the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Hymns and Carols: Five Songs

Hymns and Carols: Five Songs

In Advent and Christmas this year, we are running our first Hymns and Carols series. It is, of course, still Christmas—the season ends at Candlemas, on February 2nd. All the same, our series for this year ends this week, with Jennifer Strawbridge on five different carols: Once in Royal David’s City, While Shepherds Watched, Coventry Carol, A Spotless Rose, and Silent Night.

This Advent and Christmas season, the School of Theology has been celebrating the tradition of carolling that we now strongly associate with this season. But actually, the carol hasn’t always had an easy association with the celebration of Christmas. In the medieval period, carols were popular dance songs, especially for a sort of circle dance. Thankfully – at least for many of us – over time the carol lost this association, while retaining its celebratory character. Carols took a hit in the Reformation with the dissolution of monasteries, as some of the greatest carol writers were monastics. And they took another hit with the Puritans who suppressed all celebrations of Christmas, carols included. 

Fortunately, carols and the tradition of writing and singing them couldn’t be kept down for long with new ones composed in the 18thcentury (such as the second hymn discussed below – “While Shepherds Watched”) and the advent of the Service of Lessons and Carolsin 1918. Many of us hear the story of Christmas through our most well-loved carols and hymns. And for many of those attending services in this season of Christmas, their foundational theology of Christmas and of the incarnation comes from these same carols. Even those who cannot name a single gospel writer will know the basics of Jesus’s birth, thanks to the carols played on radio stations and in shopping centres and cafés from early November.

And so, to round off our series on carols, let us look briefly to the stories and theology of some of our beloved carols from this great season.


Once in Royal David’s City

Once in royal David’s city

Stood a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her baby

In a manger for his bed:

Mary was that Mother mild,

Jesus Christ her little Child.

For many, this is the hymn that begins the Christmas celebration as a single treble voice pierces the silence of King’s College Chapel at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. The words were written as a poem for a children’s catechesis to help explain a clause of the Apostle’s Creed. It thus attempts to pain t a picture of Jesus who was “born of the Virgin Mary” in a “lowly cattle shed.” But the incarnation is anything but lowly in this hymn, for while Jesus is “little, weak, and helpless”, he is also “God and Lord of all”. 

These tensions between Jesus’ humanity and divinity spill over into our world still today. Royal David’s City of Bethlehem is now a place full of tension, where peace is fleeting and where walls divide. And thus, we with the inhabitants of that ancient city cling to the hope offered in this hymn that “our eyes at last shall see him”, “set at God’s right hand on high.”


While Shepherds Watched

Surrounding the modern-day city of Bethlehem are three fields which claim to be the site where “shepherds watched their flocks by night”. One belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, one to the Greek Orthodox Church, and the third is maintained by the Bethlehem YMCA. But no matter the place or tradition, this story of annunciation to the shepherds captures our imagination. Because of it, when we think of God breaking into our lives, we expect something grand with “a shining throng of angels praising God” with “their joyful song”: 

 All glory be to God on high,

And on the earth be peace;

Good-will henceforth from heaven to men

Begin and never cease.

And yet, by skipping straight to the final verse, straight to the glory, we miss the fullness of the angel’s message that our “troubled minds” so desperately need to hear: “Fear not” for “Glad tidings of great joy I bring”, that you are loved and God is with us.


Coventry Carol

 Lully, lulla,

thou little tiny child,

by by, lully lullay.

This carol began its life as part of a medieval mystery play in the city of Coventry. The tune is haunting as the words tell the story of the slaughter of innocents from Matthew’s Gospel, the story of when a paranoid King Herod, “in his raging” attempted to kill the Christ child by ordering the killing of “all young children”. The carol is sung by their mothers, who bid “this poor youngling, for whom we do sing” farewell: “by by, lully lullay”. 

Some question why these desperate words of farewell should be sung at Christmas, and yet such a carol helps us to see that Christmas is a time both of great joy and of poignant loss for so many. Why these words of loss and hope are sung at Christmas is once again connected to Coventry, for this was the concluding carol sung on the 1940 BBC Broadcast at Christmas, broadcast from the ruins of the recently bombed Coventry Cathedral.


A Spotless Rose

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,

From tender stem hath sprung.

Of Jesse’s lineage coming,

As men of old have sung; 

It came, a flow’ret bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half was spent the night. 

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, is a German carol about Mary. The spotless rose is a reference to the purity of the Virgin Mary: “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind” is “the virgin mother kind”. This carol draws not only on floral imagery, but also on prophecies from the Old Testament to describe the incarnation of our Lord. Such prophecies emphasise the royal lineage of Jesus, with the rose – Mary – sprouting from the tree of Jesse, who was the father of King David. The carol is also filled with descriptions of Christ, who is the “Saviour” to “show God’s love aright” and who is also “true man, yet very God” who dispels “with glorious splendour the darkness everywhere”.

 Herbert Howell’s simple setting of this carol grasps the intricate imagery of the hymn’s two verses (though the original text had three verses), with the powerful music of the final words “cold, cold winter’s night” leaving us in awe at “God’s great love and might”.


Silent Night, Holy Night

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright,

Round yon virgin mother and child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht is another German carol, composed by a parish priest in Austria and set to music by a local teacher and organist after the organ was damaged just before Christmas Eve. Translated into more than 100 languages, this is a carol whose setting speaks across cultural and linguistic boundaries. 

The most poignant story about such boundaries is connected to the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914. One story of this brief period of unofficial ceasefire in which German, British, and French soldiers came together in no man’s land is founded on the singing of “Silent Night”, a carol which united the troops across more than simply their language barriers.

 This carol speaks not only to the peace that the silence of war can bring, but the surpassing and ultimate peace that the “holy infant” brings to our world. For the night that “Christ the Saviour was born” is the night that heavenly peace came to earth. For this child is the one who “preached peace to those who were far off and to those who were near” (Ephesians 2.17) and who by his birth enables us to encounter the “dawn of redeeming grace”. And for this gift of love and grace, offered to us in this great season of Christmas, and always, we give thanks.

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