Incarnation Hymnody: "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and "Silent Night"
God’s people, and especially those who would stand before the Christian assembly and lead in singing praise, ought always to be thoughtful about what they are singing. This is often a challenge with familiar songs, and perhaps especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas. During the last month of the year, those who are selecting the songs for congregational use may be tempted to open up the hymnal to the “advent”/’Christmas” section and almost randomly distribute Christmas songs among the services preceding the 25th of December. Let me take this opportunity to note the obvious, but often forgotten: the role that our congregational singing plays during the advent season can become merely sentimental, an opportunity to wax nostalgic as we sing Christmas favorites.
I find it helpful to think of Christmas songs in terms of “incarnation hymnody.”1 Over the next few weeks, I’ll be offering some textual (and other) notes on a number of songs sung during the Christmas season. This week: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and “Silent Night.”
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a marvelous song, and an ancient one (although the plainchant to which it is sung was wedded with the text only in the 19th century). In our church’s hymnal it is included in the Advent section, but none of the verses in our hymnal directly refer Christ’s advent! While the text begins, “Of the Father’s love begotten” (which phrase in isolation may conjure up images of crèches), it continues, “Ere the worlds began to be.” The reference in the first stanza to Christ being “begotten” is not to Bethlehem, but to what is known in theological terms as the “eternal generation” of the Son. In the context of the full piece, the commonly-sung stanza which begins “O ye heights of heav’n adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing” does refer to the first advent (Luke 2:13-14). Other verses, not included in our hymnal, speak much more directly to the incarnation (I continue to quote from the translation of John Mason Neale and Henry W. Baker):
He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!
O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!
This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!
“Silent Night,” because of the flow of the tune, is often sung incorrectly, or at least thoughtlessly, in several ways. In the first verse, the tune encourages the singer to mentally punctuate the song thus:
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Thinking of the text in two long lines here helps us to grasp the message of the stanza:
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
See the difference? I suspect we tend to mentally begin a new sentence with “round yon virgin” (as in the first example), which is not consistent with the text. As well, the phrase, “round yon virgin mother and Child” can lend itself to being sung, “round yon virgin, mother and Child,” which of course is not the point. To help vocally punctuate the song correctly, consider a break after “all is calm” and singing through without a breath the phrase “all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” As well, perhaps it would be helpful to sing through without a breath “Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace”.
In the third verse,
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
the adjective “radiant” modifies “love’s pure light,” not “beams,” and “beams” is a verb, not a noun. The phrase is, “Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from Thy holy face.” Additionally, the Son of God is being addressed, not equated with “love’s pure light.” Grammatically, the light is radiant, and it is beaming from the face of the Holy Child. “Son of God [vocative], love’s pure light [subject] radiant [adjective] beams [verb] from Thy holy face [adverbial phrase modifying “beams”].” I find it helpful here to avoid a breath or vocal break between “love’s pure light” and “radiant.”
About Chuck Bumgardner
I seek to be a student of the Scriptures — New Testament in particular — and also have a deep love for the praise of God through music in the church. I have at the present time the privilege of overseeing the music and leading the singing in my local church, a ministry which brings me great joy and provides a God-ordained outlet for my musical energies. I've enjoyed serving in music-related areas in the church since high school — some 25 years now — as a vocalist, choir member, choir director, and congregational songleader. In addition to serving as a member — and for a time as an assistant pastor — in various local churches, I've also had the privilege of traveling during my college years to many churches throughout the United States and Canada as part of a vocal ensemble. I hunger to see, both in my own church and beyond, an increased appreciation for the great historic music of the church in which theologically rich texts are wedded to music which provides an appropriate setting for those texts, and through which our affections are turned toward God. I'm also eager to see new contributions to the rich heritage of Christian music which share in the same characteristics.
- I use “hymnody” as a general term, understanding that one might distinguish between “hymns” and “carols” and “chants” and so forth. [↩]