Worship Amid Pain

The Mission of God in Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Songs

We are pleased to introduce a new series of writers for this Noteworthy column. This column and the ones appearing in the next three issues, though authored by an individual, are the result of a collaboration between four Canada-based writers who are associated with various colleges that make up the University of Toronto. In this issue we will hear from Swee Hong Lim. The other three collaborators are Christina Labriola (RW 118), Hilary Donaldson (RW 119), and Becca Whitla (RW 120).

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany make up the Christmas cycle of Christianity’s liturgical season. It is a cycle that is fixed through the Roman Gregorian or Julian calendar, in contrast to the Easter cycle (Lent to Easter) that is movable and that traces its influence from the Hebrew calendar.

Typically during this period North Americans are caught up with gift-giving and spending time with family. But these rose-tinted expectations are often marred by the the reality of our world. In recent years we have experienced many tragic shootings and other disturbing events. How then might we commemorate this season of hope and expectation in the midst of profound pain and grief? It is in this setting that I’d like to offer some musical suggestions.

“Peace Is Generosity”

In 2012 the world was horrified by the senseless violence in Newtown, Connecticut. Shirley Murray and I were no less affected, and in response we crafted the hymn “Peace Is Generosity,” inspired by the words of martyred Salvadorean archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980).

He wrote,

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent oppression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all
for the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.

—Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love, trans. James R. Brockman (Orbis Books, 1988)

A fairly quick and easy way to introduce this song is to have the song leader encourage the congregation to hum through the melody. Thereafter, have a soloist sing the first stanza, with the congregation joining in the remaining stanzas. Depending on the occasion, a guitar quietly plucked with a flute or recorder on the melody line is equally effective. In terms of liturgical action, this song via congregational humming or quietly played instruments could accompany the lighting of candles as part of a prayer moment concerning peace before its stanzas are corporately sung.

Behold the Lamb of God

In the 21st century with congregations nurtured on brevity and instant gratification, the era of multiple stanzas beyond four is seemingly over. Yet in the recent hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013) we find the song “Behold the Lamb of God,” a wonderful 14-stanza song.

Crafted by Mary Nelson Keithahn and John D. Horman, this song narrates the life and ministry of Jesus. While it is possible to sing this song in its entirety in one setting, I suggest the stanzas be used selectively to meet the needs of specific liturgical occasions. So for the season of Advent/ Christmas/Epiphany, consider singing stanzas 2 to 4 aside from the prescribed stanzas 1 and 14.

Keithahn and Horman have wisely crafted an accessible refrain: “Agnus Dei! Gloria! Behold, the Lamb of God!” With congregations that are less adventurous to try a new song on a cold winter Sunday Advent morning, a four-measure refrain is certainly manageable with various soloists singing the stanzas. Once it is familiar after some use, the congregation could readily sing stanzas 1 and 14 and the refrain, while assigned soloists voice the other appropriate stanzas that befit the occasion.

If a “fuller” instrumentation edition is desired, it is good to note that there is one available through GIA music. In its catalog, “Behold the Lamb of God,” (G-7715) is a version set for unison voice, piano, cello, and a “C” instrument, possibly a flute. This arrangement can be previewed at giamusic.com (search on the song title) and is suitable for choral presentation by children.

For additional information about the carol, see John L. Steckley’s essay “Huron Carol” (www.wyandot.org/Steckley/HuronCarolfinal.pdf ). Video footage about this work is also available at https://youtube.com/hhijYWNlL9A accessed on May 20, 2015. For a biographical account of Jean de Brébeuf, visit biographi.ca or wyandot.org/brebeuf.htm.

’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Since I’ve been teaching in Toronto for the past few years, I have learned of the Huron Carol “Jesous Ahatonnia” (“Jesus Is Born”), better known by its first line “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.” This carol text is considered by some sources to be the first locally composed North American carol.

Written by Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), a French Jesuit missionary to the First Nation (Native American) Huron tribe, it exhibits contextual expressions that were intended to connect with the Huron people by capitalizing on familiar symbols and expressions, making Christianity accessible to a people group that was spiritually aware of the divine.

