Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

Divided Services, Divided Body?

I love traditional worship and, as a church musician, am in favor of the whole package: choir robes, pipe organ, hymnals, etc. I once even jokingly said I’d drown myself if I ever heard “Oceans” played in another chapel.

That said, though, I am not necessarily in favor of having separate traditional and contemporary worship services. Before coming to the church I currently attend, I found myself in pursuit of a completely traditional service as I sought to avoid what I saw as the church-turned-concert vibe of many contemporary services.

But is this biblical?

I can easily make a case against a solely-contemporary worship regimen. After all, hymns provide a link to our Christian heritage, are (in general) more closely inspired by specific scriptures, and tend to be more musically complex. However, there are many skilled contemporary Christian artists who write songs packed with beautiful music and sound theology and it is not wise to ignore these for the sake of tradition.

Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion writes (in many more words) that so long as it remains rooted in scripture and dedicated to administering the sacraments, churches on Earth are encouraged to grow and develop according to their situation in time and location. Thus, while we should not forget our tradition, we also should not refuse to progress and continue to create.

Thus, the statement that we ought to remember our traditions and the belief that we ought to continue to develop our worship should not be mutually exclusive.

We may certainly choose to attend chapels or such gatherings that have the musical worship that we prefer. However, in the church, it is potentially unwise to cater separately to both extremes: traditional vs. contemporary.

I love traditional worship and do not mind contemporary when it is done with excellence, but I especially love the church services where the two are combined. I should clarify that I am not talking about contemporary remixes of the hymns; for example, when good ole “Joy to the World” becomes “JOY! UNSPEAKABLE JOY!” and is repeated for eternity, I cannot help but cringe. I am simply saying that rather than alter the hymns to make them more palatable for contemporary Christians, we should sing them alongside new songs. And, in doing so, we might bring the two extremes of the worshipping body together.

I have personally observed disgruntled older Christians in contemporary services and, although only twenty years old, I relate. As soon as the guitar and drums come in, we often lose our motivation to worship because the melodies are unfamiliar, the words projected on a screen rather than printed in a hymnal, and the music is too loud. Rather than adapt, my traditional pals and I attend a separate service that fits our expectations.

On the other hand, younger congregation members might feel uncomfortable in a liturgical service. They find the hymnals unwieldy, the music or lyrics too complicated, and the environment too formal. Rather than finding such a service reverent, they might find it stiff and distant. And so, like their older counterparts, they create and attend a service geared specifically toward their desires.

What seemed like an insignificant difference of musical preference is much more: it is a fundamental division of the church body.

In a traditional service, it is rare to see anyone under a more venerable age. In a contemporary service, primarily youth attend. There is a massive gap between generations in the church. And this is wrong; just as only featuring one era’s songs of praise does not accurately represent the span of Christian creativity in worship, hosting separate services for each worship preference does not accurately represent the body of the church, or- more importantly- the body of Christ.

The body of Christ, we are told in scripture, is united. Paul’s letters are overflowing with calls for the crucial unity of church members. For instance, 1 Corinthians 1:10:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Does dividing the congregation based on means of worship obey this call? Does it reveal that we are living with “the same mind” or does it demonstrate a willing, opposing judgment?

What is the solution to this division? It cannot be to abandon one mode of worship for the other, forcing all members to sing hymns or contemporary music as this would further promote disunity! It would either divide us from our heritage and thus from the brethren that came before us or it would disconnect us from the current Christian culture. Either way, choosing one exclusively is not the answer; severing the past from the present obviously cannot heal a primarily generational division.

Rather, just as we ought to bring together the generations and preferences of our congregation, we must bring together the worship of our history and our present age. Blended services are a blessing (even if it means suffering through that repetitive refrain or faking your way through a wordy hymn) because you might be suffering and faking next to a kindly grandmother, an enthusiastic college student, a smiling toddler, or a wise father. Worship is about more than music; it is about the communion of the saints. Where the members of the body proclaim truth in unity, there is worship.

Romans 12:4-5 reads:

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

These verses, which focus on spiritual gifts, may also be applied to worship. We are individual members and, as such, carry our individual preferences. I personally find it easier to worship through the hymns, but many I know find contemporary songs more accessible. These are not doctrinal conflicts, but rather individual differences between members.

Ultimately, though, we are not called to live according to ourselves as individuals but to submit to one another. We are to bring together our gifts- and our preferences- to serve each other so that we join to become something greater: the united body in and of Christ. Combining our worship services, even if it is just once in a while, and singing praises together is a small step toward this perfect and desirable unity. Together, we might sing both beloved psalms and new songs to our one Lord, “who was and is and is to come.” And, together, we might realize fully the truth of Psalm 133:1:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”

Joy of Morning

  

God’s love is like a morning,

Arising in my soul. 

A perfect, constant dawning,

So warm and wonderful.

   .

Though the earthly night surrounds,

It cannot pierce within.

Dark of death no more is found,

Nor cold of pain and sin.

   .

Day seems a bright beginning,

Yet noontide is past.

In Him it’s never-ending,

Forever, first and last.

   .

Shades of fear are put to flight,

Far from the horizon,

Where breaks forth the radiant light

Of one and only Son.

   .

Awaken and uplift your eyes,

To peer into the blaze.

Join in singing with the skies,

Their morning hymn of praise.