Honoring the Sacred Hymns
About the Guest
Christmas carols get us in the holiday mood. But don't you yearn to know more about these beloved songs? In an effort to draw us back to a Christ-centered Christmas, Barbara Rainey designed a set of unique Christmas ornaments featuring some of her favorite Christmas hymns. On the back of each ornament is a short explanation of the origin of the hymn and its author. Author Ace Collins also tells us about one of his favorite carols,"O Holy Night."
Author Ace Collins also tells us about one of his favorite carols,”O Holy Night.”
Honoring the Sacred Hymns
Bob: The oratorio, The Messiah, by George Frideric Handel—it’s a Christmas tradition. Most of us sing along or listen carefully, without thinking much about the man who wrote The Messiah.
[Excerpt of “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah]
Ace: He was in his early 70s, having nightmares. He really couldn’t sleep because he was afraid he was going to die in a debtor’s prison.
An eccentric man sent him a letter. This man was so eccentric that no one paid any attention to him that knew him, but he looked at this man’s idea for an oratorio. It was based on the Old Testament Scripture predicting the coming of Christ and what that would be like. Handel spent the next eight days writing what we, now, know as Handel’s Messiah.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 11th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to hear more about Handel’s Messiah today and some of the other best-loved songs of the Christmas season. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition—
Dennis: I know you’re going to like today’s broadcast. In fact, I wish you listeners could have heard him a few moments ago. He broke out in a voice that I don’t know—
Dennis: —I don’t know that I’ve ever---
Bob: Should I go ahead and ratchet it up here? Here’s the deal—I was looking at the ornaments that your wife Barbara has created.
Dennis: It does cause one to break out in music—
Bob: It does. Because, in addition—our listeners have heard us talking about the names of Christ—the Adorenaments®—that Barbara has developed. By the way, Barbara is back again. Welcome back.
Barbara: Thank you Bob.
Dennis: And there are two sets of them—
Bob: There are the Christmas names—
Dennis: She’s got a whole collection designed. If she lives long enough, they are going to—Rockefeller Plaza is going to have---
Bob: You will not be able to see green any more on your tree—
Dennis: You won’t! You won’t—
Bob: It will be solid—
Dennis: --and it will proclaim Christ.
Bob: We have the Christmas names; and this year, we have the royal names. But then, there are these hymn ornaments. You call them Adore Hymns. They are—I call them pine cones—they are flat, laser-cut—
Bob: That’s just the shape they’re in.
Dennis: That is insulting to—
Bob: No! It’s—
Dennis: It’s gold. It’s laser-cut, and it’s in the shape of an oval. I can tell—you can put that in front of 1,000 people—none would identify that as a pine cone.
Bob: Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and see if they don’t look like pine cones to you: 1-800—Go to vote—
Dennis: We’re going to have a straw poll on this—
Barbara: Oh, you all are hilarious!
Dennis: We’ll have a straw poll.
Bob: I was looking at the different hymns that you’ve made an ornament out of. One of them is the old spiritual, Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
Barbara: It is.
Bob: And I broke out into that. [Bob begins singing loudly] “Sweet little Jesus boy”—Huh? What do you think?
Dennis: I was impressed! I really was!
Bob: If our listeners are interested—and by the way—
Dennis: I don’t think they’re interested in getting your tape; no.
Bob: No. But if they do get the ornaments, you’ve also put together music for many of these hymns—that can be downloaded—and you can sing along.
Barbara: That’s right. You can listen to them while you put them on your tree or, if you’re musically inclined, you can sing with them.
Bob: Man, oh man, oh man.
Dennis: There are eight of them.
Dennis: In fact, pick up the—
Barbara: Sweet Little Jesus Boy?
Dennis: Sweet Little Jesus Boy—the Adore Hymn—
Bob: [Singing] “Sweet little Jesus boy”—
Dennis: —and read what’s on the back because, on the back of these Adore Hymn ornaments, is the history of the song.
Bob: [Singing] “little manger”—Go ahead.
Barbara: Shall I read it?
