A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the fifth day of Christmas, December 29, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            One of the things I love about Christmas time is singing Christmas carols.  As far as I’m concerned, 12 days of Christmas just aren’t enough, so we let a few Christmas Carols sneak in during Advent.

I love singing Christmas carols because they bring back memories of childhood Christmases.  Part of our family Christmas Eve tradition was gathering in the living room around the Christmas tree, fire in the fireplace, candles on the mantle and the tree, bucket of water on the floor with rags in it pre-soaking to toss on burning branches.  The candles on the tree were my mother’s Swiss heritage shining forth.  The bucket was my father’s Yankee practicality shining forth.

I love singing Christmas carols because they tell the Christmas story, a familiar story, with poetic language that deepen and expand on it.  Some of them fuse together Luke’s birth narrative with Matthew’s story of Epiphany; we’ll wait on singing some of those until next week.  Others will take one element of the story and expand on it.

Every song has a story behind it. Sometimes we know the stories; sometimes we don’t.  Today, we are going to sing some Christmas carols, but before you do, I will share some of the stories behind them[i] before we sing them.  You might want to find the carol as I tell the story.  We’ll start of with “Away in a Manger” number 147 in our hymnal.[ii]

I once served a church where singing “Away in a Manger” almost caused fights.  Which tune are we going to use?  There are at least three tunes to which these lyrics are typically sung in America – the one with which it has been associated the longest is the tune we will use.  I served another church where a typo was repeated for at least three years in the Christmas Eve bulletin; they hymn was called “Away in a Manager.”  This was my younger sister’s favorite Christmas carol when she was little and it, along with “Jesus Loves Me,” is one of the first songs Christians teach their children.

“In 1887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune [that is now sometimes called Mueller] to ‘Away in a Manger’ as ‘Luther’s Cradle Hymn.’  Murray further stated in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, that Martin Luther had not only written ‘Away in a Manger,’ but had sung it to his children each night before bed.”[iii]

The story is patently false.  Germans didn’t sing the song until it arrived in Germany from its country of origin, the United States.  I heard one claim that Murray made the story up to help with sales among the Lutherans.[iv]  Perhaps.  Or perhaps he heard the story, believed it, and repeated it.

In all likelihood, the first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were written by an anonymous American sometime in the mid-1800s.  The third verse was added sometime later, one assumes by another lyricist.  With no one claiming authorship, the legend of Luther being the composer took root.

During World War I, many groups started singing with words of “Away in a Manger” to an old Scottish tune, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”  This may well have been a protest against all things German, and since the Luther legend had affixed itself to the common tune, and Luther was a German …  Aren’t you glad we get politics involved in Christmas carols?

I actually find the lyrics a little troubling – but then, I find the lyrics to “Rockabye Baby” troubling.  “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  What lesson does that teach?  Good children don’t cry?  The third verse is, like “Rockabye Baby,” is about death.  “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby – SMUSH!”  “Fit us for heaven to live with you there,” isn’t quite as bad, but it reiterates the “make me a good child just like Jesus,” and who can live up to that?

I will say that the music of the song, combined with the lyrics (if they aren’t looked at too closely) does create a sense of calm, at least, and maybe peace, which is something Jesus seeks to bring to earth.  And, I suppose, if we all behaved as if we were fit for heaven, there would be a lot less violence and a lot less war.

If I haven’t ruined this Christmas carol for you, let’s sing it.

Next, we look at “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” number 153 in our hymnal.

“In 1849, a Unitarian minister from Wayland, Massachusetts, was writing a Christmas Eve message from his congregation.  As Dr. Edmond Sears worked on his sermon, he was a troubled man.  Though it would be another decade before the civil war tore the United States apart, the debate over slavery, compounded by the poverty he saw in his own community, had all but broken the man’s spirit.  He desperately searched for words to inspire his congregation, but he was having a problem lifting even his own spirit above the depressing scenes that surrounded him.”[v]

If you know this hymn, you know where this story is going.

