Music this Christmas: December 25, 2018

Christmas Day celebrates the Incarnation, one of the greatest mysteries of the faith. As is befitting such an awesome and significant aspect of the faith, there are no less than four Divine Services appointed: three on the day itself (midnight, dawn, and day), and one on the vigil (Christmas Eve). Each of these Services has its own particular focus as expressed in its propers: the Vigil mass rearticulates the Messianic prophecies of Advent; the Midnight mass announces the arrival of the Messiah; the Dawn mass articulates the purpose of Jesus’ coming, to destroy sin, death, and hell forever; and the Day mass delves into the theology of the Incarnation. More so than the other Divine Services at Christmas, the Divine Service on the Day celebrates how, as St. Athanasius put it, “God became man that man might become God.” The Propers outlined here—the readings and music unique to this mass—underscore the mystery of the Incarnation and its significance for man.

The Introit rejoices, piggybacking on the announcement from Midnight:

Unto us a boy is born! Unto us a Son is given!

Flowing from this announcement, the Gospel for Christmas Day is the first eighteen verses of St. John’s account. Unlike the other three evangelists, St. John assumes that his readers and hearers already know the Christmas story, and so dispenses with any account of the journey to Bethlehem, room in the inn, shepherds, Magi, and the like, choosing instead to expound on the significance of Jesus’ arrival in the flesh:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Merely six words into John’s account, anyone without foreknowledge of Jesus’ birth is already left in the dust. What does all that mean? What is “the Word”? How can It be both “with God” and be “God”? What is meant by “in the beginning”? The beginning of what? (Hint: it’s the parallel to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”) The significance of these things is revealed in verse 14:

The Word was made flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we beheld His glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Again, St. John’s assumption is that the reader already knows about Mary, Joseph, and the Baby lying in the manger. St. John explains in the most direct possible language that the Word of God, that living and active Word that made the heavens and the earth, was made into flesh like you and me, and made His dwelling (literally “tabernacled;” i.e., “pitched His tent”) among us; and in that Person mankind sees the Father, as Jesus Himself says later in His life: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

The traditional Gradual hymn for Christmas Day is the Lutheran chorale, “We Praise You, Jesus, At Your Birth.” This chorale is a versification by Martin Luther of the Sequence for Christmas Midnight, Grates nunc omnes. Matthias Weckmann’s settings of this chorale adorn the service this year at the prelude and postlude. The chief hymn is a fifth-century text by Aurelius Prudentius, Corde natus ex parentis, translated brilliantly by John Mason Neale and set to a sixteenth-century melody: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” A more wonderful meditation on the Incarnation is scarcely possible:

Of the Father’s love begotten, ‘ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall be evermore and evermore.

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord, Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the long-expected: let creation praise its Lord evermore and evermore.

The Offertory hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” is an ordinary in the Liturgy of St. James, the very earliest Christian liturgy still in use. It both confesses the Incarnation and connects it to the Holy Communion, to be celebrated in mere moments:

King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood: Lord of lords in human vesture. In the Body and the Blood He will give to all the faithful His Own Self for heavenly food.

FLC has adopted the custom of confessing the Athanasian Creed on Christmas Day. Usually only spoken on Trinity Sunday, the Athanasian Creed concentrates on the nature of the Trinity and the person of Christ, confessing the truth against the Arians’ insistence that Jesus was not true God. This day, on which we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, is a most appropriate day to recite the Athanasian Creed. Though this is not a traditional practice in the universal Church on the feast of the Nativity (it very well might be an innovation unique to FLC), there is perhaps no better day on which to meditate in this way upon the Incarnation (and therefore it qualifies as a salutary innovation). St. Athanasius confesses Christ to be

perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh;
equal to the Father with respect to His divinity; inferior to the Father with respect to His humanity;
Who although He is God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ;
one not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by the assumption of the humanity into God;
one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

FLC rejoices in the Lutheran tradition’s retention of the medieval Sequences, sacred poetry set to chant and sung in the liturgy before the Gospel. Out of over 2000 Sequences in the medieval liturgy, the Roman reforms of Trent eliminated all but four. The Lutherans, however, consistent with their values of refusing to jettison ceremonies and traditions of artistic beauty and quality, retained around 40 feast-day Sequences (the rest of the 2000 were devoted to praise of specific saints, and were not suitable for use in an evangelical liturgy). Hence, the Sequences are one of the Lutheran church’s greatest and most distinctive musico-theological assets, on par with the kontakia of the Eastern church. In the words of Lucas Lossius, the author and compiler of one of the most important collections of Lutheran music from the sixteenth century, the Sequence for the Christmas Day mass, Natus ante saecula,

concerns the double nativity or dual nature of Christ: of God, in that He is begotten of His Father from eternity, the Maker and Governor of all things with the Father and the Holy Spirit; and of man, which He assumed in the fullness of time, a true and flawless human nature, from the Virgin Mary, that He might be the Redeemer of mankind and their Mediator before God.

Just as Lutherans throughout history have sung the Kyrie, Gloria, etc. as hymns, so have they sung other portions of the service as seasonally appropriate hymns. This year, FLC reclaims the Lutheran tradition of singing the Benedicamus (“Let us bless the Lord”/“Thanks be to God”) during Christmastide to the rousing medieval hymn Puer natus in Bethlehem. The pertinent lines are embedded in the final two stanzas of the hymn. With ten stanzas, it looks like it will take a considerable bit of time to sing—but the stanzas are short, and the melody absolutely flies by, impressing itself upon the singer and staying caught in your head (in a good way!) for hours later. Perhaps in no other Lutheran chorale is it so difficult to resist dancing as you sing (don’t resist!).

The choir has not sung at the Christmas Day Divine Service at FLC in recent memory. Yet, as the above demonstrates, the theology of the Incarnation is not diminished by the choir’s absence, for the hymns and lessons and propers by themselves underscore the importance of the Day’s theme: the Incarnation of Christ, the Word-made-flesh, come to earth for us men and for our salvation.

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