Reading hymns

It occurred to us a few years ago as we were singing a Christmas hymn in church, reading lyrics without music that were on the screens at the front of the sanctuary, that the hymns—beautiful as they are at Christmas—are sometimes not as good as the poetry or the prose behind them.

We become so accustomed to the pace and structure of the music that the words come from us unthinkingly.   If we remove the music and the false structure it imposes on the lyrics, we might find some of our Christmas hymns have different meanings and many of them could be sung year-around.  In fact, many could be sung year-around by removing one verse.

If we read hymns instead of singing them, we might find ourselves asking questions about the story that is told in the lyrics and sometimes even wondering about the origins of those lyrics. We’re not much of a student of music but we love it, especially at this time of year, but it seems that the lyrics come first and then somebody writes music for them.

Here’s a f’rinstance.  One of the nicest, lightest, Christmas hymns begins with the words, “Bring a torch….”   I bet you hear it in your mind right now, just because of those three words.  But who is “Jeanette Isabella?”

This is an example of how singing the lyrics changes the lyrics.   In this case, the music eliminates a comma.  If you read the lyrics of the poem, which goes back about seven centuries to the Provence region of France, you see that it is about TWO girls, not one.   The original title was Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle. (We appear to have Anglicized the names of the girls.)  Various sources we’ve checked say it originally was a dance tune for the nobility and didn’t show up as a Christmas tune until 1553 and an English version of the hymn wasn’t published until the middle of the eighteenth century.

One interpretation of the lyrics links this Christmas song to the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, the eight-day festival of lights that celebrates, as, puts it “the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality,” a theme with which many Christians identify as they celebrate the birth of Jesus.  The website tells us, “The torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe,” and calls this song, “a wonderful example of the torch songs of that time.”

The New-born *oil on canvas *76 × 91 cm *1600-1652

(Musee des Beaux Arts de Rennes)

“Bring a Torch” is one of those songs that draws the participant into the beauty of the music to the extent that the words are sung but the story they tell is not appreciated.   So let’s look at the lyrics (which might be slightly different depending on your faith traditions).   We’re going to change some punctuation and some of the structure of the poem for reading-out-loud purposes.

“Bring a torch! Jeanette, Isabelle! Bring a torch!

Come swiftly– and run! Christ is born!

Tell the folk of the village (that) Jesus is sleeping in His cradle!

Then we change from excitedly telling these two young girls to grab their torches on this night and dash into the village telling the villagers to approach in haste—but quietly.  Adore the child but do not create a disturbance.  He is sleeping the sleep of the newborn.  And although the song does not refer to his mother, she also probably is resting after the strain of childbirth.

Hasten now, good folk of the village. Hasten now, the Christ Child to see. You will find Him asleep in a manger. Quietly come and whisper softly.

Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother, Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.

Hush, hush, peacefully now He slumbers. Hush, hush, peacefully now He sleeps.

We have seen a translation of the early French lyrics that places heavier emphasis on urging villagers to not disrupt the rest of the child and his mother.  They’re harsher than the more familiar lines of the hymn.  We don’t recall singing or hearing these words but this part of the poem begins with noise and disruption.  Perhaps it is Joseph who asks, or maybe an angel–the wording is not clear.

Who is that, knocking on the door?

Who is it, knocking like that?


And someone in the crowd gathered outside answers:


Open up!

We’ve arranged on a platter lovely cakes that we have brought here!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Let’s celebrate!


We can envision Joseph cracking the door open and slipping out to confront the crowd.  Speaking in a loud whisper, he tells the villagers:


It is wrong when the child is sleeping.  It is wrong to talk so loud. Silence, now as you gather around lest your noise should waken Jesus.


And as the crowd heeds his wishes, he opens the door and reminds them as they go in:


Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers.

Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!

Softly now unto the stable,

Softly for a moment come!

Look and see how charming is Jesus,

Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!


And we hear the whispered voices of the people as they file through the room:

Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;

Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!

We still don’t know who these two girls are or were.  Perhaps the names were plucked out of the air by the original writer of the poem to fit the meter of the poem.  But the more popular version seems to rely on a painting by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), a French Baroque artist who did a lot of religious scenes lit by candlelight.  The story behind his painting is that Jeanette and Isabella (Isabelle in the French lyrics) are milk maids who have gone to the stable to milk the cows and find Jesus has been born there.  We don’t know who tells them to light the torches and spread the good news in the village.  But we are told the custom remains in France for children to dress up as farm folks and as they go to midnight mass, they sing the song that begins, “Bring a torch….”

If you want to take the time today—if you have the time today—and you have a hymnal in your home, you might want to read some other hymns.  It might be hard because there will be the tendency to read them the way the music has them sung.  But you might find reading hymns as poetry or prose is interesting and might even add a new dimension to this day for you.

Take a look particularly at “Joy to the World” and ask yourself after reading it why this song could not be the opening hymn in worship at any time of the year.

We hope we have not spoiled your enjoyment of the music of Christmas with this little excursion that began by wondering who Jeanette Isabella was.  Remember that our word Psalms comes from a Greek word that means “instrumental music” and the words that go with it.

Let all of us, regardless of our faith tradition, hope on this day that light will prevail.

It is NOT the Fourth of July

A lot of folks traveled during the holiday weekend and many found themselves in communities that held special festivals to observe the holiday.  We attended one of those events.

The banner on the downtown stage read, “Salute to America.”  But the master of ceremonies corrected that impression almost immediately by announcing the event was a salute to veterans, especially Vietnam veterans.  And through various pieces of music and introductions, veterans stood up and sat down more times than in a church praise service.

