Craft of Preaching

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It's not just about the sermon -- preaching is part of the larger liturgical context of worship.

Using Hymns - in Addition to the Sermon - to Tell the Christmas Story

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A poorly delivered sermon can undercut solid and faithful content. Conversely, a great delivery can make shabby content sound much better than it is - unfortunately.

The Challenge

A poorly delivered sermon can undercut solid and faithful content. Conversely, a great delivery can make shabby content sound much better than it is - unfortunately. Likewise, I believe, a dull or inappropriate melody can fail to carry a hymn's inspiring and faithful lyrics, just as a fun or exhilarating melody may enhance a false or banal message. Ideally, of course, the content of a sermon should be faithful and significant and the delivery should serve to make the content clear and compelling, as a hymn's melody should carry and implant the lyric's gospel message.

This is especially important in the Christmas season, because Christmas carols are so familiar and so intertwined with nostalgia and sub-Christian content that they often undermine rather than serve the communication of the Christian message. If Christmas hymns and carols are to assist the preacher in proclaiming the radical and surprising story of the Word of God become flesh for the salvation of the world, it will require careful attention to the interaction of their words and melodies within the context of worship. Familiarity can obscure surprise and acculturation may trivialize the radicality of the gospel, particularly at Christmas, so it is worthwhile for preachers to care about these matters.

The Obstacles

We face many obstacles, however, not least that many regular and occasional worshippers' favorite Christmas carols ought to be on a list of the "Ten Worst Carols" (at proclaiming the gospel)--even if they are fun to sing.

  • "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"
  • "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
  • "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
  • "Blue Christmas"
  • "Home for the Holidays"
  • "Jingle Bells"
  • "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"
  • "Frosty the Snowman"
  • "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"
  • "White Christmas"

Not that we would ever use one of these carols in worship, but their sentiments are part of our culture's assumptions about Christmas and they exercise a continuing and competitive influence on people's understandings and expectations of Christmas.

Or, consider the list of "Not-So-Bad Carols" loved by many of us.

  • "O Christmas Tree"
  • "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
  • "We Three Kings"
  • "Deck the Halls"
  • "The Little Drummer Boy"

Some of these are even about biblical themes or Christian traditions/sentiments, but they still are far from the meaning of the Incarnation or the crucifixion of one who is the focus of Christmas. These sorts of carols are among those I see as having sub-Christian content carried by delightful poetry, images, or melodies--making them potentially more damaging to faith and worship than Frosty, Rudolph, or St. Nick.

Words and faith

The apostle Paul wrote that "faith comes by hearing." The Protestant Reformation picked up on that insight in a central way--linking faith in the good news of Jesus Christ to the importance of proclaiming, speaking. Such words were called the "living voice" of the gospel, through which the Holy Spirit creates faith in those who hear. Hymns and carols are also words, proclamation; they also should be considered to be means by which faith comes through hearing.1

With this in mind, I suggest that the following Christmas hymns and carols, which in their words emphasize the full telling of the story of the Word made flesh--that is, not only of Jesus' birth but of his teachings, deeds, obedience to God the Father even unto death, and his resurrection, commissioning of his followers, promises for eternity, and ascension--contain some of the best candidates to select to proclaim the gospel for faith. In addition, these selections, in my opinion, have at least adequate and mostly very good melodies that deliver the important meanings of the words.

Some Christmas Hymns and Carols that are Especially Helpful in Proclaiming the Gospel2

  • "All Hail to You, O Blessed Morn!" (Wie Schön Leuchtet)
  • "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" (Nun Freut Euch)3
  • "From Heaven Above" (Vom Himmel Hoch)4
  • "Hark, the Glad Sound!" (Chesterfield)
  • "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (Mendelssohn)
  • "In a Lowly Manger Born" (Mabune)
  • "Let All Together Praise Our God" (Lobt Gott, Ihr Christen)
  • "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (Es Ist Ein Ros)
  • "O Savior of Our Fallen Race" (Vom Himmel Hoch or other musical settings)
  • "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (Divinum Mysterium)
  • "Oh, Love, How Deep" (Deo Gracias)
  • "Savior of the Nations, Come" (Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland)
  • "Son of God, Eternal Savior" (In Babilone)
  • "What Child Is This" (Greensleeves)
  • "Word of God, Come Down to Earth" (Liebster Jesu, Wir Sind Hier)

While this list may satisfy no one fully (I had to leave out several of my favorites in order to meet my own criteria!), I hope it is suggestive for preachers seeking to enlist Christmas hymns for proclamation.

Carols as part of the liturgy

Another way hymns may serve proclamation during the Christmas season (Advent through January 1) is to incorporate them into other parts of the service in place of what is normally used. For example, if a specific hymn, psalm, or canticle of praise occurs regularly early in the service, it could be replaced by the angels' hymn "All Glory Be to God on High" (Allein Gott in der Höh), using one of its several translations--some fit better with Christmas--could be used in its place on several successive Sundays. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (Go Tell It) could be used as a sending hymn at the close of worship. Some Christians had or have a tradition of singing the classical creeds; Martin Luther's hymn "We All Believe in One True God" (Wir Glauben All, based on a Latin Credo) is his brief poetic paraphrase of the Nicene Creed, joined to what many will hear as a startling melody. This could serve the Christmas proclamation if it were used several Sundays in a row leading up and following Christmas Day in place of a spoken creed--and it has an incarnational focus that stands out because of the melody.

One More Thing

Finally, you will have noticed that I have run together the latter part of Advent and Christmas. The main reason for doing this is to help the church speak the true message of Christmas to a culture that is saturated with so-called Christmas "stuff" from late October through December 24. If the church omits Christmas themes and hymns/carols until Dec. 24, we hardly stand a chance at getting our message across. Adding a few additional weeks won't solve everything but at least it will provide regular worshipers with something other than all that cultural "stuff."5

 


1We often think of visual support for Christmas worship (a manger scene, lights and candles, trees and wreathes).  Visual arts have both advantages and limitations when it comes to proclamation: they are memorable and vivid, but they often have minimal capacity to communicate a defined message. The audience sees what it sees (or what each one sees). This is less the case for words, including words set to music, because words communicate meanings more directly. (Music without words suffers in this regard in ways similar to visual images.)

2Not all of the selections on this list are usually listed as Christmas songs, yet I think their lyrics recommend them for Christmas. While they may be familiar to many, their use at Christmas would be surprising and perhaps thought-provoking. The second hymn on the list is one of these surprises--as are several others.

3Martin Luther's words for this hymn exemplify the comprehensiveness of the gospel, with the Incarnation (as God-become-flesh or God-with-us, and not only as Jesus' birth) playing a key role. Eight stanzas may be too many to sing, but stanzas 6-8 are put in the mouth of the adult Jesus and could be spoken (proclaimed!) to the congregation by one person or by a choir. Also, much of stanza 4 is a speech of God the Father to the eternal Son prior to the Incarnation and could be spoken by one person. This would leave the congregation to sing stanzas 1-3, the beginning of 4, and 5--setting up the proclamation of 6-8. Various English versions of this hymn have different numbers of stanzas (e.g, 10, so that God the Father's speech comes in 5 and Jesus' speech is longer and includes 7-10), so that appropriate changes would need to be made to follow my suggestions.

4Another of Luther's very long hymns (14 stanzas). Stanzas 1-3 might be sung, followed either by one or more chosen from 4-11 or speaking 4-11, concluding with singing 12-14. Try it. It's less cumbersome than it seems.

5For more on this, see my articles "Christmas Preaching" and "Singing Christmas Hymns/Carols During Advent? YES!" in the Christmas 2007 volume of Word & World.

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