The Biblical Songbook, the American Songbook and the Church
The English word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming.” That’s pretty simple and straightforward. The concept of “coming” in Christian theology means not only the birth of Jesus but also the second coming of Jesus. So there is the legitimate aspect of looking back (nostalgia) and looking forward (anticipation) in our theology of Advent.
In Psalm 55 (22), David exhorts us to “cast our cares on the LORD” and our troubles will be miles away, or as David more literately sings — referring in Psalm 103 (12) to how God graciously treats our transgressions — “they will be as far from us as the east is from the west.” What David is saying in the refrain of Psalm 55 is that when the many disappointment of life come upon us, our God will sustain us.
God won’t take away the discouragements of life but He will give us perspective that victory will be ours, eventually. Our troubles will be so out of sight that we can never find them. So, heart be light and merry, and depend upon the Messiah.
The great Charles Wesley’s Advent hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” written in 1744 is an example of the Biblical Songbook song of consolation. Springing off Luke 2:25, “Waiting for the consolation of Israel,” this spiritual poem has been hugely popular in Church hymnals.
This Advent poem, written by the Bard of Methodism, capturing the desire and hope of Christian hearts, is usually set to a tune written by Rowland Pritchard a hundred years later. The hymn celebrates the “coming” of the long-expected Jesus, the promised Rod of Jesse and the Joy of every longing heart. – All because we are to be set free from our sin and the penalty of that sin.
Here, Twila Paris sings.
(“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” performed by Twila Paris)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bsTW159D8k
Turning to the American Songbook, for the last 70 years, one of the top 10 favorite Christmas secular songs in America is, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written by Hugh Martin in l943 during the height of World War II for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. The song hopes that one can have, at least, a “little” Christmas this year, wherever you are, but that will only happen if “the Fates” allow.
Events beyond our control have yanked us out of our pleasant life and now we can only yearn for happier days when our hearts can once again be “light and merry.” The wistfulness and longing in this secular hymn are almost too much to bear, and Judy Garland’s interpretation does little to relieve the heartache of being separated.
(“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” performed by Judy Garland)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g4lY8Y3eoo
A bit more on composer Hugh Martin. In 1974 after decades of musical achievements but physical and psychological troubles, Martin checked into a Birmingham, Alabama hospital for some general tests. He was 60 years old. The Rev. William Lester, an African-American pastor who was his roommate, witnessed the gospel to him in actions and words.
But let Martin tell the rest of the story: “God had to bring it to my attention that I was not all I thought I was. I was suddenly overwhelmed with what a wretch I was. I threw myself on my face and begged the Lord to heal me.” No more “Fates,” just Jesus! After his decisive conversion to Christianity, Martin did not produce any lasting work of popular merit – except as the music director for the popular Broadway stage production of Sugar Babies in l979 staring the superstar entertainer Mickey Rooney, who had also became a Christian in later life.
So this Advent season, may your troubles be out of sight, indeed, miles away as you gather with faithful friends to once again have a merry Christmas. And may the “shining star upon the highest bough” represent Jesus the Messiah as your Lord.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”