The History of Christmas Carols

The History of Christmas Carols

I cannot imagine Christmas without singing carols and listening to music everywhere. Our traditional carols often started as poems. The words were taken from the scripture and then published in prayer books before being turned into songs. Most of our old favorites were written before the 20th century. The Puritans tried to ban them in the 16th century altogether because they were thought to be too secular and frivolous. It is believed that the first Christmas carol service was invented in Truro England in 1880. But the the first “Christmas choir” is recorded in the gospel of Luke when the angels sang to announce the birth of Jesus.

Luke 2:8–14 (ESV)
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Many favorite Christmas hymns retell this part of the story. “ Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, “Angels frome the Realms of Glory” in 1816 by Scottish poet James Montgomery and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” by Nahum Tate (1700s). “Angels We Have Heard on High” is based on an old French carol that was first published in 1819 but probably originated long before that. The stanzas of each hymn were translated from various languages and the tunes were written and reaaranged by several musicians into what we have today. They are all steeped in scripture and deep theology that is often lost due to our illiteracy and understanding of the Bible today.

I enjoyed researching the history of our Christmas hymns. “Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 in a small village in Austria. A young priest named Father Joseph Mohr wrote the words the year before. There was a flood that damaged the church organ so he brought the poem to organist Franz Gruber asking him to please compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the evening service. So there you have it, the first guitars in Church!

Did you know that “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol? In its original form, it had nothing to do with Christmas. It wasn’t even written to be a song. In 1719, Issac Watts, one of our great hymn writers, published a book of poems in which each poem was based on a psalm. One of those poems was an adaptation of Psalm 98. Watts interpreted this psalm as a celebration of Jesus’s role as King of both his church and the world. More than a century later, the second half of this poem was slightly adapted and set to music to give us what has become one of the most famous of all Christmas carols.

One great Christmas carol is also a great reminder of our responsibility to tell others about the One who came to bring us Salvation. That hymn is “Go Tell it On the Mountain“. A negro spiritual dating at least to 1865 was written down by by a black educator named John Work, around 1907, who was not well received by the white establishment of the time.

Whether you are singing in your car or kitchen, out in the community or church choir, think about the words! Find a hymn book or google all the words because there are so many beautiful songs of joy and praise. The tunes may be familiar but the message may be new to someone you know. Share the angels song: the good news that a Savior was born for us. Share the shepherds story: how the experience of hearing the message and finding the Christ Child changed your life.

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain
that Jesus Christ is born.


What Does Advent Mean and Why Do We Celebrate?

What Does Advent Mean and Why Do We Celebrate?

When I was growing up, my Church did not observe the season of Advent in a formal way. It is not in the scriptures but neither is Christmas as we celebrate today. The tradition of focusing on a season of prayer, scripture readings and lighting candles throughout the month of December goes back to the 4th century. The word “Advent” means “arrival” or “coming” and symbolizes the waiting for Christ’s birth but also His final return as was prophesied.

Isaiah 9:6–7 (ESV)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

There are many different traditions around the world but the wreath as we commonly use today first appeared in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister working at a mission fashioned a wheel with twenty small red candles and four large white ones to teach the children the importance of waiting for Christmas. One red candle was lit each morning and a large white candle on Sunday. Today our wreath usually involves four candes around an evergreen wreath and many add a fifth candle in the middle which is lit on Christmas day.

  • The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival. The purple color symbolizes royalty, repentance, and fasting. 
  • The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David. The second candle is also purple to symbolism preparation for the coming king.
  • The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too. In liturgy, the color rose signifies joy. This candle is colored pink to represent joyfulness and rejoicing.
  • The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again. This color is also purple to represent the culmination of love through the Messiah.
  • The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day. This candle is white to represent pure light and victory. Copied from Crosswalk.com

The green wreath (and tree) symbolizes eternity, life and hope. A ring shape is used to remember Jesus is the King of kings and would one day wear a crown of thorns for us. In this darker season (in the northern hemisphere) the candles and lights represent Christs’ coming to bring light and love into a dark and cold world. We are to be like lights to show others the only way to peace of heart and mind.

Another popular tool to help children count the days until Chrismas is an Advent calendar which was first printed in 1908. There are many creative versions and I have seen some very elaborate heirloom quality wooden boxes with a small drawer for each day.