We can learn much from Brébeuf’s effort as it pertains to our desires to renew our community. How might we enable our music-making to speak in our neighborhood about God without prejudice? Can we harness music to convey the love of God meaningfully to those who are unchurched? Perhaps by drawing on Brébeuf’s zeal for accessible expression, people could be encouraged to pen Christmas texts that speak to contemporary reality during this festive season.

In terms of presentation possibilities, there are two different versions freely available via the Internet. On the IMSLP: Petrucci Music Library website, there is the Michael John Oczko’s setting for mixed chorus and organ (tinyurl.com/HuronCarol) and Victor Eijkhout’s setting for six recorders (tinyurl.com/HuronCarolRecorders).

In terms of congregational participation, consider having the hymn tune sung unaccompanied in two equal voicings, with Voice 2 taking up an ostinato. I offer the following possibility.

Light of the World/Here I Am to Worship

Epiphany season is a liminal time that is often overshadowed in North American culture by upcoming New Year’s celebrations. Admittedly, Epiphany often feels anticlimatic—or worse, an afterthought. Nonetheless, it remains a significant liturgical occasion.

Some segments of Christianity see Epiphany as commemorating the revelation of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, in human form, as symbolized by the homage visit of the wise men. Folk Christianity tends to conflate this encounter onto Christmas Eve, compounding the confusion of Epiphany. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, commemorates Epiphany as the baptismal event of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.

Whichever interpretation is adopted, Epiphany marks a new beginning. To that end, a contemporary worship song that seems appropriate is British worship leader and songwriter Tim Hughes’ “Light of the World (Here I Am to Worship).” An audio sample is available at tinyurl.com/TimHughesLight, and a keyboard-led version is available in Lift Up Your Hearts, #567. The words are found in the sidebar on page 15.

Hughes crafted this song in 1999 as a personal response to Philippians 2:5. He says, “Sometimes when God meets with us we don’t quite know how to respond properly. It’s often too much for us to take in” (David Schrader, “Song Story: Here I am to Worship,” Crosswalk.com (April 21, 2007). How might we meaningfully respond to the revelation of Christ? For King Herod, the response was murderous as he felt his power threatened when he learned of the Messiah (Matt. 2:16). I hope that with perfect hindsight our response might be rapturously welcoming as this song invokes us to worship.

In terms of performance practice, many churches assume that a worship band is de rigueur when playing a contemporary worship song. Yet this is not so. A simpler approach with minimal audio amplification and musicians, typically described as “acoustic worship,” is desirable for this song.

Consider having a solo accompanied by a gently strummed classical guitar for the two stanzas. Thereafter, have the congregation sing the chorus, ably supported by the choir in three parts (see score) and accompanied by a variety of instruments including piano, organ, bass guitar, drums, and so on.

In recordings, the bridge section is often repeated a couple of times. Though I am amenable to repetition, I am inclined to vary the instrumentation for each repetition. Perhaps keep the accompaniment simple, with just a guitar or the piano playing a block chord without the rhythm as indicated on the score. For subsequent repetitions, just add another instrument or improvised vocal harmony and so forth. This musical layering offers creativity and some tangible intentionality that helps singers avoid mindless repetition. By understanding the musical structure of contemporary worship songs, one can readily shape and guide the musical flow.

So here you have four contrasting songs that we can sing as God’s people in this season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. When we do so, let us be mindful not to be waylaid by the merry-making aspect of this festive time of the year, but rather let’s be conscious of the missio Dei (the mission of God) for the world, where the Church is the purposed instrument.

The songs we choose to sing during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany need to embody the voice of God as the world grapples with incomprehensible tragedy and lost hope. Our songs should evoke the vibrant presence of God that enfolds us, rather than portray sentimental religiosity. They need to remind us, as the Church, of our existential vocation, lest we become irrelevant in an increasingly ambivalent society.

To that end, may these songs serve as illustrative possibilities and be noteworthy to proclaim the incarnational presence of God at this time.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Swee Hong Lim is the Deer Park Assistant Professor of Sacred Music and director of the master of sacred music program at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto, Canada. In addition, he serves as the director of research for the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

Reformed Worship 117 © September 2015 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.