Four Congregational Christmas Songs

Christmas MusicI love the classic Christmas carols. I love walking through a shopping center and, through the glittering ribbons and bells and commercialised chaos, faintly hearing “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail incarnate deity”. I love the rousing descant at the words in the final chorus “Gloria, in excelsis deo” (i.e. “Glory to God in the highest”).

That said, I hope the incarnation will never cease to inspire the best songwriters of the generation to try to capture a fraction of its wonder. So rich a source of inspiration is unlikely to dry up. Yet we often get stuck singing tired songs in the same way. So here are four, hopefully new, Christmas songs that I think would work in a church context.

On a scale of 1 to Rachmaninov, they’re all quite easy to play. Most have some syncopation but it’s not too difficult. They’re written in easy (and mostly singable) keys and don’t have any modulation. I’ve arranged them in inreasing order of difficulty (so it’s somewhat subjective but it’s a guide).

1. Look to the Skies

By Graham Kendrick

I first came across this song at the church I grew up in but I haven’t heard any other churches perform it. Graham Kendrick is going to go down with Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley in terms of the proliferation of songs he has produced. Look to the Skies is much easier to play than many of Kendrick’s songs and as usual, the lyrics are great. I think the chorus is a bit plain but choruses often are. The melody is quite simple but has enough of its own variation that it doesn’t get boring and it’s easy to make it triumphant. Overall, it’s a great song (much better than a lot of Christmas songs out there) so I’m surprised it’s not more well known.

My favourite line has to be “Swift through the skies he will burst with splendour on the earth to reign.”

Click here for sheet Music (F with chords in D for Capo 3)

2. On Christmas Day

By Matt Osgood

When I first discovered Resound Worship I was excited to see what they would produce. Unfortunately, most of it has failed to impress. Nevertheless, there are a number of gems on their site and it’s worth keeping track of what they’re up to – I’m still excited to see what’s to come. On Christmas Day was released quite some time ago but I haven’t come across it in any churches. The tune is simple enough, the bridge is, perhaps, a bit superfluous (I would consider dropping it for the congregation) but the lyrics are great. I enjoy the refrain “This is Immanuel”. Some of the rhymes get on my nerves (“sin” / “him”) but some are great (“mysterious” / “near to us”).

None of the lines leap out at me but I enjoy this one from the second verse “hands that once split night from day now feebly clutch a blade of hay”

Click here for Chords / Lead Sheet (D)

3. Christ the Lord is Born Today

By Mark Altrogge

Once again, I came across this song at the church I grew up in. It’s potentially the most well known in my current circles because it’s put out by Sovereign Grace Music (SGM). SGM is almost predictably good. Mark Altrogge has done some awesome music (“No Eye Has Seen”, “I’m Forever Grateful”, and “You Are Beautiful Beyond Description” spring to mind). The SGM recording makes it sound easy to make this song sound awesome with a strong guitar at the beginning and a fanastic harmony on the last verse but I don’t think my music group could make it sound anywhere near as good. That said, it’s got very easy chords and apart from some syncopation on the last line of the chorus it’s quite doable, variation between the three verses will be the challenge.

I really enjoy the lyrics in this song and the chorus is good. My favourite line is probably “death and darkness surely tremble, light has come to all the people.”

Click here for Lead Sheet / Score / Chords (G)

4. Hope is Born this Night

By Sidewalk Prophets

I wouldn’t know of this song were it not for the Sunday School performance this year. I don’t know anything about “Sidewalk Prophets” apart from this song. It was written in G and we transposed it to D (which is quite a bit lower) mainly because of one line in the chorus. I’ve had moments of enjoying this song and moments thinking it’s not saying anything. It’s also a bit foreign with reference to “snowy fields” and “Christmas bells”. You’ll have to decide how to end the song because the recording ends with a nice harmony but it may throw off congregations (it certainly wasn’t going to work with Sunday School children) and you could drop the bridge (or at least some of the repetitions). It’s also a bit harder for a pianist because there’s some inconsistency in the timing of the words in the verses. Even so, the melody is really catching and the chorus builds beautifully. Now I’m finding it a lot of fun to play.

I think the reason I overlook the lack of genuinely meaningful content in the verses is that my favourite line is in the chorus and so gets repeated, “Let all of the world sing the chorus of joy because hope was born this night” (it is also a cool part of the melody).

Click here for Chords (G) – it’s worth transposing these! (and here’s a link to a youtube video since the chords are all I can point you to)

Christmas: The Traditions of Men and Our Forgotten King

Isaiah 29:13 - Jesus ChristQuoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus distinguished between the traditions of men and the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-8). Though critical of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was not merely an iconoclast; he was much, much more. At the beginning of his ministry we learn that his preaching demanded repentance, a turning back to God (Mark 1:15). When it came to the traditions of men Jesus was incensed by their obscuring effect; his fight was not against the Jews’ practices and cultural artefacts, but how those drew the Jewish people away from God. Thus the people honoured God with their lips, but their words were unable to conceal wandering and desperate hearts (Isaiah 29:13). In honouring the traditions of men they ignored the commands of God.