I believe we should focus our attention on the reason for the season to keep our hearts centered on what is important. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in all the commercial trappings and lost in busyness. There are many tools we can use to enhance our observance from devotionals to ideas on Pinterest. But first we must purposely choose to keep Christ in Christmas in our hearts and in your homes.

Jesus’ Last Journey to Jerusalem

Jesus’ Last Journey to Jerusalem

When Jesus and His disciples were preparing to go to Jerusalem for Passover He tried to clearly explain that His end was near but they did not understand. Jesus knew there was still work to do in his last couple of weeks. The 40 mile trip was taken in a series of day hikes over moderate to strenuous terrain by first traveling through the Jordan river valley.

The ancient city of Jericho was an oasis due to underground springs, a common stop for weary pilgrims and an out-post for Roman soldiers. As He drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. He heard that Jesus was passing by and despite the crowds’ shushing began to cry out loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him and asked the man, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “ Your sight is restored; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he could see and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

A sycamore tree in Jericho today called the Zacchaeus tree.

They continued passing through Jericho and behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich from cheating his own people working for the Romans. He wanted to see Jesus but could not because of the great crowd and his short stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when the people saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Walking the Jericho road towards Jerusalem was the most difficult and dangerous part of the trip. Approximatly a 15 mile stretch uphill about a half mile high and westward. Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said,  “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he liked helping himself to their money bag. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Large crowds were coming to see Jesus and Lazarus. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

Jesus knew his time left on earth was limited but He was never too busy to stop and care for people. The blind beggar was given his sight from Jesus, The Light of the World. He stopped to look up in a tree to see a man considered a traitor to his people that was in desperate need of restoration of soul. Jesus rested one last time with dear friends who had often welcomed him into their home. Only Jesus understood the enormity of the sacrifice and service Mary performed and that it was the only proper burial preparation his earthly body would receive. The next day Jesus prepared for His last entry into Jerusalem. He came humbly, riding on a colt, a symbol of peace not as a warrior because He is the Prince of Peace. He accepted praise from the crowd that would soon turn into an angry mob shouting epitaphs. Today from the Mount of Olives there is a magnificent view of the ancient Temple and old city of David. And it was here from the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus prayed for His friends, followers and us.

Has Jesus brought light to your life, restoration to your soul or peace to your heart? This week, reflect on all that Jesus has done – the life He lived, the examples He set and the sacrifice of His own sinless life to reconcile us with The Father. Let us worship Him with hearts full of love, joy and thanksgiving.

Scripture passages were taken from Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 18:33-19:10 and Luke 19:28-38

Behold Immanuel

Behold Immanuel

This advent season I have heard a lot about two terms; Behold and Immanuel. The word “Behold” is used 1298 times in the whole Bible. It means to look intensely not just a glance but to gaze upon, regard, pay attention to something special.

 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. [8]   Isaiah 7:14

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.      Isaiah 9:6

Immanuel means God with us. It is a title (among others given) and not another name for Jesus.  Immanuel is spelled with an I in Hebrew (old testament) and an E in Greek (new testament). In Hebrew the title expresses the wonder of the incarnation, that God became flesh and made His dwelling with man. (John 1:14)

Ward Cushman, in an article on To Every Nation, gives four reasons why Jesus’ title Immanuel is important to us.

  • Immanuel means the Father showed Himself to us.
  • Immanuel means Jesus identified Himself with us
  • Immanuel means Jesus gave Himself for us.
  • Immanuel means the Father, Son and Spirit have stayed with us. 

He promises to be with us Matthew 18:20. One way that is fulfilled is by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives John 14:16-18. This means we can rely upon Him. Immanuel is a practical truth that can change your life.   The shepherds were given the glorious message of good news and told to go, see, examine, and investigate for themselves.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ (Messiah) the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  Luke 2:10-11

Behold -have you examined this good news for yourself? Prophecy was and will be fulfilled because God keeps all of His promises.  The Messiah, our Savior was born as a baby in very humble circumstances and not in a palace so all people could draw near.  And because He was confined to time and space Jesus understands all of our problems. Remember this Christmas that God loves us so much He gave His only Son to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin.  The question remains, is there room in your busy life for him? He promises internal and eternal peace and joy despite our current difficulties. We don’t have to be afraid of the future because Immanuel has come.

