Musically, Christmas provides an embarrassment of riches. There are glorious carols, hymns, canticles, folk songs, and oratorios in every imaginable language expressing the inner and outer meaning of the birth of Jesus. A great deal of this seasonal music also deals with our spiritual preparation for Christ’s birth (Advent) and with the outcome of his birth, such as the visit of the Magi (Epiphany). For many Christians, thoughts of Christmas could start as far back as March 25, the date of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus (assuming a perfect nine-month term of pregnancy for the young maiden, Mary). One would also have to assume the exactitude of the date of Christmas in order to work one’s way back to March 25. As a result of this calculation, the most highly disciplined liturgical churches (Roman Catholic and “high” Episcopal/Anglican, for example), celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in a grand style. For them, Annunciation (often occurring during Lent) involves with the singing of musical settings of Gabriel’s salutation to Mary: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee” – in Latin, “Ave Maria, gratia plenum, Dominus tecum.” This past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we read the beloved passage from Luke that narrates Gabriel’s salutation. (Admittedly, we choose to ignore March 25.) And the Chancel Choir sang Rachmaninoff’s setting of that text in the Russian-related language called “Church Slavonic.”
The earliest celebrations of Christ’s presence on earth were associated with Epiphany (meaning “manifestation”), since the actual recognition or revelation of Christ as the long expected Messiah was considered more important than the date of birth. Epiphany came to be celebrated on January 6. Ultimately, Christmas as a December 25 celebration would not be officially established until the second half of the fourth century.
The first choral piece you will hear at the 11 p.m. service on Christmas Eve will be the plainchant setting of the text “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” This text by the Spanish poet, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, who lived from 348 until 413 A.D., might have been written only a few years after those earliest December 25 Christmas celebrations. Prudentius calls Jesus the Alpha and the Omega – the source, the ending. At the 11 p.m. service, this chant serves as a simple, moving start of a journey towards a great revelation.
Between our Christmas Eve services at 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., worshipers will be inspired by seven choral anthems, five handbell pieces, several traditional carols, and music for flute and organ. The humble birth will be celebrated with the variety of music that helps us to better understand the birth of Jesus, the source and the ending. In reality, there is no embarrassment in the richness of all of this music. It is a true and sincere expression of love and joy as we rejoice in the greatest Christmas gift of all, the newborn Savior.
A Merry Christmas to all!