By The Way
Snow On Snow
It was unusual to hear hymns and carols mentioned on BBC Radio 4, and more so to hear listeners be invited to nominate their most favourite and least favourite hymns. The presenter gave as his least favourite example the Christmas carol 'In the bleak midwinter', with special reference to the line, 'Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow' which he thought showed a limited vocabulary. Listeners called in to point out that the author was the distinguished writer Christina Rossetti (1830-94). As my personal comment, the line seems an expressive description of the incessant snowfall of an English blizzard; but then, the birth of Christ did not happen in a bleak English midwinter but in Palestine, and probably in October when the shepherds were out with their sheep. All this perhaps is to miss the essential point of the carol, that our response to the amazing coming of Christ should be 'What can I give Him?' . . . 'Give my heart'. Christina Rossetti is also responsible for the carol which speaks of Love coming down at Christmas, and of love being our response in worship.
There are those who write off Christmas as a festival for true Christians, because it has been taken over by commercialism and consumerism. On the other hand, it is possible to fix one's eyes away from the tinsel and on to the real events which are remembered at this season. There are carols which are true to the scriptural record and can inspire us.
So I was stimulated to look through a couple of hymn books and found a lot of encouragement in the carols sections.
There are some carols which tell the story simply as to a little child. For example, this one, not the most well known, puts Christmas in context:
Once there came to earth
A child of lowly birth,
Far from home the tiny stranger
Lay contented in a manger,
Jesus came to earth.
Little Jesus grew,
Joy and grief He knew.
When He reached His manhood glorious,
Over sin He lived victorious,
Strong in love He grew.
Then Himself He gave
All the world to save
Sin and strife and hatred slew Him
Only those who loved Him knew Him
Jesus strong to save!
Jesus still can bind
In love all humankind
To the manger humbly kneeling
Still they come for help and healing
Weary humankind!...... (Dorothy Angus)
Some carols are a straight paraphrase of scripture. The origin of the following becomes clearer the more we sing of it.
The race that long in darkness pined
Have seen a glorious light...
To us a child of hope is born,
To us a son is given;
Him shall the tribes of earth obey,
Him all the hosts of heaven.
His name shall be the Prince of peace,
For evermore adored,
The Wonderful, the Counsellor ,
The great and mighty Lord (Isaiah 9.2-7. Scottish Paraphrases 1781)
Other carols call to mind various scriptures which it is difficult to pin down. In this one Isaiah 35.10 can be identified.
The Christ Child will lead us,
The Good Shepherd feed us
And with us abide till His day.
Then hatred He'll banish;
Then sorrow will vanish,
And death and despair flee away.
And He shall reign ever,
And nothing shall sever
From us the great love of our King,
His peace and His pity
Shall bless His fair city,
His praises we ever shall sing.
(From All poor men and humble ‑ Welsh)
From early days Christians have used hymns to present teachings. It is thought that Philippians 2.5-12 was a hymn which Paul incorporated in his letter. In the nineteenth century John Mason Neale translated a fourth century hymn written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. It is sung to a sixteenth century tune.
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 see;
Evermore and evermore
(Check such references at John 1.3,14 Revelation 22.13)
Carols often link the events of Bethlehem with our personal experience today. How silently the great light came to shine in the dark street of Bethlehem (John 1.9). And we look for Him to be born in us (Galatians 4. 19) We earnestly pray for it. (Little town of Bethlehem).
This personal aspect appears in many carols. It must, if our celebration of the season is to truly mean anything for us. When we hear that 'Christ is born' our heart rejoices. Coming to Him, we 'flee from woe and danger .... ' from all doth grieve you, you are freed'.... 'love Him who with love is yearning'.... We 'live to Thee, and with Thee dying, shall not perish. '(All my heart this night rejoices Gerhardt 1607-76)
Some carols are rich in poetry. Just picture the scene 'Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining'. The same carol describes rich gifts brought by the magi, but then there comes the reflection 'Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor' (Brightest and best... Heber 1783-1826).
The poor, rich in faith, have an advantage over those 'who have winter but no Christmas, bringing them Thy peace on earth' (Cradled in a manger meanly George Stringer Rowe 1830-1913). In fact we follow the 'Servant King'. We are set the example by Him who 'mild . . . He lays His glory by '... 'born to give men second birth.' No room for Him at Bethlehem, but is there 'room in my heart for Thee'?
Sometimes a contrast is made. 'Wise men seeking Jesus' made a long journey, but if we desire Him, He is close at hand; for our native country is our Holy Land.' 'He is more than near us if we love Him well, for He seeketh ever in our hearts to dwell. ' (James East 1860-1937) 'All our love and fortune lie in His mighty hands, our sorrows, joys and failures He sees and understands.' 'No grief shall part us from Thee however sharp the edge...' (translated from 17th century German by Percy Dearmer). And because the tiny flickering flame of the child at Bethlehem is a light in us, 'His light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing. as we touch the flame of His holy fire' (Graham Kendrick ‑ Like a candle flame)
The carols so often look to the future.
He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth:
Love, joy and hope like flowers,
spring in his path to birth:
before Him, on the mountains,
shall peace the herald go,
and righteousness in fountains
from hill to valley flow.' (Hail to the Lord's Anointed Montgomery 1771-1854)
The glorious song that 'came upon the midnight clear' is still sounding, despite 'two thousand years of wrong'. The days of that blessed age are still hastening on. The whole world will give back the song. How or when? Some things 'I cannot tell.' But some things we know.
0 may we keep and ponder in our mind
God's wondrous love in saving lost mankind:
Trace with the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss
From His poor manger to His bitter cross;
Tread in His steps assisted by His grace
Till man's first heavenly state again takes place.' (John Byrom 1692-1763)