***Come and behold Him, born the King of angels . Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. ***

Christmas Catastrophe

As we look forward to celebrating Christmas and saying goodbye to 2020 it is okay to acknowledge that 2020 has been a disaster in many ways – the media has bombarded us with earthquakes, fire, floods, pandemic and political unrest. But remember the narrative of our Saviors’ birth happened under Roman occupation, forced to travel miles for a census and not being able to find a proper Inn, Mary gave birth in a stable. That seems pretty awful to me but it was part of God’s plan.

It seems an appropriate time to share one of our stories. It was early Christmas morning when my husband awoke to the smell of smoke.  The alarms hadn’t gone off yet. Thankfully it was not a fire but our furnace had “puffed back” and oily black soot was infiltrating the house. Paul shut off the heat, opened the bulkhead door and later at a decent hour called our oil company.

The children were up and opening their presents with great joy when “Dennis” arrived tool box in hand. They were wearing their footsie pajamas and had blackened little noses and toes but barely paid attention as the stranger entered the house. They didn’t notice the chill in the air or soot on their toys. I asked them to stop playing and wave good bye as we thanked him profusely and apologized for ruining his Christmas morning. While I was greatly dismayed thinking about the clean up that would come afterwards, the children were focused on their gifts. 

What takes away our attention from God’s gift? There was great joy at Jesus’ birth despite the difficult and humble beginning. If you remember, Joseph and Mary didn’t plan any of their circumstances! Maybe it will be good for us that our celebrations will be “different” this year. Missing family members, downsized celebrations and maybe a quieter day will give us time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.

 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2:8-14

Christmas Day will come – whether there is a pandemic or your furnace has trouble. Most of our problems are temporary and can be cleaned, fixed or healed. Christmas is the day for remembering that God came down to earth to make His home with mankind and later to lay down His life for us. Knowing Jesus brings peace to our hearts, hope for the future and true joy. Make sure your focus is on His best gift today.

 For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Hope is Alive

Hope is Alive

We call today “Good Friday” but over 2000 years ago it was anything but good.  The disciples of Jesus’ whole world had been turned upside down in one day. Confusion, womenatcrossDisbelief, Fear, Heartbreak and Shock were just a few of the emotions they were feeling. Rabbi, healer, miracle worker, they believed Jesus was The Messiah! The band of friends had just celebrated Passover together. It couldn’t possibly be real – it didn’t make sense – but they watched with their own eyes as the soldiers nailed Him to a cross like a vile criminal!

Some of the men and women, faithful followers of Jesus, gathered together trying to grasp the situation and others were in hiding. It was now the Sabbath and there was nothing they could do. How could everything go wrong in such a short time? He hadn’t done anything to deserve what happened. The disciples had put all their hope in Him and now it seemed gone.

While  Jesus hung on the cross He forgave the repentant thief, showing us that it is never to late to ask for forgiveness until our last breath.  On Passover HE provided the one and only perfect, holy and final sacrifice. His last cry  “It is finished” was not a cry of defeat but of victory.  The Temple curtain kept everyone and everything away from the holiness of God.  When the massive curtain tore in half it showed the access we now have to come before a Holy God through Jesus’s own blood sacrifice.

Jesus’ body had been quickly laid in a borrowed tomb just before Sabbath began. Early the next morning a few women gathered to go to the tomb and properly prepare His body for burial as was tradition.  They wondered how they would move the stone sealing the grave and if the soldiers would give them grief.  jesustombBut as they approached the burial site they were shocked to see the stone had already been rolled away….

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead…..                                          Matt 28:5-7

Jesus is alive! He soon after met with them, ate with them and explained the Scriptures about Himself. Christians around the world celebrate Easter because our hope is not based on earthly wishful thinking but assurance from God. Jesus’ sacrifice provides forgiveness and restoration in our relationship with The Father. His resurrection offers us power and victory for everyday.

Jesushands

Tragedy can strike quickly and indiscriminately and it may seem hopeless. We are left reeling to try and make sense of the circumstances and figure out the next steps. That’s how the disciples felt on Good Friday.  Right now our daily lives are disrupted, loved ones are distanced and many people have died.  But Our Hope is Alive!

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.        John 3:16

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.         Heb 4:15-16

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,      Heb 6:19

 

                           We are loved.  We have help. We have hope. We can have peace.

 

Because He Lives

God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus,

He came to love, heal and forgive

He lived and died to buy my pardon

An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.

Because He lives I can face tomorrow

Because He lives  all fear is gone

Because I know He holds the future,

And life is worth the living just because He lives!