Saturday, May 25, 2019

The First Noel – Anonymous

How old is Christmas? It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the ‘traditional’ songs remembered at Christmas time is many centuries old, with an origin that recognizes no particular individual as its author. “The First Noel” may not have had arms and legs or a beating heat, but it nevertheless travelled as if it had life and a direction where its message could be proclaimed. It was like hearing someone telling a story, bit by bit with each verse of the nine stanzas. What did those simple shepherds think and then do, and what were the far-reaching consequences of their vision? These were the thoughts of whomever wrote this ancient poem-song to commemorate a unique event in human-divine history.

One word in the song’s three-word title suggests at least a bit of the origin of “The First Noel”, though its complete story remains obscured. ‘Noel’ is a French word derived from Latin meaning ‘birth’ or ‘new’, or in combination ‘birthday’ -- a new birth marks a person’s birthday. Thus, the poem and its author ostensibly were French, perhaps during the period between the 13th and 17th Centuries. Sometime in this 500-year span, the poem made its way across the English Channel, and took up residence in far southwest England, reportedly in Cornwall. From examination of the poem’s nine verses, one can surmise that the Christ’s birth story as related in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the event was the root source for the author. He knew about shepherds watching over sheep and seeing a star (vv.1-2), about wise men from the East approaching to visit the newborn babe (v. 3) and offer him gifts (v.6), about Bethlehem (v.4) as His birthplace, and the humble nature of His entry into the earth as a human (vv.5,7). It wasn’t enough for this author to recite the story that gives the holiday season its focus, however. He wrote verses 8 and 9 too, although they are not often sung, to indicate how to respond to what God did some 33 years after the scenes described in verses 1-7. This poet believed in the import of the culmination of Christ’s earthly ministry, referring to blood (v.8) and death (v.9) and how they no longer spell futility for the believer’s end-of-life experience. That’s a worthy conclusion to a great story, probably one reason why this Christmas song has been around for centuries.

The story still rings true. Christmas returns each year, as certain as the change of seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. His incredible, unique birth stands out, and would be a portent of the rest of His mortal life. His entry was unique, and so would be His exit, giving the rest of us a focal point. Don’t marvel at just His birth, the author of “The First Noel” reminds us. No one arrives here on planet Earth without some sense of the miraculous. I have a connection to Him because I too was born, even if my birth was heralded by no angels and no Magi. Can you say today that your end, your death, will likewise connect with His? I sure want mine to do so.          

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.  

Also see this link, showing all nine original verses:
See here also for background on the song:

Saturday, May 18, 2019

What Child Is This? -- William Chatterton Dix

Twenty-nine year old Englishman William Chatterton Dix lay ill and depressed in his home in Glasgow, Scotland (see its coat of arms here from about 1866, as Dix would have seen it), and somehow this state drew him toward a child -- the child-God. Dix was an insurance salesman by trade, and could a bit of insurance of the spiritual kind have been on his troubled mind as he suffered physically and emotionally? “What Child Is This?” he asked rhetorically, for he already knew the answer, one that prompted him reportedly to write multiple poem texts for hymns that would come to life in the aftermath of his illness. William Dix searched for an answer to help mend his own body and mind, and the answer he found apparently was indeed one that drew him into a deeper connection with the one he called God.  

Looking at the words he wrote, one can assume that William Dix was crafting the words to his musical question around Christmas time, but with a poignancy indicative of his recent circumstances. William makes all three of his three poetry verses conclude with the answer to the question that his song’s title poses. ‘The Babe the son of Mary’, he declares. But, that identity would not be complete, if Dix did not also call Him ‘Christ the King’ (v.1), and ‘Christ’ and ‘King of kings’ (v.3), too. William’s assertions do not emerge until he has first asked his questions, however. He asks not only about the identity of the child, but also about how He could be the focus of angel worship – ‘…angels greet with anthem sweet?’ (v.1). And, he vocalizes the skepticism that must have occupied the minds of the first century contemporaries of this baby: How could a baby in a manger, a ‘mean estate’ (v.2), be the Messiah, the God-King? Moreover, though he does not present it in the form of a question, William notes the eventual crucifixion of this baby (v.2), the decisive issue that confronts would-be believers. Is it logical that our God would occupy so many roles counter to what expectations we think he should meet? A baby, really? Laying where animals sniff and search for their food? How can a king reign if He’s to be killed in ignominy? We might therefore see ‘What Child…’ as something like a window into the author’s illness cycle, perhaps– the hurting and questioning (depression) fellow, and then as the understanding and rejoicing believer who’s come through the dark tunnel into the light.   

