Before the Marvel of This Night

The first Christmas anthem was heard by shepherds keeping watch over their flocks on the night Christ was born. As the Evangelist Luke tells the story, the angel who brought them the good news of the coming of the Messiah was accompanied by a heavenly host who proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2: 13, KJV).” The Greek text says the angels “spoke” rather than “sang” those eternal words, but the divine messengers have come down the centuries to our day “singing sweetly o’er the plain,” while “heaven and nature sing” at the miracle of God taking on human flesh in the Bethlehem manger. The celebration of Christmas would be unthinkable without vocal music.

The type of songs we know as “carols” (derived from either the Old French, Latin or Greek word for “circle dance”) date back to pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice like the Roman holiday of Saturnalia in late December, transformed into Christmas in the 4th century by Pope Julius I. The blending of pre-Christian winter festival carols in the vernacular with Advent season church anthems in Latin came after St. Francis of Assisi recreated the Bethlehem manger for a Christmas Eve Mass in 1223, inspiring the theatrical pageants and inanimate crèche displays, which feature so prominently in the way Western Christendom and its missionary communities around the globe have honored the birth of Christ.

Our modern Christmas song book has its share of fanciful pieces like I Saw Three Ships, recounting a mythical voyage of the Holy Family. The tale of Good King Wenceslas is not taken from the annals of the real Vaclav the Good, the 10th century ruler of Bohemia, but is the fictional creation of a 19th century Anglican clergyman. No amount of theologizing in The Holly and Ivy can conceal the pre-Christian cultic associations of these two evergreens. Yet, other Christmas songs like the Polish carol, Bog sie rodzi (God is Born), and the 18th century English anthem, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Charles Wesley, the hymn-writing brother of the founder of Methodism, give poetic accounts of the Incarnation and the Story of Redemption that qualify as a sung sermons.

You can celebrate the sights and sounds of Christmas in this meditation, bringing together the words and music of seasonal sacred songs with images of Nativity sets and scenes from the Sacred Art Pilgrim crèche collection. The manger displays on view here are the creations of potters, painters, woodcarvers and weavers from twelve different countries on six continents. The spread of Christianity around the world has taken this unique genre of Christmas art from its small-town Italian origins into the global village, where international artisans offer intriguing new variations on standard Western crèche prototypes, coming out of their own cultural heritage.

The manger scenes in the image gallery range from an Australian Aboriginal ochre painting on eucalyptus tree bark to a minimalist colored wood block Nativity set from British Homeware Designer Sebastian Bergne. There are painted wooden Christmas figurines by Indian toy-makers from Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu pilgrimage sites; five-layered nesting dolls from Russia; an abstract earthenware Nativity set from the American Southwest; and a beautifully-grained beech “wood book” from Bavaria. A Buddhist deva stands in for a guardian angel in a Thai Celadon ceramic Nativity set and a short-horned West African Brahman cow replaces the ox by the crib in a blackened earthenware manger set from Cameroon. Two other "eco-friendly" sets from Africa are made from waste banana plant fiber and recycled soda cans.

There are You Tube links from the titles of each anthem, hymn, and carol text below connecting you to performances of these much-loved Christmas songs by world-renowned artists. You can read and listen to a 4th century anthem by St. Ambrose of Milan; a Reformation Era German Advent hymn by Martin Luther; Canada’s oldest Christmas song, the 17th century Huron Carol; English Composer’s Gustav Holst’s modern setting of 19th century Poet Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter; the rousing contemporary Nigerian carol, Bethlehem, and much more. Then, bring your musical (and art-filled) journey to Bethlehem to a contemplative close with American Lutheran Composer Jaroslav J. Vaida’s haunting hymn, Before the Wonder of This Night.

Come, Redeemer of the Earth
(Veni redemptor gentium)
4th Century Advent Anthem

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Of the Father’s Heart Begotten
(Corde Natus)
4th Century Advent Anthem

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

Aurelius Prudentius/John Mason Neale

Wexford Carol
12th Century Irish Carol

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son.
With Mary holy we should pray,
to God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn|
There was a blessed Messiah born.

Between the Ox and the Grey Ass

(Entre le boeuf et l’ane gris)
13th French Carol

Between the ox and the grey ass
Sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the little son,
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim
Fly around this great God of love.

Between the two arms of Mary
Sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the fruit of life,
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim
Fly around this great God of love.

Praise be to You, Jesus Christ
 (Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ)
16th Century German Hymn

Praised be you, Jesus Christ
that you have been born as a man
from a virgin - this is true-
at which the host of angels rejoices.

The only child of the eternal father
is now found in the manger,
in our poor flesh and blood
eternal goodness has clothed itself.

Martin Luther/Francis Browne

The Huron Carol
(Jesous Ahatonhia)
17th Century Canadian Carol

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

Jean de Brebeuf/Jesse Edgar Middleton

Angels From Heaven

(Mennybol az angyal)
18th Century Hungarian Carol

Angels from Heaven say to the shepherds,
“News we bring, news we bring!
In Bethlehem, asleep in a manger,
Lies your King, lies your King!”

“Though born so lowly, yet He is holy,
God’s own Son, God’s own Son!
He comes to earth to ransom and save you
Every one, every one!”

Szentmihalyi Mihaly

From Starry Skies Descending
 (Tu Scendi dalle Stelle)
18th Century Italian Carol

From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter’s icy sting;

O my dearest Child most holy,
Shudd’ring, trembling in the cold!
Great God, Thou lovest me!
What suff’ring Thou didst bear,
That I near Thee might be!

Saint Alfonso Maria de Liguori  1744

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
18th century English Hymn

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Charles Wesley

In the Bleak Midwinter
Early 20th century English Carol

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, ca. 1872

Song to Ask for Shelter
(Canto Para Pedir Posada)
Traditional Mexican Carol

Enter holy pilgrims, pilgrims
receive this corner
not this poor dwelling
but my heart.
Tonight is for joy
for pleasure and rejoicing
for tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God the Son.

Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Traditional African-American Carol

Down in a lowly manger
Our humble Christ was born
And God send us salvation,
That blessed Christmas morn:
Go, Tell It On The Mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, Tell It On The Mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

Compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr.

(Betelehemu )
Contemporary Nigerian Carol

We are glad that we have a Father to trust.
We are glad to have a Father to rely upon.
Where was Jesus born?
Where was he born?
Bethlehem the city of wonder.
That is where the Father was born for sure.
Praise, Praise, Praise be to Him
We thank Thee, We thank Thee for this day,
Gracious Father.
Praise be to Thee, Merciful Father.

Babatunde Olatunji/Wendell P. Whalum

Before the Marvel of This Night
Contemporary American Hymn

Before the marvel of this night,
adoring, fold your wings and bow;
then tear the sky apart with light
and with your news the world endow.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,
that fear and death and sorrow cease:
sing peace; sing peace; sing gift of peace;
sing peace; sing gift of peace!

Jaroslav J. Vajda, 1981