In previous programs I’ve mentioned Francis and Edith Schaeffer. When Francis Schaeffer writes about artistic judgment he says it is possible for a non-Christian composer to create a song according to a Christian worldview, when the composer creates within a broadly Biblical Songbook culture. That is the situation with so many of the secular Christmas hymns of the Great American Songbook, particularly those secular songs written 60, 70 years ago when our culture was markedly different than it is today.
I’ll talk about one such song in a moment. But first I want to focus on a sacred hymn. The Biblical Songbook contains so many passages that speak of the coming and presence of the Messiah that this program could go on for hours if I were to try to cover them all. However, one passage that jumps out is Isaiah 40 where we read, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” God is telling Isaiah and other messengers, to do the comforting on His behalf.
How are the messengers to comfort God’s people? Through the proclamation of good and comforting words. In the midst of sin and judgment and consequent distress, the uplifting words concerning the Messiah are to be a salve for the troubled Israelite souls.
The Church embraced these comforting words in her great Christmas hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.” The hymn was written in 1671 by 60 year old Lutheran scholar Johann Ol-e-air-e-us (Olearius) who was a German court preacher, hymn writer and Bible commentator. Catherine Winkworth translated this wonderful hymn into English in 1863 and it has been a staple of Christmas singing in the English-speaking church for 150 years. Here is the wonderful choir from the Canadian Mennonite college, Conrad Grebel singing this beautiful hymn:
(“Comfort, comfort Ye My People” performed by Conrad Grebel College Choir) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTOeAl-Ph8I
Now, let’s move to the American Songbook, and in so doing I return to something I mentioned a few weeks ago. In his insightful book, Imagine, Steve Turner talks about how creation and common grace could inform our understanding of the American Songbook by using his worldview circles. It is Turner’s third circle that is on point here, because it covers those songs in which the lyrics are not uniquely Christian, but nonetheless carry an imprint of clear Bible teaching. Such songs have lyrics that, perhaps even unknown to the songwriter, exalt God’s heart, by speaking of things such as peace, love, reconciliation and truth.
A great example of a third circle song is that classic Christmas song of the American Songbook – “I’ll be Home For Christmas” – another song immortalized by Bing Crosby. If Crosby had not sung some of these Christmas songs during the difficult days of World War 2, our secular hymnbook would be much smaller and less enjoyable. Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, “I’ll be Home For Christmas” promises a Christmas reunion, if it’s only in our dreams.
Aimed for the hearts of American servicemen overseas, the song has spoken for decades to anyone separated from friends or loved-ones on Christmas. There is a melancholy and heartsick feel to the lyrics but there is also the hopefulness that the “long road back” will lead to a hearth that is warm and comforting. And in the meantime, distance cannot steal our dreams of being together once again.
(I’ll Be Home for Christmas performed by Bing Crosby)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYOvd2PZoPU
So this Christmas, when our culture idealizes the gathering of family and/or friends and you don’t recognize yourself in this rosy picture, remember that if you are a Christian you belong to the family of God and that your Redeemer will — as the “Comfort Ye My People” hymn declares — “change your pining sadness into ever-springing gladness.”
With that in mind, I pray that this Christmas season your “love light will gleam” in the presence of the Messiah. Merry Christmas from those of us at World and Everything In It.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”