Perhaps we should see the verses he penned were part of the medicine, the prescription that William Dix needed to overcome the unspecified illness he suffered in 1865. Many sufferers ask ‘Why me?’. Yet, how many eventually come to a point where they can answer positively the way William did? He might say whatever afflicted him was a blessing, compelling some introspection and poetry in many forms that have articulated what otherwise he might have not spoken. William must have thought it was OK to ask his questions, looking in hindsight, since he found answers that left him filled. He may have also concluded that God is not hostile to our inquisitive nature. Keep asking Him!   

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.  

Also see this link, showing all three original verses:
Biography of the writer is here:  

Sunday, May 12, 2019

O Little Town of Bethlehem -- Phillips Brooks

It must have been something special, that the place and the experience remained vivid for this poet and led to his creation some three years later. Perhaps Phillips Brooks did not expect what happened when he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (see painting of the Grotto of the Nativity, from 1833, here) in 1865 when he was 30 years old. His memory of that visit at Christmas led to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868, as he sought to make a Christmas season worship experience thousands of miles from that original place more special. If he couldn’t take all the people from inside the church where he ministered in 1868 back to Bethlehem, maybe he could bring a bit of it to where he was.

Phillips Brooks may have been a big man physically, but he had a heart for children, a characteristic that emerged especially in this Christmas song. At 6’ 6”, Phillips could have been, and perhaps was for some people, an imposing presence. Yet, it was he who found a Christmas service in Bethlehem in 1865 to be so very overwhelming; it was a five-hour experience that he still remembered three years later as he prepared for another Christmas, this time in Philadelphia. The great peace he had observed in Bethlehem was what he sought to reproduce for the children in Philadelphia; they needed a song for their Sunday school presentation, and Brooks drew upon what still occupied his mind from the Holy Land scene he’d attended years earlier. His fourth verse particularly seems aimed at the  ‘…children, pure and happy…’ whom he draws into the divine message; it’s about peace and the contentment to which all God’s children aspire. Perhaps the scenery he paints in each of his five verses were ones he’d seen in Bethlehem’s church in 1865. Verse 1 has me looking at the little village under the nighttime sky, dark and sleepy-eyed, yet somehow aware that He and His light are there. Verse 2 portrays the birth of the Holy Child, an event attended by angelic and heavenly bodies. Verse 3 tells that He’s a quiet presence, yet alluring to those who align with His meek nature. While Phillips focuses verse 4 on the Child and children, he also asks the Holy Child in verse 5 to transform those who invite His presence. How many of the original scenes – the village of Bethlehem, His lowly birthplace, the angels watching over Him -- were within just a few steps of where Brooks had been in 1865? Did Phillips ponder this too, as he recollected where he’d been on one special Christmas?

Phillips didn’t want his Christmas 1865 to be a fading memory. He recaptured some of it in five verses, though probably not every sight and sound. Photos and motion pictures were not yet common in Phillips’ day when he coaxed worshippers to be transported mentally/emotionally/spiritually to another place. Words and music, along with the stories he could relate, held that task. There’s other places that I’ve never been that I can see and hear through technical means. But there’s no remote touch, smell, or taste capabilities in the early 21st Century. And, there’s still no time travel either, at least not physically. Phillips, and you, and I can perhaps go where he was in 1865 sometime and retrieve all the missing parts. But, perhaps you can bring some of Bethlehem to your locale this coming Christmas – or even before then. That’s what Phillips Brooks would have recommended.               

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  

Also see this link, showing all five original verses:
Biography of the writer is here: