Posted by: rcottrill | November 18, 2013

Christians Awake

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John Byrom (b. Feb. 29, 1691; d. Sept. 26, 1763)
Music: Yorkshire, by John Wainwright (baptized Apr. 14, 1723; d. Jan. 28, 1768)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: I believe this carol was written in 1749 (though some suggest a date of 1745). The original had six six-line stanzas, though these are sometimes reduced to four. The Wordwise Hymns link for February 29th (Byrom’s birth date) is at the bottom of the page for the previous day (Feb. 28), as 2010 when I posted it was not a leap year. The story of how the hymn came to be written is told on that page.

As to the tune by Wainwright (the organist at Byrom’s church), it is exceptionally fine. The ascending pattern of the melody is suited to the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. Check out the remarkable incident in the Cyber Hymnal here, involving John Wainwright!

Unfortunately, few hymnals include this Christmas hymn. Even many carol books do not have it. But from the days of my youth, I can recall our church choir presenting an anthem version of the hymn. In the choir was an elderly women who, even in her advanced years, had a very good soprano voice. She had a brief solo part in the anthem, a variation of the opening lines of CH-5, that rings in my memory still. She sang:

O may we keep, and ponder in our mind,
God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind.

That this song entered my life early in the form of an anthem leads me to a criticism that is sometimes leveled at Byrom’s creation. J. R. Watson’s Annotated Anthology of Hymns (p. 160-162) suggests perhaps it is seldom used “because congregations are used to shorter and less demanding texts.”

But Watson calls the hymn “magnificent,” and commends on its “sustained dignity and controlled enthusiasm.” There is little heavy doctrine here, such as we might expect from Byrom’s contemporary, Isaac Watts. It’s simply an insightful retelling of the Christmas story, well worthy of inclusion in our services at that season of the year.

CH-1) Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Saviour of the world was born.
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above,
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the virgin’s Son.

I confess that often in our home, when I was young, and even when I was an adult with a family, the joy of Christmas Day that awakened us was mainly the anticipation of the presents that awaited under the tree. But Byrom calls us to awaken with thoughts of what Christmas is truly about.

We begin with “the mystery of love” (CH-1), the love that sent the Lord Jesus to die for our sins (Jn. 3:16). Perhaps Byrom meant the word mystery in its theological sense (a sacred secret, previously unknown, but now at last revealed). Or he may simply have been describing something that is obscure and unknowable by human beings, even with the aid of divine revelation. Both apply. In the latter sense, Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians “may be able to…know the love of Christ which passes [surpasses] knowledge” (Eph. 3:19).

In Christ “God fulfilled His promised word” (CH-2). He fulfilled Old Testament prophecy by laying on His dear Son the burden of “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). God also fulfilled New Testament promises to Joseph (Matt. 1:20-21), and to Mary (Lk. 2:31). The good news of Christ’s birth was for “all the nations of the earth” (CH-2), “tidings of great joy…to all people” (Lk. 2:10). With Paul, who exults over “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), we join with the angels as “the praises of redeeming love they sang” (CH-3).

Byrom observes “the enlightened shepherds” racing toward Bethlehem (CH-4), and afterward they became early missionaries, sharing the joyful news “which was told them concerning this Child,” and “glorifying and praising God,” to the wonder of all who heard them (Lk. 2:17-18, 20). Not surprising, as the hymn writer put it, that “their glad hearts with holy rapture burn.”

CH-4) To Bethl’hem straight th’enlightened shepherds ran
To see the wonder God had wrought for man
And found, with Joseph and the blessèd maid,
Her Son, the Saviour, in a manger laid;
Then to their flocks, still praising God, return,
And their glad hearts with holy rapture burn.

CH-5 recognizes that the shadow of Calvary falls over the manger, and we can trace Christ’s earthly history, “from His poor manger to His bitter cross.” Finally there is the hope that we, one day in heaven, “saved by His love,” will continue to sing for the praises of our Saviour and King (CH-6).

Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing
Eternal praise to heav’n’s almighty King.

1) What are some things you could do to make Christmas more spiritually meaningful to your family?

2) Is this a carol you use in your church? (If not, why not begin?)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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