Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.

Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne

A Hymn penned in the mid 1800s captures so well the amazing love and sacrifice demonstrated in the first Advent, the first coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I’ve copied the verses below (the refrain is sung between each verse and goes like this: “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee”).

This is the reason for this season.

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.

 

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal decree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.

 

The foxes found rest, and the birds their nest
In the shade of the forest tree;
But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee.

 

Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word,
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary.

What is a Hymn?

At the Council of Toledo in Spain, A. D. 633, the definition of a hymn was canonized and written into the law of the church. The definition was adopted from St. Augustine who wrote over 200 years earlier that “a hymn…containeth these three things: song (canticum), and praise (laudem), and that of God.”

This understanding endured for years, with the minor exception (or major, depending on your perspective) that laudem was also given unto many saints and not just to God. Many hymns thus included praise for those saints who were revered by the church and did not solely reserve praise for God alone. It was also not uncommon for hymns to include content on the various seasons of the church year.

Later, Calvin and many of the Reformers asserted that only the Psalms were inspired. All other songs were of human origin and therefore deemed unworthy of divine worship. The Psalms were cast into metrical language and became the music of the Church in England, Scotland, and Holland, and in the parts of the American colonies that were settled by people from those countries. “Hymn”-singing was thus stigmatized in these places until the coming of Isaac Watts (died 1748), though some peoples (even some Reformed) continued the practice in spite of some of Calvin’s teachings (i.e. Germans, Scandinavians, and Hungarians). Today the psalm-singing churches make up only a tiny fraction of the English speaking world.

In modern times, the word “hymn” has come to mean many various things and the content greatly expanded. Hymns today cover a range of topics including: forgiveness, Christian unity, loyalty, missions, good will, fellowship, the Church, social justice, and countless other topics and objectives of the Christian life and of the Kingdom of God. By the early twentieth century The Hymn Society of America had adopted a definition (though not necessarily representing the views of “the Church” everywhere) which reveals this great expansion of meaning. The Society adopted Carl F. Price’s (died 1947) definition, which goes:

A Christian hymn is a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper’s attitude toward God, or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic, and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately aparrent as to unify a congregation while singing it.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the ethics of hymns, good hymns generally have the following characteristics according to Price (with some additions by Armin Haeussler):

(1) Simplicity.
(2) Depth of religious feeling.
(3) Didactic.
(4) Propositional.
(5) Hortatory.
(6) Commitment to various patterns which include (a) Trinitarian, (b) Conversational, (c) Hebrew based on thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, (d) Paradoxical, (e) Petitionary, (f) Litany, (g) Words of Jesus, and (h) penitence.

There is also much debate about whether or not a “hymn” includes both text and tune, or is it confined to the text solely. Suffice it to say for now that the word “hymn” seems to include both text and tune in modern usage. David McKinley Williams (died 1978) said in an address delivered on Oct. 19, 1941: “A hymn is not good because of the merit of its verse or for the excellence of its tune, but for the felicitous union of both words and tune.”

Maybe, in my opinion, the most important piece of the discussion is reflected in what Kierkegaard (died 1855) said of hymns: “God is the audience.” Because God is the audience, hymns must be guarded by certain principles, most importantly the word of God. In other words, a hymn must not simply contain religious language or phraseology, but must be submitted to the teaching of Scripture. A hymn can only said to be properly Christian in as much as it reflects the truths of the Christian faith. Psalm 66:2 captures this: “Sing the glory of His name, make His praise glorious!” (NAS). In other words, the music won’t be glorious unless it accurately reflects the glory of God’s name. It would not be fitting to sing a song to God that doesn’t accurately describe him, his Church, his dwelling place, his actions, or his purpose in the world. The content is crucial.

In closing, I quote Williams again,

When we sing, through our emotions the door of our understanding is opened to things beyond the meaning of words. We sing ourselves into the grace of believing; too often we talk ourselves into doubt. So then, let us once in a while be filled with the freedom and the ecstasy of singing. The reward will be great. It will be that we are numbered among the immortals who sing the never-beginning, the never-ending, the ever-old, the always-new song to the praise of God.

Amen, “Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of his wondrous works! (Psalm 105:2).

Note: Most of the content from this entry was adapted or quoted from The Story of Our Hymns by Armin Haesussler. See specifically pages 1-10 on “What is a Hymn?”