Bob: Please do. [Laughter]
Dennis: Excuse us for interrupting you, Bob. He’s pretending he’s in the shower.
Bob: I’ll just be over here. [Singing] “Sweet little Jesus boy” —
Barbara: [Laughing] He is going to make background music—
but I might laugh instead of reading. So, maybe we better stop—
Dennis: Keep reading; keep reading.
Bob: Okay,I’ll stop.
Barbara: So, Sweet Little Jesus Boy—here’s the story: Music was life-giving to generations of slaves in the American South. As they learned about a Savior, who came to deliver and redeem, their hearts clung to their faith to see them through the awful days of their labor. One of the most famous songs arising from that era was Sweet Little Jesus Boy. Its lyrics tell of a people who understood the soul of the gospel.
Bob: I like that.
Dennis: That’s interesting.
Bob: And I dare you to look at that ornament the rest of this Christmas season without hearing me singing in the background.
Barbara: Without hearing you?
Bob: I just imagine that’s going to haunt you now! [Laughter]
Barbara: But do you know all the words?
Bob: No; I don’t.
Dennis: [Laughter] That is an admission!
Barbara: That’s a surprise!
Dennis: It is!
Barbara: Next time you sing it, you need to get the words because they’re really great words.
Bob: They are great words.
We’ve had our friend, Ace Collins, who has been joining us this week—who knows a thing or two about Christmas hymns and where they came from.
He wrote a book called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas and another one about the traditions of Christmas. Ace, I’m curious about your favorite. Do you have a favorite Christmas-time hymn?
Ace: I think, O Holy Night—the old French carol. I loved it my entire life. I love it more, now, after knowing the stories behind it. I say stories behind it because there are multiple stories of O Holy Night.
Go back to the early 1800’s—a priest in France was having a Christmas Eve Mass in his church and asked the commissioner of wines—which was a very important position in this little town—to write a poem for the service. That man wrote that poem on a carriage ride to Paris. When he got to Paris, he liked the poem so much, he turned it over to a friend of his who was one of the great composers in France. He composed mainly operatic work and wrote the music that we know now today—Cantique de Noël—or however it is said in French. I have never taken French—I don’t know exactly.
It was performed that Christmas Eve at the Mass and became so popular the next ten years—it really swept through churches throughout France in the early 1800’s.
Then, the man who wrote the lyrics left the Catholic Church for the Protestant movement, which upset a number of the priests there. Then, they found out that his friend, who had written the music, was Jewish. The song was tossed out of the Catholic Church in France. Now, picture this—O Holy Night was tossed out of the church for being too secular—and was considered a secular song—not a sacred song.
The French people continued to sing it. In the Franco-Prussian war, a man jumped out of a foxhole—a French soldier did—on Christmas Eve—and sang that song on Christmas Eve. The war stopped for that day. The French and the German soldiers got together and had Christmas together for 24 hours. There really was peace on earth brought to the world by O Holy Night.
Now, O Holy Night came to America in the Civil War. Now, it was not brought here as a Christmas song, though. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about this. It was brought here as an Abolitionist tune. It was used to fight slavery. You’re thinking, “How could a song like O Holy Night be used to fight slavery?” Well, listen to this verse—
Bob: “Truly He taught us to love one another”—
Ace: —“His law is love, and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother; and in His name, all oppression shall cease.” That is why it was brought to the United States. That makes the second interesting story—is the fact that it was used as a song during the Abolitionist Movement.
The third most interesting story about this—and it sets up our entire use of music and how we learn it. It took place in 1906. A man named Fessenden was attempting to do what they said was impossible—and that was create or invent a transformer that was powerful enough to carry the human voice.
Everyone said it would never be done. Fessenden did it, and he finished that in late to mid-December of 1906. Christmas Eve, in 1906, he decided to test it on the east coast. Now, there were people on ships listening to Morse code—broadcast people in newsrooms and weather bureaus. Suddenly, his voice, Fessenden’s voice broke out, reading the Gospel of Luke. Once he finished the Gospel of Luke, he picked up his violin and played O Holy Night. O Holy Night was the first song ever played on the radio.
