This year, on the Sunday after Christmas, we shared the stories behind our favorite Christmas carol and sang them together. Each carol was introduced by a different member of the church. We offer this order of service in case anyone else might find it a useful resource, and we hope that your Christmas season was/is blessed and holy and filled with good music!
Introductions, Announcements, Birthday Celebrations
Gathering Moment: Isaiah 9:2-7
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Story and Carol: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
Did you know that when the Puritans controlled England, back in the 1600’s, singing Christmas carols was illegal? The Puritans believed that it was unnecessary to celebrate Christmas once a year, since Jesus’ birth could be celebrated on any day. They also had a problem with how loud and raucous some of the celebrations were, and didn’t want the birth of our Savior to be celebrated with wild partying.
While this hymn was written many years after the Puritans lost control of England, it’s an example of the sort of British carol that they were objecting against. It’s loud, and happy, and set to a tune that wasn’t even meant to be religious. The tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the invention of the printing press, and Mendelssohn was adamant that it not be used for religious purposes. He thought that it wasn’t reflective enough, that it was far too happy for church music.
The original author of the words, Charles Wesley, thought his lyrics should be sung to the same tune that we use for Christ The Lord I Risen Today. In his version, the first line was “Hark how all the Welkin rings, “Glory to the Kings of Kings!”” Welkin is an old-fashioned word for heavens, so Wesley’s idea here was that the whole sky was filled with praise on Christmas. Since the word “welkin” fell out of use, the song was adapted into the form we have now. It’s still fun, though, to imagine the whole sky singing along.
We’re going to sing a lot of carols today, so we won’t stand for all of them. Please stand as you are able, though, for this joyous celebration of Christ’s birth. You can find it on page 80 in your gray hymnal”
Story and Carol: Angels We Have Heard On High
I love this next carol because it isn’t overly sentimental and it’s fun to sing. When I first realized I was becoming an alto instead of the coloratura soprano I fantasized about being, this was a favorite alto part to sing.
There are several theories/versions of the history of this carol, but the one I believe was put forth by a music librarian and archivist who discounts the legends that it comes from AD 129 because, he says, the musical style clearly comes from the modern era.
His research indicates that it comes from 18th century France. The refrain echoes the practice of French shepherds singing out, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” to each other across the hills on Christmas Eve. The earliest known occurrence of the current version was published in France in 1855. The first English version was published in 1862.
He goes on to say that, “It is a remarkable melodic blend of grace and dynamism…truly one of the best of all carols.”
And these angels don’t have to say, “Be not afraid.” They aren’t scary. Please join us as we sing this hymn. It’s #132 in the gray hymnal.
Praises and Concerns
God of creation, God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, God of the exodus and the temple and the exile and the manger, today we praise you for your faithfulness, compassion, and love. We are thankful today for the gift of your presence with us. We’re thankful for the promise of Christmas that you will do whatever it takes to remain present among us.
It’s been a rough year, for a lot of us. It’s easy to feel, even surrounded by the bright lights of Christmas, like we’re drowning in an ocean of darkness. It’s easy to feel like the joy of this season has nothing to do with our lives. Even when it’s dark, though, we know that you are still present with us. We know that above that ocean of darkness flows a relentless and beautiful ocean of light. We see it – we feel it – when we have the courage to look up.
As we celebrate this Christmas season, we ask that you will mold us into Christmas people. Make us humble, like the shepherds, willing to listen to unexpected good news. Make us unashamed, like the angels, willing to sing your praises to the heavens. Make us willing, like Mary, to bear your light into the world.
Bless the gifts that we bring you this morning- our time, our talent, and our treasure. Make our gifts and make ourselves blessings in your broken and holy world. Use all that we have and all that we are to widen the circle of light and love. It’s in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to be with us on Christmas day, that we pray for this. AMEN.
Story and Carol: Mary, Did You Know
Mary, Did You Know? is a modern Christmas carol written by Mark Lowry, a singer and comedian who sings Gospel music with the Gaither family. Here’s how he describes the experience of writing this song:
“Well, my Pastor asked me to write the Christmas program for our church, called The Living Christmas Tree, & I wrote some monologue to go in between the songs. I started thinking & wondering if Mary realized the power, authority & majesty that she cradled in her arms that first Christmas. I wondered if she realized those little hands were the same hands that scooped out oceans & formed rivers. I just tried to put into words the unfathomable. I started thinking of the questions I would have for her if I were to sit down & have coffee with Mary…you know,
“What was it like raising God?”
“…What did you know?”
“…What didn’t you know?”.
Over time, it (the song) just happened & I had the lyrics.”
At first, Mark didn’t sing the song himself- he thought it was out of his range. He was asked to do it at a concert once, though, and now he sings it every time he performs. It’s the most famous song of his career, and he likes being identified with it.
The song was first recorded in 1992, which was 10 years before I was even born, and has since been recorded by over 500 artists. Mark’s favorite version is the one by Christ Church Choir, but he also likes the disco version recorded by Kristine W.
Story and Carol: Do You Hear What I Hear
Do You Hear What I Hear was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne in October 1962. At this time, the Soviet Union and the United States almost went to war over some missiles that the Russians had placed in Cuba. The United States did not want Russia to have those missiles in Cuba, and threatened military action unless they were taken away. Both countries had been building their nuclear stockpile for quite some time, and many people were afraid that the two superpowers would fire nuclear weapons at each other.
Noel had endured the horrors of war during World War II, as a member of the French underground. He knew the fear and terror of being surrounded by violence, and he didn’t want to live that way again. He, along with many Americans, was consumed with worry about the situation in Cuba.
As he was walking through New York City, though, Noel saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The babies were smiling at each other. Seeing this completely changed Noel’s perspective because the babies reminded him of innocent newborn lambs. That’s why the song starts with “Said the night wind to the little lamb….”