No such ceremony is complete without an inspirational speaker, of course, and the speaker in this event was a veteran who tried to touch on every patriotic cliché he could in a 15-minute jumbled speech that I hope he wasn’t paid for: Mom (applause), apple pie (applause), hot dogs (applause), home (applause).   The event was partly sponsored by a Chevrolet dealer but he didn’t mention it so there was no applause for that one. There was a brief mention of the Declaration and five seconds later he was talking about the Constitution and he finished by reciting the Preamble to the Constitution to emphasize that government could only do so much.

And after the rifle salute by the American Legion and taps, the emcee closed things out by redundantly exulting, “God Bless the USA. God Bless America.”  And there was some applause and some people went home to a late dinner and others stuck around for a stage show.

As I folded my chair and wrestled it back in its zippered bag, I grumbled to myself and some nearby friends about (this will get me in trouble) how veterans had hijacked the event.

On further review, as they say in some sports these days, I realized that was a rash evaluation of something done with good intentions and for those whose neck instantly grew red in reading the preceding paragraph, I offer my apologies–although one of those friends suggested having veterans stand up at such events is a pretty shallow gesture, given the problems thousands of veterans continue to have getting help for the burdens they have brought back from the battlefield.

The problem with the event we witnessed is that the wrong veterans were honored.  And behind that problem is the matter that the event was a celebration of July 4th.

The holiday is not July 4th.  It’s Independence Day.

It’s the day our country was born–at great risk by men of incredible vision and courage.   We as a nation cannot forget what this holiday is really all about. But by holding a “July 4th celebration,” we do.

We would not think of calling Veterans Day by its calendar date, November 11th.  We wouldn’t think of calling Memorial Day by its calendar date, whatever Monday that might be year-to-year. Those are days honoring veterans and we refer to them by their currently correct names (although they were once known as Armistice Day and Decoration Day).

July 4th is Independence Day.   And if we are to honor veterans that day, let us honor veterans such as David Bedell, Thomas Kennedy, Christopher Casey, William Ramsey, James Parks, Thomas Wyatt, Samuel Steele, Stephen Hempstead, and Edward Robertson.

These men are among several dozen soldiers of the American Revolution who came to and died in Missouri.  Some are buried in our oldest cemeteries.  Some are buried in remote countryside burial grounds.  The grave of at least one has been plowed over.   These men fought in the war that gave us a nation free of foreign control and then moved west with the frontier to live out their dream of a free country.  Some became respected elders in their communities.  They were the original Sons of the American Revolution.

Independence Day is when the delegates to the Continental Congress approved a declaration declaring the thirteen colonies are “free and independent states…absolved from all allegiance to the British crown…and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.”  And furthermore, they were united in this position.

It was the first time that the thirteen independent colonies declared that they were the United States of America, not a series of colonies of the British crown.

It was not a document drafted on the spur of the moment.  Movements toward independence had been underway in several places before the declaration of separation, even before the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre.  But this document was when those colonies decided enough was enough, scattered protestations of oppression were not adequate.

The closing line of that declaration is an important one to ponder on Independence Day.  It is an unmistakable statement that these congressional delegates were prepared to risk everything to achieve the status of an independent nation to be respected by other nations, including England, as equals.  “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” they said.   In the years to come before that independence was finally wrested from England, those words came starkly true for many of those who signed the document.

Those men knew exactly the risks they were taking.  On the day Congress declared independence, July 2, the British fleet and the British army arrived in New York, not that far away from Philadelphia even then.   That threatening presence did not keep the delegates from adopting the Declaration of Independence on the morning of July 4, when John Hancock signed it.  Later that day, printer John Dunlap printed the first copies of the document, of which two dozen are known to still exist.  The first newspaper publication of the Declaration of Independence was on July 6 in the Pennsylvania Evening Post and two days later, the document was read to a public audience for the first time, at a Philadelphia park. It didn’t take long for word to reach New York.

The delegates who had adopted the document on July 4 did not gather to sign it until August 2, the day a large force of British troops arrived as reinforcements in New York after colleagues of Bedell, Casey, Hempstead, Ramsey and the others had repelled them in Charleston, South Carolina.

If we only have a July 4th celebration, we lose the importance of Independence Day.  If July 4th becomes another day just to honor veterans, we lose sight of the courage and intelligence of those who knew they were risking everything to throw off oppression and declare their thirteen colonies to be worthy of respect as a nation by the other nations of the world and we slight those who rest in Missouri graves who came here to live the dream they fought to create.  If Independence Day is just July 4th, we fail to honor those who gave us a nation to celebrate.

It’s not too much to realize Independence Day deserves to stand on its own values.  It’s not July 4th.  It is so much more than that and we do a disservice to ourselves, our freedoms, our possibilities, and our country if we make it anything less.

And for the benefit of the speaker at the event I attended, the Constitution has its own day on September 17.  It is known as Constitution Day and is not widely celebrated with festivals and speeches, organized or jumbled.  And it is not celebrated as just September 17th.   Those who advocate for Constitution Day say it is intended to commemorate “the formation and the signing of the U.S. Constitution by thirty-nine brave men on September 17, 1787, recognizing all who, are by being born in the U.S. or by naturalization, have become citizens.” Some might argue that Constitution Day should have a broader meaning than that, but that argument is for another day and perhaps for another place.

Constitution Day deserves better than it gets.  And so, certainly, does Independence Day. It’s not just July 4th.