give light to the earth. It begs to be paired with the words of John 1.

El cielo canta alegria/Heaven Is Singing for Joy

Pablo Sosa is a minister and musician in his home country of Argentina. He has also been a “missionary of music” around the world by encouraging the growth of global hymnody. Sosa first began to write music for his own people to help them worship not only in the words of their own language, but also in the tones, rhythms, and musical structures of their own hearts. The song El cielo canta alegria was written in 1958 when Sosa was 25, and it was the first of his many contributions to the repertoire of worship songs in Latin America.

Note the missional emphasis of this song as the verses progress from celebrating a personal experience of the glory of God to unity in the love of God and finally to bearing witness to others about this God. It reflects the outward movement to “Jerusalem, Judea, and outermost parts of the world” and reminds us that a message we wish to give away must first be embedded in our own hearts and expressed in relationships directly around us.

As with several other choices in this set, this is not strictly a seasonal song. The same can be said for one of the most popular songs of the season: “Joy to the World.” Yes, it’s true that this song is often found in the Christmas section of our hymnals, and woe be unto any music director who neglects to include it at least once between the beginning of Advent and the new year! But this rendition of Psalm 98 declares a truth that we need throughout the year: God who is sovereign, forgiving, just, and loving has come, is here, and will come again! So there is a great return on investment for learning Sosa’s song and for pairing it with “Joy to the World” (See music on the next page). Your congregation can sing these songs all year long.

Enjoy singing this song! After all, the text reminds us that creation is singing for joy, so why shouldn’t we? Sosa used the Latin folk dance rhythm called the carnavalito to drive the song—doesn’t that sound like a great party?

For inspiration, check out these performances on Youtube:

ACSI performance:
http://tinyurl.com/qyt4x9b

Children’s Chorus of Nova Scotia:
http://tinyurl.com/nuhmnk9

Consejo Unido de Educación Cristiana:
http://tinyurl.com/pdsfo52

 

Pablo Sosa has shared his lifelong passion for church music by lecturing widely. His worship songs have been translated into English, German, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese. To better understand his pastoral heart and enthusiasm for congregational singing and for the inclusion of global music, see the article “Can Songs Bring Reconciliation?” in RW 68 or the article “Pablo Sosa on Congregational Singing” at worship.calvin.edu.

You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t included the most familiar Christmas mission song: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” I didn’t forget it; I just assumed that there are already so many options available. Every Christmas collection seems to include a stylized arrangement. I enjoy James Taylor’s light bluegrass interpretation as well as some of the gospel renditions thick with piano embellishments.

You likely already have this song in your choral files in a range of styles. Encourage your musicians to “feel” the song and experiment with rhythm, pace, volume, and other style elements using ideas from their choral and instrumental files as well as the many recordings available. As with the song “He Came Down,” this song is a great opportunity for musicians to gain confidence in playing by chords and developing their own feel. Work together to match the tone of the song with its purpose and place in the worship service. For instance, sing it in a whisper in solidarity with those who must worship quietly for fear of being persecuted, but who still proclaim (sometimes in a whisper) the life-changing truth of the gospel story.

Three of my favorite arrangements of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” are found in the following piano books:

  • Christmas at the Keyboard with Mark Hayes, Gaither Music Company, copyright 1985.
  • Christmas Reflections for Piano by Teresa Wilhelmi, Lillenas Publishing Co., copyright 1984.
  • A Christmas Tapestry by Jospeh Martin, Malcolm Music, Div. of Shawnee Press, copyright 1997.
Resources

is an Ordained Minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She writes and consults on a variety of worship topics, including inter-generational, inter-cultural, creative and constructive planning, and music. Joy also shares preaching expertise as the Adjunct Professor of Homiletics at Denver Seminary and she coaches speakers through Dynamic Communicators, Inc. Joy lives in Denver, CO with her two daughters and husband, Bob.