When Noel got home, he wrote down the words that were in his head. His wife, Gloria, wrote the music to accompany the lyrics. They were good at performing together, but they were never able to sing this song in public- they cried every time they tried because it reminded them of being afraid during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The threat of nuclear war is no longer on the news every day, although maybe it should be. This song isn’t in our hymnals, but it’s pretty familiar. The lyrics are on an insert in your bulletin. Phillip will play, and we’ll sing along. As we sing this song together, may we pray for peace everywhere with all of our hearts.
Story and Carol: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
It was the long, cold winter of 1863. The war between the states raged mercilessly. Antietam. Vicksburg. Gettysburg. Chickamauga. Sons, fathers, and brothers from Mississippi to Maine had not come home for Christmas, and many would never return.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, single father of six, sat in Cambridge, Massachusetts pondering the state of the world around him. He had been widowed for two years since his wife, Fannie’s, dress tragically caught fire, and his oldest son, Charles, was now seriously wounded, having been injured on November 27 by a confederate bullet at the Battle of New Hope Church.
On Christmas day, as he sat nursing his son on the long road to recovery, listening to the church bells pealing forth Christmas tidings, Longfellow struggled with the message of the angels proclaiming “Peace on earth, good will towards men” and the reality of the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock that message. He took up his pen, and wrote the poem we know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which was set to music, giving us this memorable hymn. Please turn to #152 in your gray hymnal and sing along.
Children’s Message Story and Carol: Go Tell It On The Mountain
We’ve sung a whole lot of Christmas carols this morning, haven’t we? I really like Angels We Have Heard On High. Jennilou was right: the alto part is fun to sing. What’s your favorite Christmas song?
This morning, I want to tell you a bit about the song that many of you sang here last week: Go, Tell It On The Mountain. For a lot of these songs, we’ve been able to tell you who wrote it. I Heard The Bells was written by someone named Henry. Hark, The Herald Angels Sing was written by someone named Charles.
When it comes to Go, Tell It On The Mountain, though, we don’t have a name. It was probably written by someone who was a slave, back when our country used to allow that. So we don’t know if it was composed by a boy or a girl, or if whoever thought of it even knew how to read and write! Lots of times slaves weren’t allowed to do that.
What we do know, though, is that they heard the Christmas story and understood that it was a story about freedom. They understood that this baby was coming to set everyone free. That’s what the song is about, because Christmas is for everybody! So, I’m going to ask Phillip to get us started, and then we’ll sing the chorus twice like you did last week…
Will you pray with me? God, we thank you for loving us so much that you came to live with us on Christmas. Thank you, too, for the freedom that we have to gather to worship and to learn about you. Help us to both receive your love and to be willing to climb mountains in order to tell people about Jesus. AMEN.
Scripture Reading: John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Story and Carol: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear is one of the few Christmas carols that pictures the Christmas story as an ongoing event, rather than as something that happened in a Palestinian town 2000 years ago. In fact, it doesn’t even actually mention the birth of Christ! It focuses, instead, on the peaceful song of the angels sung once in Bethlehem and still heard today by those who will listen.
This hymn was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts. He wrote it in 1849, twelve years before the American Civil War began. It reflects his participation in the beginnings of the Social Gospel movement. Like many Quakers in his time, he was torn between his Christian commitment to pacifism and his desire to help put an end to the institution of slavery. There’s a verse that we often omit from our hymnals which sums up his frustration:
“But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”
Or in prose: will you just hush and hear the angels sing? How hard a request is that?
“Two thousand years of wrong,” goes the song – but into each of those years and each of those wrongs, Christ is born again. The skies still split open, and the angels still sing as we have this morning songs of light, songs of freedom, songs of peace, songs that tell the story over and over.
The Christmas Spirit spoke powerfully to Sears, as he wrote this hymn reimagining Christmas for his own time. Christmas spoke just as powerfully to Lowry and Wesley and the anonymous slave and a thousand other hymn writers. And if we will listen, this story will speak into our own time as well.
To adapt the Gospel of John ever so slightly- in the beginning, there was the Song. The song sounds forth amid the clanging and banging of our world, and no amount of noise can overcome its tune.
The angels sang it. The shepherds heard it. Mary pondered it in her heart. And if we will hush, we too will hear the music.
As we enter the silence, please join me in singing It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. It’s #128 in your gray hymnal.
Story and Carol: Joy To The World
Our final hymn this morning, Joy To The World, was written by Isaac Watts- the author of many hymns in our hymnal. This song, oddly enough, did not start out life as a Christmas carol at all! It contains no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, and no baby Jesus. It was part of a project that Watts was working on to reimagine the Psalms in the Bible with contemporary music and wording. This was his version of Psalm 98.
Watts wrote this as an apocalyptic song celebrating Jesus’ glorious second coming at the end of the age. It stretches back in time to Genesis 3 – the story of Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden under a curse that filled the fields with briars – and it tells the joyful story of a God who arrives to overcome the curse.
Apocalypse isn’t a word that we use very often. It’s just a Greek word that means uncovering, though. You all had apocalypses on Christmas, when you covered gifts in wrapping paper and then dramatically uncovered them to see what lay beneath.
So this hymn wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas song. We sing it at Christmas anyway, though because Christmas is a time when we unwrap the story of a God who comes to dwell with us. It’s a time when we celebrate how all heaven and nature sing when God arrives among us.
Joy To The World is #125 in your gray hymnal. Please stand as we close our celebration of Christ’s presence with us by echoing the sounding joy!
Friends, may the song of the angels ring in your heart, may the light of the star that shone over Bethlehem guide your journey as you leave this place, and may you walk forth in the paths of joy and love. Go in peace, and please greet one another as Friends.