Unlike most Unitarian ministers, Sears believed in the divinity of Jesus.  Like most Unitarian ministers, Sears believed that it was the duty of followers of Jesus to be involved in reaching out the lost, helpless, and poor.  As he struggled to write his Christmas sermon, “it was the poverty and the hopelessness of the people he touched in the slums that sickened his heart and blocked his progress.  He must have wondered how he could write about the Light of the world when the world seemed so very dark.”[vi]

There was something about to whom the angels announced the birth that inspired him.  The angels came to the lowly, the marginalized – the shepherds.  He penned a five-verse poem that he called “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”  When he first shared the poem, his congregation “probably saw it as more a charge or challenge than a story of a miraculous birth in a far away land.”[vii]  But that’s what he wanted.

Nowhere is Sears’ message more obvious that in the poem’s third verse, one that has been discarded and all but forgotten.  (I will use his mid-19th century language.[viii]):

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

Our next Christmas Carol is, “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” number 164 in our hymnal.

If you look at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that the words and music come from the 14th century, some 200 years before the Reformation.  I was shocked to learn this; I would have guessed it was written in the 18th century, 200 years after the Reformation.  I was also shocked to learn that the man behind this song was persecuted for his religious convictions, endured great personal hardship, suffered through lingering illness, and died in relative obscurity, not accepted by the church he loved.

Heinrich Suso was born in 1295, the son of a German noble.  This was in the midst of what we now sometimes call the Dark Ages.  Being of noble birth meant he was part of the 1%.  He was educated and pampered – and insulated form the realities of life for the rest of the population.  Instead of choosing to remain in the ruling class, he followed a call to the priesthood, becoming a Dominican.

In 1326, he wrote the Little Book of Truth, “a vibrant defense of progressive thinking in the church.  In his work, Suso justified taking the gospel and opening it in a way that would bring hope, compassion, and understanding to the common people – a fairly radical idea in its own right in the 14th century.  But instead of being held up as a man who truly understood the message that Jesus had brought to the earth, the priest was tried for heresy.”[ix]

Suso continued thinking and writing.  His next book was the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, which was written for common people.  “Unable to control the priest and afraid that his radical thinking might cause a revolt, in 1329, the Pope condemned Suso.  Eventually, the German king exiled him.”[x]

One night, “Suso found himself immersed in a dream so real that he became a part of it.  In his dream, the priest saw countless angels not only singing, but dancing.  He listened as they sang and eventually joined with them in ‘an ecstatic dance.’  When he woke, he not only remembered the dream in vivid detail, but also recalled the words and the music.  Feeling led by divine guidance, Suso picked up a quill and ink and recorded “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to paper.”[xi]  The song became one more tool for Suso to reach the common people with the Good News, which he continued to do in Switzerland, despite his condemnation and exile.

By the way, in 1831, the Pope beatified Heinrich Suso, declaring him one step below a saint.

The final Christmas Carol we’re going to look at today is “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” number 167 in our hymnal.  Given how important African-American spirituals are to American hymnody, I was a little surprised this is the only Christmas Carol in our hymnal with those roots.  But it turns out that few Negro spirituals were about Christmas, at least as far as we know now.

Negro spirituals were born in the fields of the South, born out of the experience of slaves.  Few slaves were able to read and write, so the songs were passed along by the oral tradition and were not collected and written down until the turn of the 20th century.  When one considered the suffering of slaves in America, it’s not surprising that few songs focused on Christmas.  Most focused on the pain and suffering of this life and the hope for freedom in the next.  Sometimes that hoped for freedom was hoped for in this life as well, and so the spiritual became a form of protest and even a way to sharing information about escape.

But look at whom the verses are about in this hymn.  The shepherds take center stage, even over Jesus.  And when Jesus is talked about, it is his lowly state that is celebrated.

We, of course, know nothing about the composer(s) of this song.  But we can be thankful for the gift of this song.  So let’s sing it.


[i] These stories are gleaned from Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2001).

[ii] Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).

[iii] Collins, op. cit., p. 24.

[iv] I don’t remember when or where I heard this, but I did hear it.

[v] Collins, op. cit., p. 96.

[vi] Ibid, p. 97.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] As quoted by Collins, p 98.  Collins says this is the second verse, but poetically I think it is more likely the third verse.  Wikipedia agrees with me, that it’s the third verse (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Came_Upon_the_Midnight_Clear)

[ix] Ibid, p. 59.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, p. 60.