True Christmas SpiritOn the eve of Christmas, Jesus’ words from two millennia ago are pertinent and precise in describing people today, besotted with traditions but indifferent to what is behind them. Jesus rebuked his religious listeners: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition, making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:9, 13). Now, the Christian reading this might don a proud demeanour for not losing sight of the true Christmas message, after all, we have “kept ‘Christ’ in Christmas, have we not?” No. I would suggest that many of us have not. Jesus’ correction is for us, today. With tomorrow marking the momentous historical event of God’s condescension, the beginning of the Son’s humiliation, and the birth of hope we must ask ourselves how the traditions of men have obscured our own celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

There was a punk band that I listened to as a teen called Noise Ratchet. One of their best but most poignant songs is entitled You’ll Be Forgetting Me, with this chorus, “happy birthday to me / the forgotten king.” Tomorrow is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember the Son’s self-giving work, which began with the incarnation. Yet tomorrow is most likely already consumed by brightly adorned trees sheltering piles of presents, large family gatherings, and gluttonously sized meals – the traditions of men. To quote from the aforementioned song, “open hands outstretched / to receive their prize / but I could give you anything, yes anything / you’re everything to me.” We desire so much at Christmas time, from the merry get-togethers to stockings crammed full of expensive gifts, yet easily forget to celebrate God’s wonderful open handed movement towards us, the greatest gift.

You'll be forgetting meNoise Ratchet’s song closes with this stirring reminder, from the Forgotten King’s lips, “for you I’ll be / forgetting me,” and therein lies the hope Christmas embodies and the reason we celebrate. Jesus came for us, those who were far from God. He renounced his rights for those who failed to remember God; he practised incomparable self-forgetfulness to bring us back to God. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in Gethsemane must be remembered tomorrow, “Not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In a post from Easter I wrote this, “[Jesus] dies according to the Father’s will…to save those who are truly guilty and without hope.” When the King is led towards the cross in royally purple robes, wearing his crown of twisted thorns, sarcastically hailed by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:16-18), he forgets himself out of love for us. Remember that tomorrow. Draw near to him who first drew near to us.

The Christ Event and True Christmas Spirit

Nativity IconIn his classic work, Knowing God, Packer writes that the incarnation is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. Referring to John 1:14, he says that at the first Christmas the world beheld the most profound and unfathomable depths of Christian revelation: God took on human flesh and was born. The eternal Son, who was with the Father, through whom the world was created and by whom all life is sustained, became a man (John 1:1-4, 14).

However, what makes the Christmas event spectacular is not just this incredible mystery, but also its monumental message for our world: God condescends to make himself known, and to save. At the incarnation God comes to his creation to graciously restore our fallen world. Athanasius provides a vivid analogy of this in On the Incarnation, picturing God as a mighty king who walks out to his people, who have revolted against him despite his benevolence. Though the intricacies of incarnation might be perplexing, we ought to immerse ourselves in the good news that God himself came to save man. Echoing the German reformer, Melanchthon, sometimes we do better to adore the mysteries of deity than to investigate them, for knowing Christ and his benefits is greater than apprehending the mystery of his being. To return to John, “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

Stories of life and passion of Christ - FrescoWhat do we learn in this gracious and penultimate revelation of God? In the incarnation, God’s wilful lessening of himself in order to save his lost creation, we see something theologians have called the ‘humiliation of Christ.’ Too often we reduce Christ’s suffering to his betrayal, trial and cross. But at the incarnation we must hear the unmistakable note of sacrifice, which resonates throughout the life of Christ. Paul saw it that way, in Philippians 2:6-8 he says the Son humbled himself, becoming a servant he made himself nothing. Jonathan Edwards believed this infinitely great sacrifice was the only way to bridge the infinite gap between God and man. Though Christ’s sacrifice is most pronounced at Calvary, we cannot separate the Son’s humiliation in dying for us from the sacrifice he shouldered in living as one of us. In both Christ’s life and death we see the grace of our Lord, for though he was rich for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). That is the magnificent message of the incarnation: God humiliates himself to bring us to himself, to restore his defiant creation and save us, who were lost.

True Christmas SpiritWe should reflect deeply on the meaning of the incarnation and rediscover real ‘Christmas spirit.’ I am not referring to the gaudy sentimentalism so prevalent today. This cheapened ‘Christmas spirit’ – going no further than the exchanging of gifts, selective generosity and some goodwill to all men – is shorter lived than the Christmas season itself and so very far from the model of Christ we are called to imitate: continual and selfless pursuit of others’ interests (Philippians 2:3-5). The entire life of our Lord was wilful humiliation in order that many might come to know God and be saved. He is the king who abandons his magisterial throne room in heaven to talk with disobedient subjects, offering them gracious forgiveness and a part in his glorious restoration of all things. The Christian life is the practise of continual self-emptying for the sake of others, imitating God’s willingness to be humiliated and impoverished out of a love for those who do not know his gracious forgiveness. True ‘Christmas spirit’ is inseparably tied to the Christmas message. The Christian life must take its form from the humiliation of Christ; to paraphrase Michael Gorman, ‘To be in Christ is to be a living exegesis of Christ’s narrative, a new performance of the original drama of humiliation, before exaltation, the voluntary renunciation of rights and selfish gain in order to serve and obey.’