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Mirroring the Psalms in Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with Psalm 74

Let’s face it: Advent has been hijacked. Most people, including many Christians, consider Black Friday to be the beginning of the Christmas season. But long before the crush of holiday shopping at the end of November, Christmas lights festoon our streets and malls and the sound of Christmas jingles is inescapable.

Many churches are struggling to maintain some semblance of Advent. The singing of Advent hymns is often a preferred strategy. But even these songs can be overwhelmed by the dominant soundtrack of holiday cheer. The hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is probably the best-known Advent hymn. But rare is the church that plumbs the despair and lament of this ancient chant. At best, people think of the song as a warm-up to singing carols—a preparation for Christmas. At worst, it’s just another melody to get us through the holiday mayhem.

In order to help a congregation grasp the lament voiced in the hymn, it is perhaps necessary to remove it from its domesticated Advent placement. The hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts suggests the coupling of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with a psalm of deep lament, Psalm 74. In this psalm we hear the wailing of a community that has experienced desecration, desolation and destruction. The psalm, like the hymn, prays for God to deliver us from the depths of hell, from the yawning grave.

Consider that the psalter is a book shared in common by Christians and Jews. On November 9 and 10 we take stock of what many mark as the beginning of the Nazi pogrom against the Jewish people. It was on this night in 1938 that thousands upon thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in Germany and Austria were damaged or destroyed. It came to be known as Kristallnacht, or “the night of shattering glass.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the date of Kristallnacht in his Bible at Psalm 74. The psalm has long been associated with Holocaust remembrance.

Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything
in the sanctuary. (Ps. 74:3)

Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light.

Selected stanzas of the Advent hymn might be sung by the congregation between sections of Psalm 74 read by a liturgist. At an evening service on November 9, the reading of Psalm 74 with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” could be prayed in solidarity with victims and survivors of the Holocaust and with communities of faith around the globe that still face violence and trauma. This may also be an opportunity to reach out to a local Jewish worshiping community in order to commiserate through shared stories and prayers.

Sing the hymn unaccompanied and in unison. Under the reading, some of the singers can sustain a voiced drone on the tonic (the first note of the hymn). The psalm reader need not be dramatic; the text is dramatic enough. The first section in particular might be read with forward momentum, as one hurriedly unburdening himself of a traumatic memory. After the final stanza the refrain may be sung, but this is not necessary. After several minutes of silence, conclude with a responsive prayer:

Those who rehearse this hymn with the psalm in November will better grasp Advent longing and lament, come December.

A Trilogy of Christmas Psalms: “Sing to the Lord a New Song” (Psalm 96); “God Reigns! Earth Rejoices” (Psalm 97); “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98)

There are three psalms that have long been associated with Christmas: Psalms 96, 97, and 98. These psalms are handed to us as a set. As bookends, Psalms 96 and 98 both begin with an exhortation to sing a new song to the Lord. All three psalms depict the cosmos bursting out in joyful song at the coming of the Lord. The coming king will judge with truth and righteousness.

Experienced together, the three psalms are breathtaking and the connection to Christmas is natural. The confession of the early church was “Christ is King; Jesus is Lord.” These psalms orient us to Jesus, both his coming to us and his righteous reign.

In the last century, psalm-singing has fallen on hard times. Particularly at Christmas time, psalmody can be a tough sell. It is about the only time when the extended church family can agree on what we should sing, and they’re not clamoring for psalms—they want carols. We love the “time travel” carols that bring us back to Bethlehem to overhear angel choruses and to peek in on the manger scene. Until recently the Christmas psalms were tucked away in a separate psalter section where they could easily be closeted for the holidays. Come Christmas, we are focused on carols, not psalms.

But the psalms can broaden our Christmas praise. They open us up to prophetic witness. They expand our language of prayer and praise. To quote John Calvin, writing in the preface to the French psalter of 1543, “ . . . when we shall have moved all around to search here and there, we shall find no better nor more proper songs to do this than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has spoken and made through him. And thus, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts on our mouth the words, as if he himself were singing with us to exalt his glory.”

The psalms can broaden our Christmas praise. They open us up to prophetic witness. They expand our language of prayer and praise.

Two recent hymnals in the Reformed tradition—Glory to God (PCUSA) and Lift Up Your Hearts (CRC and RCA)—have made a point of prominently titling psalms and then placing them throughout the hymnal, rather than in a separate psalter. This indeed will help people to run across “Christmas psalms” as they thumb through the Christmas sections of the hymnal. Also, the coupling of these psalm stanzas with Christmas tunes can help to solidify a Christmas connection.

Scott Soper’s versification of Psalm 96, “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” is paired with the chorale melody ES IST EIN’ ROS ENTSPRUNGEN, in English known as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” For those accustomed to singing metrical versions of Psalm 96, this mild tune may come as a surprise. Normally these Christmas psalms are matched with bold melodies and sung loudly. We imagine that if creation sings it must be fortissimo, cacophonic. Soper’s choice of melody turns this assumption on its head. The song of creation need not be fast and furious. Here, strength is measured in breadth and unfolds over time. The song of heaven and earth is soft but pervasive—like the mystic music of the spheres. When possible, sing the Michael Praetorius harmony with minimal or no accompaniment. The 16th-century melody also works well when sung in unison with gentle guitar accompaniment, mimicking a Renaissance lute.

