Look! The angels of the Lord are singing!

We sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at church tonight, and I love the text, but it’s particularly not easy to understand. Charles Wesley wrote this text in 1739, during the time of his brother’s Moravian period, so they both were writing with Moravian influences. This specifically meant that their hymn texts that expressed theology, and their tunes were meant to be very singable by congregations, while being melodic and tuneful.

Since there’s so much theology packed into this hymn, let’s take a minute and look at it translated into layman’s terms.

Hark! The herald angels sing,        Look! The angels, messengers of the Lord, are singing,
“Glory to the newborn king.            “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,     They sing of the coming peace on earth, and mercy to the mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”         And the coming reconciliation between sinners on earth and the Lord!”
Joyful all ye nations, rise;               Nations, rise up in joy at this news!
join the triumph of the skies;          join the triumph of these singing angels, whose song fills the skies.
with the angelic host proclaim,       with the Lord’s angels proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”        “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Refrain:
Hark! The herald angels sing,        Look! The angels, messengers of the Lord, are singing,
“Glory to the newborn king.”           “Glory to the newborn King!

Christ, by highest heaven adored,   Christ is adored by the highest heaven,
Christ the everlasting Lord,             Christ is the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,          The world has been waiting for him for a long time, so check him out-
offspring of the virgin’s womb.         offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;    See God’s presence within this baby;
hail the incarnate deity,                   Praise God embodied in this human form,
pleased in flesh with us to dwell,     He is glad that he can dwell with us in flesh,
Jesus, our Emmanuel. [Refrain]      Jesus, our God is with us. 

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!  Praise to the Prince of Peace who was born of heaven and sent to earth.
Hail the son of righteousness!        Praise to the son of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,         He brings light and life to all,
risen with healing in his wings.       He has the power to heal the world.
Mild he lays his glory by,                He is not flashy about the glory that he has,
born that we no more may die,       Even though he’s been born so we will no longer die, so it’s a pretty big deal.
born to raise us from the earth,      born so that we will be resurrected with him when he comes again,
born to give us second birth. [Refrain]    born so we can be born again in him.

The text is very poetic, and more helpfully, the poetic text rhymes, but it’s often easy to just sing words that we don’t quite understand and lose sight of what we’re singing about. The message in this hymn is pretty awesome, so the next time you get to sing this hymn, stop and think about what you’re singing!

Merry Christmas 🙂

Methodists and the Moravians

In my Hymnology class this semester, I’ve delved into the relationship that the Wesley brothers had with the Moravian church, and explored how the Moravian influences defined many characteristics of the Methodist tradition, even that remains still today. It’s a fascinating topic, and as a born-‘n-bred United Methodist, it’s one that’s really helped me understand my own denomination’s musical tradition. It’s also been enlightening as a spiritual endeavor: John Wesley’s “Moravian Period” was during some of the formative years of his theological beliefs, especially as they pertained to his leadership of the Methodist gatherings. While I studied John’s journey, as he wrestled with the theological and spiritual topics the Moravians introduced, and as he solidified his own views, I worked through those same issues in my own faith, decided where I stand, and contemplated what I would have done in John’s position.

Through this illuminating experience, I feel more connected to the early Methodists, and I have a better understanding of where we came from, why Methodism was started, and why we do what we do today. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do!

We’ll start things off with a brief history of the Moravians. Before I began this research project, I had no idea what the Moravian church was, because it’s never been one of the “mainstream” denominations, and it’s been fascinating to learn about their history. It’s important to understand where they came from and their traditions, if we’re ever to understand how those traditions influenced the Wesleys.

The Moravian church began in the 1400’s, after the death of Jan Hus of Bohemia (Bohemia, at the time, was a country in the region that is now called The Czech Republic, along with the countries of Moravia and Czech Silesia.)

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Jan Hus was a pietist, and he disputed some of the tactics of the Catholic Church at the time. We all know how reasonably the Church responded to critics in the 15th century; he was burned at the stake for his “heresy”. His followers began the Unitas Fratrum in his honor in 1457, also known in English as the Unity of the Brethren, the Hussite Brethren or the Bohemian Brethren, and they dedicated themselves to following the pietist path he showed them. They were devoted to a simplicity of life, they followed strict piety, and they believed strongly in congregational participation in worship.

The Ancient Church struggled with the same questions in the 15th century that Jan Hus wrestled with and that led to his martyrdom, most prominently the following three questions: the appropriateness of nobility in places of authority in the church; the proper use of worldly power, and the relationship of faith and works in the salvation process. The issue of worldly power was one that was unique and pertinent to the church during the time of the Ancient Brethren, because as wars were fought over religion, the pietistic JUnitas Fratrum often found themselves caught in the middle of the dispute and forced to abandon their homes, fleeing into Poland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and other nearby countries. They would get settled again, only to find another war had begun, and would be forced to flee again. Likewise, their discussion of salvation by faith or works was unique to the time, and they were one of the first Christian denominations to declare that salvation was by faith alone, not by works. While they strove to avoid consequential disputes with other denominations, they came down on the wrong side of all three of these questions, at least from the perspective of the Catholic Church, and for that reason they were heavily persecuted through the centuries.