So, the third story, in this wonderful tune, is the fact that we are introduced now, today, to most music via the radio; and O Holy Night was the first song ever played on the radio.
Dennis: You know, Bob, our radio listening audience has to recognize that our guest, Ace Collins, has a little bit more than an average knowledge of some songs.
Bob: And our listeners have also heard, throughout this week, Mr. Know-it-All—a caller who has challenged Ace’s understanding of where some of these songs and these traditions came from. With regard to O Holy Night, I’m not even going to ask Mr. Know-it-All. I don’t even want to hear what he would make up or what kind of thing he would come up with on that one.
Dennis: I don’t either; but I would like to know, “Mr. Know-it-All, what’s your favorite?”
Mr. Know-it-All: Well, I have always liked Up on the Rooftop.
Bob: Up on the Housetop you mean? [Laughter]
Mr. Know-it-All: That’s it, yes—Up on the Housetop. [Laughter]
Bob: “Reindeer pause; out jumps good ole’ Santa Claus.”
Mr. Know-it-All: Yes.
Bob: You like it for the spiritual significance.
Mr. Know-it-All: Very spiritual—deep. There’s a lot of significance to that song.
Bob: Can you tell us the story behind Up on the Housetop?
Mr. Know-it-All: Up on the Housetop—that was written—it was about the same time that aircraft were being used to deliver airmail. There was a very kindly aircraft pilot who was dropping packages to children.
Bob: Just—out of the airplane? Dropping packages like bombs?
Mr. Know-it-All: That’s right. It didn’t last very long.
Bob: I guess not. [Laughter]
Mr. Know-it-All: It didn’t last very long.
Mr. Know-it-All: But the sound of the packages landing on the rooftop made the children come outside. Of course, they all thought it was Santa Claus.
Bob: I’m hoping, Ace, that you didn’t even research Up on the Housetop.
Ace: I somehow missed that one—and the Christmas Polka—I didn’t do that one either. So, if Mr. Know-it-all knows the story behind the Christmas Polka, he can share that with us later on.
Bob: I think Hark! the Herald Angels Sing may be the most theological Christmas song. So, I’m kind of partial to it because, I mean, it’s just packed. Every line is just imbued with theological meaning and richness. But, also, I like O Little Town of Bethlehem because I like—at the end of the song—see I’m a stickler for singing all of the verses of all of the songs. You don’t just quit with the first verse.
In the end:
“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, their great glad tidings tell,
Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
Ace: Phillips Brooks wrote the song. Phillips Brooks was a very, very famous pastor in Baltimore. He was such a well-known pastor that he was a man that Abraham Lincoln turned to a number of times, during the Civil War. When Lincoln died, Brooks was the man called upon to do the service. Brooks was so overwhelmed by the loss of the President, whom he considered a friend—that he left the ministry and left America.
He went to Europe, searching for the reason for his life. He could not find it in Europe. Then, in December—went to the Holy Land. Now, I don’t know what the company was—it was Hertz or Avis—[Laughter]—but he rented a horse in Jerusalem—and actually rode a horse into Bethlehem,
on the night of Christmas Eve, and was overcome by the emotion and spirituality of the feeling. Now, in 1865 and 1866, Bethlehem was still a little-bitty town, that probably looked the very same way it did when Christ was there. So, he really connected with the moment.
He came back to America, once again—took to the pulpit, and began to preach; but he was attempting to tell the story, and he could not do it—of that feeling of going in that night. Three years later, wrote a poem, that he considered a children’s poem, and had his choir director set that to music. Brooks’ song, of course, is O Little Town of Bethlehem, which he intended just for the children in his church to hear.
Dennis: Share with our listeners the history of Handel’s Messiah.
