The Christmas Songwriters Project

This week Christianity Today published an article by theology and culture professor W. David O. Taylor, titled “Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough.” I highly recommend it. In it Taylor discusses four fundamental influences on the way Christmas is celebrated in America, beginning with its illegalization by Puritans in the seventeenth century. One public notice warned citizens:

The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.

“So what happens,” muses Taylor,

when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.

Taylor is not saying we can’t enjoy any of the secular trappings of Christmas (“the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things”), only that we should recognize that the Christmas story told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is far more fantastical, more difficult and dangerous, more multicultural and multigenerational, and more relevant than the Christmas story America tells—including American civil religion.

This article was adapted from a lecture Taylor gave, as part of the Fuller Texas Lecture Series, to a gathering of scholars and artists at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 20, which can be streamed via Facebook. (Starts at about 22:40.) The focus is on the critical role songwriters can play in reorienting our imaginations back toward the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth, going beyond the sentimental and nostalgic into a more thorough habitation of the story in all its shades.

What if the narrative of Matthew and Luke were more determinative of our Christmas holidays than the narrative of Wall Street and primetime television? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to sing to God from the depths of their hearts—of their heart’s longings and wonderings, hopes and fears, certainties and doubtings, joys and melancholy yearnings? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to encounter the good news afresh—in a way that exceeded their sense of how deeply good, richly mysterious, and wonderfully paradoxical that news could in fact be? What if our Christmas songs offered an opportunity for our congregations to be attuned to each other—across the aisle as well as across denominational and cultural and geographic and linguistic lines—in a way that we never imagined possible?

This lecture was the capstone of the second workshop of the Christmas Songwriters Project, a new initiative sponsored by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Duke Divinity School. Co-directing the project along with Taylor are Noel Snyder, a program manager at the CICW with a background in musicology, and Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship at Duke. The first workshop, held in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought together twenty-four Christian songwriters from across the US who were specially invited to participate. Following its success, a second one took place October 18–19 in Houston with a new set of eighteen select songwriters, all local. The hope is to conduct future workshops, as soon as next fall, in Nashville, and later in New York City and Los Angeles. A website for the Christmas Songwriters Project is under development and is likely to launch this coming spring.

Christmas Songwriters Project
Professor Lester Ruth leads a Christmas Songwriters Project session on October 18 in which participants are tasked with reworking Mary’s Magnificat into a congregational hymn that highlights the upside-down kingdom of God.

Over the course of two days, the Houston songwriters performed a close reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; studied Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, a collection of eighteen of his hymns, published in 1745; and sought to get a sense of the musical aesthetics of today’s top fifteen Christmas carols. They asked themselves a double question: What does Christmas sound like? And what should Christmas sound like? (What new sounds are needed to re-sound the stories in Matthew and Luke?)

During these workshops, there was a heavy emphasis on collaboration. Several fine songs have resulted, which are in various phases of production. Six premiered in their earliest forms in the above video, interspersed with Taylor’s lecture.

One of the highlights is a reprise of the saccharine “Away in a Manger” that takes into account the Massacre of the Innocents and the resultant flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, thereby giving a broader view of the Christmas story, one that coheres better with the Matthean narrative, which ends with Rachel weeping. The clever twists on the original lyrics and the grayer tonality give a sense of the darkness into which Jesus came and also resonate with the experiences, hopes, and fears of many contemporary refugees.

“Away from the Manger: The Refugee King” – Words and music by Liz Vice, Wen Reagan, Bruce Benedict, Greg Scheer, and Lester Ruth | Performed by Liz Vice (lead vocals) and Hannah Glavor (guitar and backing vocals)

Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The tiny boy Jesus a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran

No stars in the sky but the Spirit of God
Led down into Egypt from Herod to hide
No place for his parents, no country or tribe
And they ran and they ran and they ran

Stay near me, Lord Jesus, when danger is nigh
And keep us from Herods and all of their lies
I love thee, Lord Jesus, the Refugee King
And we sing and we sing and we sing
And we sing and we sing and we sing

Alleluia (×5)

(Related post: “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”)

Another highlight is the song “Savior of Mankind,” an original setting of a hymn text by Charles Wesley, performed at around 51:00 in the lecture video. It captures a sense of the cosmic import of the Nativity, and of the overlap of heaven and earth that is the Christ. The line “’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze”—wow.

“Savior of Mankind”Words by Charles Wesley, 1745 | Music by Luke Brawner, Joe Deegan, Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, and Paul Yoon, 2018

Let angels and archangels sing
The Son of God, Immanuel’s Name
Adore with us our newborn king
And still the joyful news proclaim

All heav’n and earth be ever joined
To praise the Savior of mankind (
×2)

The everlasting God comes down
To walk with the sons of men
Without his majesty or crown
The great Invisible is seen

Of all his dazzling glories shorn
The everlasting God is born (×2)

Angels, see the infant’s face
With rapt’rous awe the Godhead own
’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze
And cast your crowns before his throne

Now he on his footstool lies
For he built both earth and skies (×2)

By him into existence brought
You sang the all-creating Word
You heard him call our world from naught
Again, in honor of your Lord

You morning stars, your hymns employ
And shout, you sons of God, for joy (×2)

Infancy of Christ metalworks by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre

When wandering around the Duke Divinity School campus this summer, waiting for a conference talk to start, I inadvertently encountered a stunning seven-work cycle of metal panels depicting scenes from the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. They were designed and hand-carved from discarded steel oil drums by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre, who lives in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, ten miles outside Port-au-Prince.

Steel drum relief sculpting is an art form unique to Haiti, and Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of production, home to dozens of workshops. Once acquiring a drum, the artist first removes the round ends and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves, then sets the leaves on fire to burn off any paint or residue. When the drum cools, the artist makes a cut from top to bottom, then climbs inside and pushes with his legs and arms to open up the metal, which he then pounds into a flat sheet. Next he draws a design onto the metal using chalk, then uses a hammer, chisel, and ice picks to actualize it. To see photos of this process and learn more about it, visit www.haitimetalart.com.

In Sylvestre’s nativity cycle at Duke—a gift from Drs. Richard and Judith Hays—the characters are depicted as native Haitians. Each scene unfolds against a backdrop of curvilinear greenery that is typical of Haitian metalwork.

My favorite of the seven has got to be the Annunciation to the Shepherds; I love the angel’s wild hair and the one shepherd who jumps backward in fear and surprise. I’m also tickled by the smiling sun in the Nativity panel!

Annunciation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Annunciation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 1 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Visitation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visitation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 2 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Nativity by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Birth of Jesus, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 3 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Angel and Shepherds, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 4 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Presentation in the Temple by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Presentation in the Temple, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 5 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Adoration of the Magi by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visit of the Magi, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 6 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Flight into Egypt by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Flight into Egypt, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 7 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Duke Divinity School also owns a fourteen-piece Stations of the Cross cycle by Jean Sylvestre, which is often displayed in the nave of Duke University Chapel during Lent.

Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.   Continue reading “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”