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Words: Martin Luther (b. Nov. 10, 1483; d. Feb. 18, 1546); English translation, Catherine Winkworth (b. Sept. 13, 1827; d. July 1, 1878)
Music: Von Himmel Hoch from Geistliche Lieder, by Valentin Schumann; harmony by Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Mar. 21, 1685; d. July 28, 1750)
Note: This Christmas carol was written in 1531. The Cyber Hymnal includes fifteen stanzas, but most hymnals use only six to eight of them (e.g. CH-1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13, 15). The full version originally formed a framework for Luther’s family to put on a kind of Christmas pageant in their home. It should be noted here that this is Luther’s carol, not Away in a Manger, a nineteenth century American carol which has been incorrectly been ascribed to him.
The incarnation was a pivotal event. It has been said the hinge of history is on the door of a Bethlehem stable. “The Word [God the Son] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). How did it happen? And more importantly for us, why did it happen? Christ came because of a plan made long ago–even before the creation of the world. God in His omniscience knew that fallen sinners would one day need a Saviour, and His Son was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).
Mary and Joseph learned a little about this in the beginning, but many things awakened wonder in them as events unfolded. “Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him” (Lk. 2:33). And “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19). It is quite possible that Luke, a careful historian, got much of the information found in the opening chapters of his Gospel from Mary. And just as she pondered these events over the years, so should we, refreshing our minds as to the details, and their eternal significance.
One way to do that is through the Christmas programs we share year by year. Such presentations are not new. In fact some credit Francis of Assisi with producing the first nativity scene–complete with live animals–about eight hundred years ago. Community people brought candles and torches to illumine the scene, and hymns of praise were sung. He did it, he said, “To set before our bodily eyes…how He lay in a manger.”
Martin Luther (1483-1546) did something similar, in his home, with his wife and children. Let’s get a rough idea of it, using a few of the stanzas. To begin the program, a man dressed as an angel would enter and sing:
CH-1) From heaven above to earth I come,
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing.
CH-2) To you, this night, is born a Child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This little Child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all your earth.
CH-3) ’Tis Christ our God, who far on high
Had heard your sad and bitter cry;
Himself will your salvation be,
Himself from sin will make you free.
CH-5) These are the tokens ye shall mark,
The swaddling clothes and manger dark;
There shall ye find the young Child laid,
By whom the heavens and earth were made.
Then the family would go with the shepherds to the manger, as the children sang:
CH-6) Now let us all, with gladsome cheer
Follow the shepherds, and draw near
To see this wondrous gift of God,
Who hath His only Son bestowed.
CH-8) Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom e’en wicked men are blest!
Thou com’st to share our misery,
What can we render, Lord, to Thee!
Finally, there was the spiritual application and worship, as all rejoiced in Christ’s coming. And notice the reference to the “New Year.” I read somewhere that, in Medieval times, Christmas Day marked (very appropriately, I think) the beginning of the new year.
CH-13) Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
CH-15) Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given!
While angels sing, with pious mirth,
A glad New Year to all the earth.
1) Do you traditionally read the Christmas story with your family, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? (If you don’t have that tradition, how about starting it?)
2) Would it be possible to put on some kind of Christmas pageant with the family, as the Luther family did–perhaps using some of the song he wrote?