Ace: Well, most people think of Handel’s Messiah as just another great work by a great composer because Handel was, when he was in his 30s and 40s, the Elvis of his time. He had grown up in Germany—he had migrated to England. He was lionized as the greatest composer ever. Then, he fell out of favor. Suddenly—the man who was having lunch with the king and the queen—suddenly, found himself moving to smaller and smaller houses. He started to become ill, as well—gout and other things were plaguing him. He was losing his vision.
Finally, he was so out of favor, nobody knew who he was. It was kind of like one of those things, “Didn’t you used to be George Handel?” Well, what happened was—he was in his early 70s, having nightmares. He really couldn’t sleep because he was afraid he was going to die in a debtor’s prison. An eccentric man sent him a letter. This man was so eccentric that no one paid any attention to him that knew him; but Handel was so desperate—to come up with something to write about—
that he looked at this man’s idea for an oratorio. It was based on the Old Testament Scripture predicting the coming of Christ and what that would be like.
Handel spent the next eight days and nights writing—what we, now, know as Handel’s Messiah. Then, he got an offer, at that same time, to go to Ireland to lead an orchestra and a choir for a charity hospital event. He took it to escape the bill collectors and took this new music with him. The music was such a great success that they heard about it in London, and he was asked to perform it in London.
The old man, who could barely see, got up to perform Handel’s Messiah in his adopted country for the first time. The second night of the performance, King James was there. King James was so overwhelmed—that when they started singing the Messiah part of it—he stood. The tradition of standing has been part of The Messiah ever since. For the first hundred years or so—hundred and fifty years—
it was used, more than anything else, as an Easter cantata—but so many people loved The Messiah.
There was such a great need in England to raise money for the poor orphans and widows—that they moved it to Christmas and used it as a fund-raiser. Probably, The Messiah has raised more money for charitable Christmas causes than any other—not just song—but any other organization in the history of Christmas. Handel’s Messiah saved a man who was starving to death. Also, Handel’s Messiah has reached out and touched “the least of these,” time and time again, over the last hundred years.
Dennis: And, Handel’s Messiah touches our hearts every time it is sung.
Ace: It’s as powerful today as it ever has been.
Bob: All you have to hear is that “dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum”—and it just kind of starts right there; doesn’t it?
[Opening strains of “The Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah]
Dennis: It does. “The Hallelujah Chorus” is one of those moments when I wish I had a great voice—you know?
Ace: But realize—I mean—to our older folks out there, listening right now, here’s a man who was written off as a has-been. Here is a man who was written off—“Maybe, he’ll never write anything again.” Here’s a man who feared he would die in debt. Here is a man who was in very, very poor health—a man who could barely see.
So, if you’re out there, and you’re 70 years old, and you think life has passed you—you’ll never touch anybody; you’ll never do anything—that’s wrong! I mean, God uses people of all ages; and God can touch you with inspiration, no matter what age you are.
Dennis: And he can use a very dark moment—
Ace: When you look at O Little Town of Bethlehem and Handel’s Messiah—born out of incredibly dark, depressing moments—and yet, the stories behind them are as uplifting as the songs themselves.
Dennis: Did Handel ever realize what he had done? Did he live long enough to understand he had written—
Ace: He lived long enough to realize he had written something very, very special.
Bob: And I think, if Handel had been around in our day,
I’ll bet he would have decorated his tree with the names of Jesus because you’ve got to believe—“King of kings and Lord of lords”—
Dennis: You think?
Bob: Yes, I think he would have put that on the tree. Those are two of the ornaments; right Barbara?
Barbara: They are. I think he might have had them on his tree.
Dennis: Barbara has designed crowns that bear these names. The last two that she writes about in a devotional book—that goes with each of these seven crown Adorenaments, each bearing a name of Christ—is “King of Kings” is one—and “Lord of Lords” is another. She writes in her book that these two were designed to go together. I love them because you quote First Timothy 6:15, “He who is the blessed and only sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.” Think about the concept of sovereignty—He is the King—He is the one who controls all.
