December 23, 2011

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

The Sussex Carol is a Christmas song popular in England and the British Isles and is sometimes referred to by its first line "On Christmas Night". Its words were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs.

The carol is a free-flowing, upbeat tune which always brings a smile to one's face, especially when sung by a men and boys chorus. I can't remember when I first heard it, and having never attended or been a member of a so-called "high" church, I do believe my ears may have first heard the tune either on the radio, or on one of my dad's Christmas records.

I do remember when I first fell in love with the tune. It was in December, 1982 when, while working through a catalogue of music from my favorite Classical music composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, that I found he produced a variation of it for his "Fantasia on Christmas Carols."

Vaughan Williams, a British agnostic and great-nephew of Charles Darwin, was a specialist in early English Folk Songs and Church music. His compositional style expresses a deep regard for and fascination with folk tunes, the variations upon which can convey the listener from the down-to-earth (which he always tried to remain in his daily life) to the ethereal.

The Sussex Carol, and Vaughan William's rendition of it, is simply beautiful. Despite him professing agnosticism, somehow and for some reason God used him and his talent to convey the real meaning of the birth of Christ.

At this time of the year, allow me to print the other verses so that you will understand what I perceive to be the real meaning of the season.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"

Tomorrow night - Christmas Eve - will we, like all believers, sing to hear the news the angels bring? Many churches throughout the world will be celebrating the birth of the King of Kings with song, reflection, liturgy, sermon, communion and prayer. Midnight masses will be held in many cathedrals and churches and, I'm sure, some will incorporate the Sussex Carol within the service.  It should be there and sung to the highest by all.

The closing verse of the carol says it all. Harkening back to those words uttered by the prophet Isaiah when he declared: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. And where have we heard about the land "of the shadow of death" before? In that all-too familiar 23rd Psalm: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou (God) art with me.

The world wanders in darkness and yet, God has provided a great light. That light, which the angels sang about that night was Jesus Christ: God among men! It's like we all walk around in a dark, windowless room when all of a sudden one walks in and turns the light on! We can see now!

Can you see the glory God?  Can you hear the angels sing? I hope that my readers will see, hear and sing tomorrow night, along with those angels, as the words from that very familiar birth account from the Gospel of Luke ring forth: "Glory to God and peace to men."

For what I hope will be an inspiration for you, I have provided a YouTube Video of the Choir of New College Oxford performing it.  May you all have a very Merry Christmas and with the angel sing: "Glory to God and peace to men, Now and for evermore, Amen!"

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