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Need Some Theology With That Hymn, M’am?

December 20, 2011

The few flash-bulb moments in my adult memory mark amazing, unexpected research finds in a library: discoveries that made me catch my breath and look up from some old document certain there must be a disco ball twirling above my head pointing other researchers to my jackpot –like that blue flashing light that proclaimed K-Mart sales back in the day.

A flash bulb moment from my childhood marks the Sunday morning when, standing in church with a hymnal open on the chair in front of me, my mind cracked the mystery of reading music.

The CMA hymnal of my childhood was my only early exposure to sheet music. It was a  modern book, some of the songs copyrighted in the 1960’s. So some of the hymns (remember “God is So Good”?) were what we today might call worship songs. Even so, the lyrics were lined out beneath staves filled with notes and other mysterious markings.

That Sunday morning, the church ceiling opened and a Jacob’s ladder illuminated the hymnal the moment my mind grasped that the notes I saw on the page matched the music I was hearing with my ears. Not merely the melody pumped out by the organ. But also those other notes sung by people with lower voices that combined to fill the sanctuary with music.

Christmas hymns were lined up at the beginning of that hymnbook  as if God’s work in history began with the birth of Jesus. I grew up singing all the standards: “Silent Night;””Away in the Manger;” “Joy to the World;” “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” To my child-mind those hymns seemed Universal because when we went to Christmas Eve Mass in my early years, among the High Church exotic –the smell of incense, the golden robes and chalices, the kneeling and rising of people and voices in the mysterious calls and responses spoken like a foreign tongue –rang loud and clear the angel voices over shepherds watching their flocks by night as a round young virgin helped little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.

Those hymns were the ecumenical litany of Christmas: peace on earth and good will to men regardless of where we worshiped.

But this year,  I’ve been surprised by a vaguely Scrooge-like thought when I hear these most-familiar hymns: Is it STILL Christmas? Liturgically, Advent, the lead-up to Christmas, lasts four weeks. God’s love made visible in Jesus birth is so  incomprehensible that it takes a month to exposit it –especially taking the round-about way of meditating on angels and wise men and shepherds and all.

And that’s my problem. Not that those hymns don’t contain truth. (They all retell stories told in the Bible.) Rather, life with disabilities in the family does not allow me a lot of margin for getting to my destination — to GOD –by the scenic route to Bethlehem.

And so my heart returns to those older hymns, written long before the childhood in which I memorized them. Hymns composed in eras when parents expected half their children to precede them in death, days when “daily bread” was not a given. A time when minor keys were more resonant, even during Advent, with the realities of life this side of  Heaven, a destination all the more keenly longed for because of the dis-ease of life on earth.

So I’m not listening to Christian radio this Christmas. And I’m trying hard to milk the standard Christmas hymns for every bit of God-centeredness they possess. But for my musical nourishment, for my strength, my heart daily turns to those hymns we rarely sing anymore because they are too difficult, the tunes built around startling, unexpected intervals in keys much richer than major.

A lot like this life following Jesus.

*****
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence 

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand,

Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

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.

Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,

As the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,

That the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph, cherubim with sleepless eye,

Veil their faces to the presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry:

Alleluia, Alleluia Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Fourth century Greek liturgy attributed to St. James, translated into English in 1864 by Gerard Moultrie. Music based on a French Christmas Carol.

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