This advent we have focused on much loved carols of the season and the Scripture texts they highlight. This morning we conclude with Joy to the World, perhaps the most loved and favorite Christmas carol. As I mentioned yesterday it beats out O Holy Night on YouTube with 29 million entry results. It is a unique carol in several ways. First, it’s written by a famous hymn writer many of us know, Isaac Watts. Second, it’s based on an OT passage, Psalm 98, not on the Christmas stories in the gospels like most carols. There is no mention of shepherds, angels, Mary or a baby. Third, it is more about the second coming of Christ, than the first coming of Christ. So technically it isn’t a Christmas carol at all. In the early 1700’s in England all church music was based on the Psalms. Here in the CRC we can understand that, we are not that far removed from the day when we only sang from the Psalms out of the Blue Psalter hymnal. As a young man of fifteen, Isaac Watts has disturbed by the deplorable and joyless singing in the churches. He believed, “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship closest to heaven, and its performance among us is the worst on earth.” Watts felt the poetic texts of the Psalms were bad and the tunes even worse. After one particularly dreadful Sunday service he complained to his father and his father said what any good father would say, if you don’t like it then you do something about it or be quiet. And that’s exactly what he did. That afternoon he wrote “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” his first hymn, written in a desire to raise the standard of praise and worship. His father took it to church the following Sunday and it was well received. So the next week he wrote another and then another, a new hymn each Sunday for over two years. By the end of his life he had written over 700 and revolutionized congregational singing. He bears the title, the Father of English Hymnody and wrote the first Hymnbook in the English language. One of Watt’s most ambitious projects was to make a volume of hymns based on the Psalms, but translated in a way that highlighted how they all pointed to the NT and the glory of Christ. In Psalm 98 he wrote into it the joy of the coming again of the Messiah, of the salvation that begins with the incarnation. The tune we sing is from Lowell Mason, a well-known and prolific American hymn writer and composer. Over a century after Watts wrote his poem, Mason put together the lyrics from Watts and the tune from parts of Handel’s Messiah and introduced this carol to America around 1836. “The result is a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States!” (C. Michael Hawn). Watts wrote three verses we don’t use that cover the first three verses. The verses we know start with Psalm 98:4.
This classic Christmas carol has an interesting history. It is a story that combines a back-sliding French Catholic turn socialist, a Jewish composer, an attempted nation-wide censorship, a failed Unitarian American pastor/abolitionist, and a landmark moment in the history of communication. In 1847 a Catholic priest in Roquemaure (rok e mar), a small village in southern France, wanted a new hymn to be sung at Christmas Eve mass. There was a man in town who was well known as a poet. Placide Cappeau was the town wine commissionaire. I don’t know if he imbibed too much of what he was in charge of overseeing, but he had a reputation as a trouble maker and showed no particular interest in the church or religion. But the priest’s request for a poem based on Luke 2 challenged him and while riding a stagecoach to Paris he compose a poem, Cantique de Noel. He sought out a friend of his to write a tune, a well-known composer of ballets and opera, Adolphe Adam, a Jew. Adam didn’t know much about Christmas or the Christmas story, but he was moved by the words and wrote a tune that was sung three weeks later on Christmas Eve, just as we are doing today, one hundred seventy years later. The carol was an instant hit among the churches in France and spread quickly until it became known that Placide Cappeau was socialist who had left the church, and that the tune was composed by a Jew who didn’t believe Jesus. This was scandalous and the church quickly denounced the song and tried to ban it from all churches. But it was too late. A decade later a Harvard divinity school graduate turned failed Unitarian pastor, John Sullivan Dwight, turned to publishing a journal of music. Always on the search for new material he discovered this French poem, Cantique de Noel, and was taken by the haunting tune and by the line in the third verse about slaves, since he was a strong abolitionist. He translated the poem into English, gave it the title, O Holy Night, and published it in America where it became a big favorite, especially in the north during the Civil War. One more twist in the story of this hymn before we look at the hymn. In 1906 in Massachusetts Reginald Fessenden (33 year old professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison) was about to do what was thought impossible and send a man’s voice out into the air without wires and it be heard. Using an alternator-transmitter at 9 pm on Christmas Eve he and his wife spoke into a microphone some of Luke 2 and then with his violin he played the first song ever played on radio, O Holy Night. What a shock for the all the people used to hearing the dots and dashes of Morse code, to hear a voice. The first wireless radio broadcast was heard on ships in the Atlantic, and it was Luke 2 and O Holy Night. That was the beginning of AM broadcasting. This carol is one of the most recorded in the entertainment industry. I typed O Holy Night into YouTube and got 11 million results. The only carol I found with more hits is the carol for tomorrow morning, Joy to the World. This carol is as rich in meaning as it is rich in history.
How you ever noticed how much time we spend preparing for things? We spend the first 18-22 years of our life preparing for the adult working world. We spend five days of practice preparing for one football or soccer or volleyball game. We spend weeks buying presents and the kids are through them in twenty minutes. We spend months preparing for a big vacation that’s over in a week. Taking a test requires hours of preparation whether it’s a driver’s test or SAT or CPA. It takes hours and days to prep a house to paint. In our worship we encourage a week of preparation before taking communion. In the church calendar we have two long seasons of preparation before our two must significant events. Before Easter there are six weeks of Lent and before Christmas day there are four weeks of Advent. This is a sure sign of how important these two days are. We should not come to the manger or to the cross and empty tomb without taking some time for serious reflection and self-examination and preparation. It is worth noting that it is our custom to always begin the advent and lent season with communion. This reminds us to prepare, to examine ourselves, to take stock of our spiritual lives, to give attention to our souls.