In 1722, a group of persecuted refugees, the descendants of the original Unitas Fratrum, were introduced to the German Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, a preacher, hymn writer, patron of Christian missions, advocate of religious toleration, and social critic, who immediately knelt and prayed with them, and promptly devoted the rest of his life to their well-being.

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The refugees built the city of Herrnhut (The Lord’s Shelter) on the Count’s property, and pledged their devotion to Count Zinzendorf as their feudal lord. This began the renewal of the Moravian church, which continues still today around the world. (For more information about the settlement in Herrnhut, and the remarkable faith of the Moravian refugees, here is a good resource: http://countzinzendorf.ccws.org/community/index.html)

Perhaps due to the persecution they faced, the Renewed Moravian church determined a way to avoid unnecessary disputes: they distinguished between things “essential” to salvation, “ministrative”, and “appropriate”. In this way they could be assured that they would not cause rifts with other Christians over trivial matters, but could stand up when important matters were in dispute. They worked hard to establish good relationships with new Protestant denominations as they arose, especially with the Lutheran and Reformed churches. However, the newcomers did not have the same aversion to conflict as they did, and they soon became fed up with the quarrels of the Lutherans and Calvinists, so they resolved to remain a separate denomination. At the start of the Thirty Years’ War, the Moravians were banished once again, this time from Bohemia and Moravia, and many settled in Germany, Poland, and Switzerland. This time was different from previous wars, however. The moral reaction against the decadence, religious divisiveness, moral subversion, social degradation, and economic destruction of the Thirty Years’ War helped start the Pietist movement in the 17th century, and suddenly the pietistic Moravians found themselves with an identity as part of larger group of Christians that were calling for a return to the spiritual pietism that they had been practicing for centuries. This helped to legitimize their faith tradition within the larger Christian church, which became especially important in England in the 18th century.

Moravian life was not divided into sacred and secular spaces; all of life was “to be a liturgy, an act of worship”. Count Zinzendorf regarded music as the “fifth gospel”. To this end, they primarily lived in a communal setting, because they desired to have a sense of separation from the secular world. Unlike many communal attempts, they did not live with each with the hope of creating a utopia, but simply to find intimate connection of Christian faith and service to others by living a holy and faithful life with others who had the same goal.

Music had a position of importance in their lives as a part of their daily and constant worship, and has since the very beginning of the Ancient Unity. As they worshiped all day, every day, so they were musical, all day, every day. “Moravian music, past and present, is grounded and rooted, grows and bears fruit, within and for the worship of the Savior.” Jan Hus wrote a hymn before his death, which was the first hymn available to the Unitas Fratrum. The Brethren began writing hymns of their own as soon as they formed the Unity, and they quickly became known for their prolific hymn writing and composing, which has continued since, composing over 550 years and around the globe. Count Zinzendorf saw music as the best means of communicating directly to the heart, and as such, music was used as a tool for theological teaching. Their hymns translated abstract thoughts into down-to-earth terms for the congregations to better understand. As he stated: “The heart may know what the mind cannot understand.”

For our purposes, this gives us context to next discuss the music of the Moravians- what they did, and when and why. Now, this is obviously far from a comprehensive history; if you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend looking up Nola Reed Knouse, a prominent authority on the history of the Moravians and their musical traditions. She has written several informative and accessible articles on the subject, including “Moravian Music: Introduction, Theme, and Variations” in the Journal of Moravian History, Spring 2007. Her 2008 book The Music of the Moravian Church in America is a fully comprehensive history and analysis of Moravian music, and is essential to fully understanding the phenomenon of Moravian music. We’ll get into some of these musical traditions next, and then delve into the impact that their music and theology, hand in hand, had on the Wesley brothers’s development of Methodism.

I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

1 Corinthians 14:6-19

When you think about what kind of music you like to hear in church, do you think: “I like this hymn/anthem because it’s such beautiful music,”? Or do you think: “I like this hymn/anthem because it says what I believe,”?

Music in church needs to be good, in order that it not distract from the message being conveyed. But more importantly, it needs to be substantial. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul notes what he believes to be the importance of both singing and speaking in tongues. Both are spiritual activities, and if we’re not careful, both can be commandeered by the spirit to various, possibly non-christian ends.

“Well,” you might say, “what’s the big deal if we feel the spirit in the music we sing? Doesn’t that make it godly music?”

Nope. This is something that many denominations have wrestled with over the centuries– the Catholic church banned music for a time because of its power to move the spirit. They saw that power as dangerous and easily abused, and when they lifted the ban, it was very selective permission.

They were right, for the record. The power that comes with music can be easily abused, if we as Christians do not pay attention to what Paul is commanding us in his letter. We need to speak and to sing with the spirit AND with the mind. Be a discerning Christian about what comes out of your mouth. Read the words to your favorite hymns. During the time you set aside to read your Bible, study your hymnal as well. Do you know what garden you’re singing about in “In the Garden”? Do you understand the Calvinist theology behind the hymn “Rock of Ages”?

Sing what you believe, and believe what you sing. That requires a full understanding of both what you believe and what you sing, which is something that every Christian needs to strive for. Only then can the church use the gift and power of music to make spiritual, beautiful, joyful noises to the Lord, which also convey our beliefs and our faith.

What’s your favorite hymn? Do you know why it was written, and what the author is saying?