Wednesday, December 11, 2013

#363, in which the angel of the Lord came down and glory shone around

There are 14 Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook, and I always look forward to attending church during December because I know I'll get to sing all 14 of them during the month. One that we sang this last Sunday was one that Tamsen and I agreed was our favorite of the 14, which made me think how I would order them all. So I took some time during our sacrament meeting and--while still paying attention to the talks, I'll have you know--came up with a list.

I'm going to share that list with you, one day at a time, over the next two weeks. Keep in mind that this isn't an exhaustive list of the greatest Christmas songs, but rather an ordering of the Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnbook. If I was extending this to all Christmas songs, #1 on the list would be "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and its position as #1 would be inarguable. Consider the lyrics of its first verse, and try and tell me otherwise:

O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Songs that mention redemption really resonate with me, and that's something you'll notice in my list over the next two weeks.

So, let's get started. Remember that this list is completely subjective, and that a hymn appearing low on the list doesn't mean that I dislike it. It's just that there are others that I like more. There are a lot of excellent songs here, and they can't all appear in the top three.

14. "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (Nahum Tate, based on Luke 2:8-14)

(link to hymn on; you can change settings to hear the words under the audio tab)

Again, to be fair, ranking this hymn as no. 14 isn't to say that I don't like it. I think it's fine, although it's probably the song I'm least familiar with of the 14. Its case also isn't helped by the fact that the tune sounds very similar to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" at first, making it tricky to sing for someone already unfamiliar with it.

But set all that aside, and you'll find that the hymn is actually rather nice. As mentioned above, it's based on the appearance of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2. It's not too had to imagine how terrified those shepherds must have been, seeing a heavenly visitor in the middle of the night (or whatever time of day it was), and it's nice to hear the comforting message the angel had for them. It's also reassuring to know that angels today can provide us with similar comfort. They tell us of peace on earth and good will toward men. They tell us to fear not, and in a world where fear is increasingly commonplace, that's a nice message to hear.

Angels don't always take the form of heavenly beings clothed in white and bearing trumpets, mind you. Sometimes they're a kind neighbor, or a thoughtful stranger who holds a door open for you. And sometimes they take the form of a six year-old boy, clutching a blanket and telling us all about the true meaning of Christmas.

(Yes, the passage he quotes is the same one this hymn is based on.)

I know I said that the tune was tricky for those unfamiliar with the hymn, but once you hear it a couple of times, it starts to stick in your head. I've been humming it while writing this post, and it's been pleasant. The bit that's been stuck in my head has been the last two bars of the first verse, which read, "'Fear not,' said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind; 'Glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind."

Pretty nice, isn't it? It's the hymn of the 14 I'm least familiar with, and I imagine you are as well, but maybe now that we've taken the time to listen to it a couple of times, maybe we'll think better of it the next time we sing it in church. (Perhaps you're not LDS and won't have a chance to sing it in your church, since you use a different hymnbook. You're welcome to come with me and sing it next Sunday; if you don't live by me, there are meetinghouses all over the world, and this link can tell you where the closest one to you is.)


erin said...

This is a great post Sam. Thanks!

Katya said...

As a frequent ward pianist and organist, I'm pretty familiar with almost all of the hymns, but I can see why most people wouldn't be as familiar with this one. (Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard it outside of a Mormon context, which you obviously can't say about "Joy to the World.")

For some reason, I really love the half notes at the beginning of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines. You'd think that those lines would start with a quarter note, since the song itself does, but I like that the rhythm shakes things up a bit.