Martin Draper makes a plea for the hidden gems among Christmas hymns and carols
Everyone has favourite Christmas hymns and carols; indeed, there are so many that it is impossible to sing them all. The fact that Midnight Mass, the Christmas Day sung celebration and one or more ‘carol services’ may be attended by different congregations who mostly want to sing the same texts makes it difficult to explore a wide repertoire.
There are thirty-nine items in the Christmas section of the Revised English Hymnal, and that doesn’t include two texts, often sung at Christmas, which appear elsewhere in the book. Churches which normally only sing two or three hymns during the liturgy might consider replacing the psalm with a hymn and/or adding one before the Gospel Acclamation or during the distribution of Holy Communion. Perhaps, one less familiar text could be squeezed in somewhere among the old favourites?
We should make sure to look through lesser-known texts. At the very least, they can be used as a preparation for the feast or for meditation during and after it. Here are two of them.
Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s Child of the stable’s secret birth is one of the best hymn texts written in the late twentieth century. With its unusual and expansive metre (rather like Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak midwinter a century earlier), and through the skill of its writer, it avoids anything approaching doggerel. It’s amazing that it actually rhymes!
Child of the stable’s secret birth,
the Lord by right of the lords of earth,
let angels sing of a King new-born,
the world is weaving a crown of thorn:
a crown of thorn for that infant head
cradled soft in the manger bed.
2 Eyes that shine in the lantern’s ray;
a face so small in its nest of hay,
face of a child who is born to scan
the world he made through the eyes of man:
and from that face in the final day
earth and heaven shall flee away.
3 Voice that rang through the courts on high
contracted now to a wordless cry,
a voice to master the wind and wave,
the human heart and the hungry grave:
the voice of God through the cedar trees
rolling forth as the sound of seas.
4 Infant hands in a mother’s hand,
for none but Mary may understand
whose are the hands and the fingers curled
but his who fashioned and made our world:
and through these hands in the hour of death
nails shall strike to the wood beneath.
5 Child of the stable’s secret birth,
the Father’s gift to a wayward earth,
to drain the cup in a few short years
of all our sorrows, our sins and tears;
ours the prize for the road he trod:
risen with Christ; at peace with God.
Timothy Dudley-Smith, born 1926
© Timothy Dudley-Smith. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.
The text meditates on the manger scene and contrasts it with the future which awaits the one who lies there. It is also suitable for Candlemas: the feast which brings the forty days of Christmas to an end and turns our minds and hearts towards the Cross. Thus, the first verse speaks of the child of the nativity who, by right, is Lord of Lords and King of Kings as the angels sing; but reminds us that, even now, ‘the world is weaving a crown of thorn’ for the head cradled in the manger.
The intervening verses meditate on some of the child’s physical attributes: firstly, his eyes and tiny face, reflected in the light of the lantern, which will soon ‘scan the world…through the eyes of man’ and come again to judge ‘in the final day’ from which the whole creation will flee in dread; then his voice, ‘a wordless cry’ for the moment, but which will be heard later as the voice of God who calms the storm; and finally, his hands, with their fingers curled in the hand of Our Lady. For now, she alone understands that these are the hands of him who made and fashioned the world; and we now know that these are the same hands that will be nailed to the cross.
Anthony Caesar’s tune is beautiful but not easy for a Christmas congregation to pick up. But even a church with no choir might get a small group of willing singers together to rehearse it. The melody line alone is enough, or it may be supported by wordless harmony. It could be sung during the distribution of Holy Communion or would add variety to relentless congregational singing during a ‘Carol Service’.
Christopher Smart’s Where is this stupendous stranger is a hymn in a straightforward metre:
Where is this stupendous stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise:
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
2 O most mighty, O most holy,
Far beyond the seraph’s thought!
Art thou then so mean and lowly
As unheeded prophets taught?
3 O the magnitude of meekness,
Worth from worth immortal sprung!
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!
4 God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate – and a native
Of the very world he made.
Christopher Smart, 1722-71
These four verses (with the second line of the first verse altered to remove an obscure reference) come from a nine stanza text included in the writer’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Fasts and Festivals of the Church of England. They capture the wonder of the incarnation in a way that only poetry can.
Smart calls the Christ-child a ‘stupendous stranger’ (rather like Dudley-Smiths ‘secret birth’) and uses paradox in a series of images and expressions to help us enter into the greatest paradox of all which is the Incarnation: God becomes Man. We often fail to grasp the impossibility of the very idea which, of course, only takes flesh because ‘with God nothing (is) impossible’ (Luke 1. 37). In the original text, it is to the shepherds alone that the poet addresses his request. The hymn starts with the simplicity of the Lukan story and infuses it with Johannine incarnational theology.
Then the paradoxes pile up. The poet’s Master lies in a feeding trough. Even the angels cannot grasp the full magnificence of his nature, yet in the manger he is ‘mean and lowly’. (Might Deutero-Isaiah, with his servant songs, be one of the ‘unheeded’ prophets?) Meekness is greatness on an inexpressible scale. Christ’s ‘worth’ springs from (is born of) the immortal (eternal) ‘worth’ of God. They conclude in the mind-boggling lines, ‘O the strength of infant weakness, if eternal is so young. We find a similar expression in the unjustly neglected carol, The great God of heaven is come down to earth, in which we read that ‘the Ancient of Days is an hour or two old’ (NEH 37, a hymn which has its wonderful last verse restored in the revised hymnal).
The final verse is simply a poetic rendering of the paradox itself, ‘The Word (‘through whom all things were made’) was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1. 3 and 14). Note the repeated ‘all’ and the idea that the Incarnation stems from God’s infinite goodness, against which no amount of evil can prevail, or persuade him to act otherwise.
The best tune by far is Ottery St Mary, whose harmonies send shivers down one’s spine. It’s easy to pick up after a single play-over. I have used it at Midnight Mass (in place of ‘While shepherds watched’), in parishes with and without a choir, but it would also be suitable on a Sunday after Christmas or Epiphany.
A huge vote of thanks from us all at New Directions to Fr Draper for this ‘hymn of the month’ series throughout 2022
As we embarked upon it, the intention was that the Revised English Hymnal would be published by the end of this year, and the aim of these articles was to introduce readers to some of the characteristics of the new volume with Fr Draper’s unique and fascinating insight. The publishers now plan for the full music edition to appear in May next year, 117 years after the original English Hymnal saw the light on Ascension Day, 1906. The editors are currently in the final proofing and pre-print stages.
Readers can find more information at the website reh.hymnsam.co.uk and use the link there to pre-order a copy of the full-music edition at the special price of £25.