The picture that I talked about last week, Bob, in my message about this—is that in Revelation, Chapter 19, verses 11-15,
the curtains of heaven are pulled back to let the church in—true followers of Christ. They see a rider on a white horse. It is the King of kings and Lord of lords. It says, “On his head are many diadems”—many crowns—multiple crowns. It is speculated that He may have the crowns of all the kings who have ever lived. How that works, I don’t know. But you know what? I’ve got a feeling He could wear those crowns if He wants to.
Bob: “King of Kings”; “Lord of Lords”—is “Messiah”—
Bob: Do you have plans for that one?
Barbara: Yes; next year, in Savior names.
Dennis: That’s the collection.
Bob: So, the third set comes out next year—
Barbara: The third set will be His Savior names.
Bob: Well, if folks are interested in His Christmas names and in His royal names, you can look and see what those look like, right now, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or order from us if you’d like to.
I think our listeners ought to know that the proceeds from Adorenaments are being directed in a very special direction; right?
Barbara: That’s right. We’re taking a portion of the proceeds of every sale and we’re helping to fund a ministry that works with orphans, and adoption, and foster care. It’s Hope For Orphans®. They are doing great work in helping the helpless—helping children who are abandoned and who need families.
Bob: So, you buy the Adorenaments, and you’re helping orphans at the same time.
Barbara: That’s right.
Bob: A lot of folks are buying these and giving them as Christmas gifts to friends and neighbors, as well.
Dennis: Well, it’s really a pretty inexpensive gift. You can get seven of these. If you start pricing high-quality ornaments, they are expensive! But we have priced these at something that’s going to invite people to be able to give them as gifts and say, “Thank you,” to folks.
In fact, I was talking to a lady who decorates her home in crowns. She was so excited to hear that,
this Christmas, she’s going to be able to hang several sets of these on her Christmas tree so that she can continue the decorating motif of crowns. She—last year, she bought seven sets—and told me she’d already bought them this year. My encouragement to folks: “If you want this, you’d better get a hold of it quickly because we ordered a limited quantity of these. We don’t want people angry at us, like they were last year.”
Bob: Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can see what these ornaments look like, online—again, FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order from us, online, as well. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY if you’d like to order over the phone. Of course, we can still get them to you in time for them to be prominently positioned on your Christmas tree.
We also have the three-book set from Ace Collins—on the stories behind the best-loved songs and the great traditions of Christmas.
You can order that three-book set from us, as well, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Each of these stories is short enough to read at a family meal and, maybe, sing a Christmas carol after dinner. Again—order at FamilyLifeToday.com—or call: 1-800-“F” as in “family”, “L” as in “life”, and then, the word, “TODAY”. Ask about the books by Ace Collins.
I want to take a minute and just say, “Thank you,” to our FamilyLife Today listeners. You know, our first program was in November of 1992. It’s been 21-plus years since that first Christmas on FamilyLife Today. And our listeners have always—at the end of the year—been very generous with us. We’ve seen listeners call, or go online, or mail a check to us in December—just to say, “Thank you for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.”
It has been very humbling to see the generosity of FamilyLife Today listeners.
We recently had some generous friends come to us with a special offer, here, at the end of 2013. They have offered to match every donation we receive this month—not just dollar for dollar—they are going to match it with $3 for every $1 we receive from a listener. So, if you go online and make a $25 donation, we get to unlock an additional $75 from the matching-gift grant. Your $25 donation becomes $100-worth of benefit to FamilyLife Today. We’re hoping to take full advantage of their generosity.
They have offered to do this, up to a total of $500,000 donated. That would mean $2 million to FamilyLife Today if we’re able to take advantage of this. We’re asking you to help us make that happen. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the button that says, “I CARE,” and make an online donation.
Or call to make a donation over the phone at 1-800-FL-TODAY. And you can also mail a check to FamilyLife Today. Our mailing address is P O Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. Our zip code is 72223. Whatever you’re able to do—“Thanks,” in advance. Also, please pray for us—that we will be able to end the year strong and be in a position to advance the work of FamilyLife Today in the year to come.
And, be sure to join us back again tomorrow. Barbara Rainey is going to be here again, along with Ace Collins. We’ve got a lot more Christmas to talk about. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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