Likewise, Michael Morgan sets his versification of Psalm 97, “God Reigns! Earth Rejoices!” to a melody with Christmas associations. The tune, NO¨EL NOUVELET, is often sung in English with the text “Sing We Now of Christmas.” (It is also associated with the Easter text “Now the Green Blade Rises,” a link also worth exploring.)

Morgan mines Christmas allusions from the psalm. God comes to us in blazing glory. In contrast to the ethereal effect of the previous psalm setting, here we are invited to dance! If accompanied by organ, use a bright combination of stops. To get at the medieval roots of the tune you might reduce the accompaniment to a single hand drum with the melody doubled by a recorder, flute, or oboe. You could also add strings to cover the lower accompaniment parts.

Isaac Watts’ versification of Psalm 98 needs no introduction. Nor do we need to convince our congregations that there is a link between this psalm setting and Christmas. “Joy to the World” is firmly fixed in the canon of Christmas carols. When you stop to think about it, it is truly amazing that our secular culture has come to embrace this psalm solely because of its Christmas associations. Without mention of Jesus or Christ, we know him to be the King and Savior alluded to in the psalm, the one who comes to rule with truth, grace, and righteousness. But what many in our congregations do not know is that this hymn is indeed linked to a psalm. Watts’ text forms a familiar and satisfying final movement in this Christmas symphony of psalms. (For suggestions on how to sing “Joy to the World,” see Joy Engelsman’s article in RW 109.)

Rather than singing this trilogy of Christmas psalms in a single service, consider how you might use them in three successive Christmastide services. Psalm 96 could be sung on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Psalms 97 and 98 could then be sung on the two Sundays that fall in Christmastide.

“Blest Are the Innocents”: An Epiphany Lament

“Blest Are the Innocents” is not a psalm. But Sylvia Dunstan obviously took cues from the laments that we find in the psalter, such as Psalms 9 and 10. (Taken together, these two psalms form an acrostic poem in which every second verse begins with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet.) These psalms protest the murder of the innocent, crying out to the God who hears the prayer of the afflicted, the Lord who takes note of the blood that has been spilt. These psalms don’t spare the hard questions: Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Where were you hiding when this tragedy happened? Ultimately, like the psalter itself, the hymn arcs toward trust and hope in the God who will pull down the tyrants from their thrones and lift those of low degree.

I have heard people argue from all sorts of angles against the singing of this song. Some split hairs over the question of whether we should use the word “innocent” when referring to depraved humanity (though the psalmist has no such qualms). Some suspect that the assertion of “innocents” dying today is tied to some social agenda. (Such suspicions may be stoked by both the left and right of the political spectrum.) Others assume that questioning God reveals a lack of faith.

These arguments may simply be a smokescreen for the discomfort in the singing of such a song. Such discomfort mirrors our unease with the gospel narrative itself. The slaughter of the children is a fly in the ointment (cf. Eccl. 10:1a). Our pageants may include the magi foiling Herod’s plan by returning another way, but we do not reenact the ensuing rage of the king exacted on innocent children.

So then, what point is there in singing this song? The point of singing it is to remember the story it tells. It is part of the Bible’s narrative. It is part of gospel truth. Christ’s epiphany was met by the darkest forces of principality and power. Some traditions refer to these children as the first Christian martyrs, the first to be killed for the sake of Christ. Later in this same gospel, Christ pronounces blessing on those who are persecuted on his account (cf. Matt. 5:10-11). These children should be remembered. And, indeed, we must also remember those who continue to be victimized today, particularly those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the weak, the elderly, the young, and those yet to be born. God hears the crying, shines out our secrets, gathers our memories.

How should we sing such a sorrowful song? In RW 93, James Hart Brumm wrote about this text:

Dunstan herself married the text to the Irish tune SLANE, best known as a match for “Be Thou My Vision”. . . . In some ways, however, the tune is not entirely satisfactory to me; perhaps because it’s so familiar and we’re accustomed to hearing it connected with a soothing, peaceful text. This is a text that should be given serious consideration for the next round of denominational hymnals, and one that needs a new tune composed for it.

The editors of the hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts took James Hart Brumm’s admonition to heart. This text was one of several for which the committee put out a call for new tunes. I was one of the members of the panel that evaluated these melodies. (Names of composers were removed from music manuscripts in order to level the playing field—we all had composer-friends and favorites!) Upon singing the text to the tune beta, we soon agreed that this was a perfect match. The melodic interest will sustain the singing of the lament by a soloist or ensemble, yet it is intuitive and easily sung by the congregation.

It turned out that the composer, David Landegent, is not first and foremost a musician, but rather a pastor in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) currently serving a congregation in Volga, South Dakota. We next commissioned Albert Chung to compose a keyboard accompaniment. Chung is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in art and religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His accompaniment is a fusion of styles, but it ends up feeling like “the blues,” an appropriate leaning for this text.

When leading this song, don’t go too fast. In our seminary chapel, 80 bpm works great. While the piano accompaniment functions fine on its own, expand on this if you can. Light drum (use brushes), bass, and an improvising saxophone player with the keyboard make for a perfect accompanying combo.

When you are telling the story of Christ’s life, whether in a sermon series or in a hymn festival, resist the urge to pass over this narrative. It’s tragic. It’s hard to fathom. But it’s undeniably part of the story. “Blest Are the Innocents” mirrors the psalms, the gospel, and something of our present age. And, in the end, it points to hope, to the God who ransoms, heals, restores, and forgives. To whom else should we go?