Christmas Day: Lift your heart and raise your voice

Image: Madonna and child at the top of the Jesse Tree.
Detail of Kempe window, Alfriston St Andrew (dated 1914)
Photo © Julian P Guffogg licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The hymn I chose from Sing Praise for Christmas Day is ‘Lift your heart and raise your voice’ by Michael Perry.  It’s very much a song for this day (or its eve), as the first and last verses encourage us to lift our hearts and sing praise for the gift of the Christ child, using as a refrain the chant of ‘Gloria!’ often associated with Christmas carols.  The second and third verses refer to Jesus in the cattle stall and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song, then coming to see him.

I can do no better at this point than refer you to the short sketch about the shepherds  that I wrote to be performed to the Christmas morning service at my own church today. You can download it here.

Merry Christmas!

A week of worship

I’ve been on holiday for the last week without access to a computer, which is why there have been no posts this week – it’s too difficult to type much on a mobile phone. So here is a briefer commentary than usual on all this week’s hymns. I have been singing them all, as well as attending three very different worship services – communion in a parish church, Cathedral evensong, and harvest festival in a Baptist chapel. In all of them, music has played a key part, whether provided by a robed choir or a couple of guitarists – you can work out which is which.

Sunday 19 September

“Peace on earth to all your people”, a Scottish version of the canticle Gloria in Excelsis.  See 12th September for my previous comments on this canticle.  The present version departs from the standard text in a few places, such as in verse 2 where it has “receive our song of praise” rather than “receive our prayer”; I’m not sure that’s a sensible change as the original is really a prayer for mercy. And in verse 3, “God in heaven” rather than more specifically “Christ in heaven”.

Monday 20 September

“Creating God, we bring our songs of praise” by Jan Berry and sung to the well known (sometimes over-used) tune ‘Woodlands’.  The first verse addressed to the ‘creating God’ celebrates life, work, skill and joy. The second to the ‘forgiving God’ expresses sorrow for our anger, strife and emptiness. The third to the ‘redeeming God’ refers to the ‘fragile hope’ that he will make all things new, which is an honest acknowledgement that it does take a good deal of faith to hold on to that hope. The last verse addressed to the ‘renewing God’ looks to a future of harmony, peace, justice, dignity and pride – all the things that are often lacking in our earthly societies. Overall this is a good summary of what the Christian life is about.

Tuesday 21 September

“For the music of creation” by Shirley Murray. The first verse suggests that music is a sort of metaphor for creation, as it requires creativity in us. God is described as the ‘world’s composer’ and we as the ‘echoes of his voice’. The second verse lists various types of instrument, and different types of music – ‘simple melodies’, ‘hymns of longing and belonging’, ‘carols from a cheerful throat’, lullabies and love-songs.  The music we make doesn’t have to be ‘religious’ to please God. The last verse refers to movement in worship – ‘hands that move and dancing feet’ – for the idea still sometimes found in Western churches that we have to stand up straight and immobile when singing in church probably seems weird to many Christians around the world for whom the whole body is used in worship.

Wednesday 22 September

“Earth’s fragile beauties we possess” by Robert Willis.  John provided his own alternative tune to this one.  The theme is life as pilgrimage. The first verse looks at the ways we should move through this life leaving as little impact as possible on those ‘fragile beauties’. The second looks at ‘earth’s human longings’ in grief, loss, famine, plaque and sword, referring to Christ’s cross as well as the story of Exodus, the archetypal pilgrimage.  The last verse reminds us that we possess not only the beauties of earth but God’s own image, any deliberate damage to which was borne by Christ on the cross.  This is a hymn for our times as people are realising too late the irreversible damage we have already done to this fragile world.

Thursday 23 September

“We give God thanks for those we knew” by Michael Perry, a hymn about healing and wholeness. It reminds us that Jesus came to bring healing through his love, and still does, but that we too should “dedicate our skills and time” to address the suffering around us.

Friday 24 September

“Maker of all whose word is life” by Elizabeth Cosnett. It’s a wedding hymn, addressing the Trinity: the Father as God of truth and faithfulness, Jesus the Son who knew earthly happiness, and though unmarried himself brought joy to the wedding guests when he turned water into wine, and the Holy Spirit as guide and bringer of steadfastness. The last verse reminds us that we need God’s grace to help us keep our wedding vows.

Sunday 26 September

The final song in this section, for the weekend of 25th/26th September, was a setting of “Holy, holy holy Lord” by Geoff Weaver.  There’s probably not much to say about this short and familiar text,  but John did suggest it was an appropriate response to the Old Testament reading about the dedication of Solomon’s Temple when the shekinah-glory of God filled the place.

All glory be to God on high

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “All glory be to God on high” by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  Apologies for posting this late in the weekend, but my wife is in hospital so I’ve had other things on my mind.

It’s a paraphrase of the Gloria, an ancient hymn or canticle of praise, set to a 16th century German tune. I expect that the composer of the tune would have known the Gloria at least in its Latin form, and maybe (though he lived early in the Reformation era) there was already a German translation.

The four verses, to a 16th century German tune, cover the four sections of the canticle nicely. The first praises God the Father for his glory and his promise of peace on earth; the second responds to him as Father, Lord, God and King; the third verse addresses Christ as the only Son of the Father, the Lamb of God who died for us, and the one who reigns with the Father; and the fourth, the whole Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.

Until recently ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ was a regular part of both Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. There are many settings of it from all periods of music, perhaps until our own generation, but it seems to be used much less often at Communion these days (certainly our own church hasn’t used in for the last few years, either spoken or sung), and isn’t part of the regular Morning Prayer in Common Worship at all, although I presume it’s still an optional substitute for another canticle. This setting is undated in the book so I would be interested to know when it was written.