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From Heaven High - A Christmas Song by Martin Luther

I was turned on to this little gem by my friends, Nick Lannon and Jono Linebaugh, over at Liberate.  Jono gives a brief run-down on the background of this Christmas Carol (one of five) written by Martin Luther.  It was likely that this particular one (which has a part for "angels," "children," and "all") was written for a Christmas pageant in which his own kids would have participated.  I love how it tells the story of Christmas while interacting with and weaving in our own (simple, child-like) response to the profundities of the incarnation.  I set it to a simple, bouncy tune that I think captures the heart of the text.  Listen to it and download it right here. I haven't yet drawn up a lead sheet for it, but below are the lyrics. The older I get, the more I value singing of Christ's story and the less I value singing my own (my own emotions, my own feelings, my own fleeting passions). 

From heaven high I come to earth. I bring you tidings of great mirth.
This mirth is such a wondrous thing that I must tell you all and sing.
A little child for you this morn has from a chosen maid been born.
A little child so tender, sweet, that you should skip upon your feet.

He is the Christ, our God indeed, who saves you all in every need.
He will himself your Savior be. From all wrong doing make you free.
He brings you every one to bliss. The heavenly Father sees to this.
You shall be here with us on high. Here shall you live and never die.

Look now, you children, at the sign, a manger cradle far from fine.
A tiny baby will you see. Upholder of the world is He. 

How glad we’ll be if it is so! With all the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done, in sending us his own dear Son.
Look, look, my heart, and let me peek. Whom in the manager do you seek?
Who is that lovely little one? The Baby Jesus, God’s own Son.

Be welcome, Lord; be now our guest. By you poor sinners have been blessed.
In nakedness and cold you lie. How can I thank you – how can I?

O Lord, who made and molded all, how did you come to be so small
Here lies a prince and Lord of all, a king within the donkey’s stall.

And if the world were twice as wide, with gold and precious jewels inside,
Still such a cradle would not do to hold a babe as great as you.

You wanted so to make me know, that you had let all great things go.
You had a place up in the sky; you left it there for such as I.

O dear Lord Jesus, for your head now will I make the softest bed.
The chamber for this bed shall be, within my heart, inside of me.
And I can play the whole day long. I’ll dance and sing for you a song,
A soft and soothing lullaby, so sweet that you will never cry. 

To God who sent his only Son, be glory, laud, and honor done.
Let all the choir of heaven rejoice, the new ring in with heart and voice.

Words: Martin Luther, 1535, tr. and arr. Roland Bainton, 1948, alt. Zac Hicks, 2013
Music: Zac Hicks, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)




Christmas Day 2011: Forcing the Issue of Ultimate Allegiance Between Sunday Worship and Family Traditions 

Starting around six months ago, there began a flurry of exchanges among worship leader Facebook groups, email groups, and online forums.  “What is your church doing for Christmas Day this year?”  The subtext of the dialogue was largely, “Are you going to have a worship service or not?”  There was at least a small amount of panic about how this could all possibly work.  People aren’t used to going to church on Christmas Day.  But many are very used to their tried and true family traditions.  (“We always open presents on Christmas morning.”  “We always have Christmas brunch together witht the family.”)

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The Christmas Song to End All Christmas Songs

Surprise and Merry Christmas!  We’ve recorded a single for the Advent and Christmas seasons.  It’s sloppy and joyful, just like the Incarnation.  And it’s available for you for ninety-nine pennies—the definition of “no brainer.”

Click to read more ...


Song Reflection: "Angels from the Realms of Glory"

In preparation for the release of our album, Without Our Aid, on September 13, 2011, we've begun a series of posts reflecting on the hymns incorporated into the project. 

For those who worship in more liturgically-oriented contexts, you're probably familiar with the fact that the Christian "new year" doesn't line up with our calendar's new year.  Our new year happens a month earlier than January 1, when we begin the season of Advent.  Advent is a season of hope, fostering faith by looking back (to Christ's first coming) and looking forward (to Christ's second coming).  It is at once historical and eschatological.  "Angels from the Realms of Glory" is a hymn that perfectly fits this paradigm.  In fact, the first verse paints a beautiful picture of how the angels themselves share in history's timeline:

Angels, from the realms of glory
Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
You, who sang creation's story,
Now proclaim Messiah's birth.

The entire hymn is a series of direct addresses, summoning the four corners of the world to come and worship Christ, the newborn King.  Each verse crescendos from the previous--angels, shepherds, saints, all creation--summoning heaven and earth to herald the arrival of our great King. 

Musically, if there's any time of year in which modern churches become a bit more "traditional," it's during the Advent/Christmas season.  My worship leader friends who serve in modern worship contexts have a love-hate relationship with this period, because it often means departing (at least a bit) from their musical standard fare.  "Angels from the Realms of Glory" was written to help mitigate this tension.  While I hope that the Church in any age utilizes music in its worship from every age, I also recognize that, in an effort to build bridges for this to happen, it's a worthy endeavor to contextualize texts into modern musical idioms.  "Angels" is perhaps the best illustration on Without Our Aid of this endeavor.  It is our most aggressive song, set in a driving, "semi-punk" style.  This particular musical setting is fitting, because it captures the joy and frivolity of the hymn text.  It's sure to offend lovers of the traditional tune and accompaniment ("Regent Square," written by Henry Smart in 1867), but our target for this song is not that crowd.  Our goal is to invite listeners who have never heard this glorious hymn to enjoy its rich poetry and pregnant meanings for the first time.  Hopefully, this setting can be a "gateway drug" toward appreciating its original music, as well.  Here are the words:

Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
You who sang creation's story,
Now proclaim Messiah's birth.

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant Light:

Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear:

All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son;
Evermore your voices raising
To th’eternal Three in One:

Lift up your heads, you mighty gates;
Be lifted up, you ancient doors.
That the King of Glory may come in,
Let the King of Glory now come in.

All hail! All hail King Jesus!
All hail! All hail Immanuel!
All hail! All hail King Jesus!
All hail! All hail the Prince of Peace!

Words: James Montgomery, 1816; Zac Hicks, 2009 (add’l lyrics adapted from Psalm 24)
Music: Zac Hicks, 2009
©2011 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)

The Warrior Baby: A Different Side of Christmas, Courtesy of Benjamin Britten

My colleague, our organist and choirmaster, Douglas Macomber, introduced me to this glorious piece which is a part of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols (Opus 28).  The text of "This Little Babe" is outstanding, ringing a seldom-heard bell about what Christmas ushers in--the paradox of a baby who conquers through weakness.  Our choir sang this at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  It's a bit feisty, but I wonder whether we couldn't re-tune this text for congregational singing.  Don't get me wrong, the original tune and arrangement are spot-on, but they are meant to be performed by a choir and harpist.  It would be powerful, in my opinion, if congregations could sing it, too.  And, no, those aren't typos.  They're old English words.

This little Babe so few days old, is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels' trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight; stick to the tents that he hath pight.*
Within his crib is surest ward; this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

*"pight" = pitched


Great New (Old) Worship Songs for Advent and Christmas

(Updated December 2011)

For this Christmas season, or if you’re thinking ahead to the next, here are some modern worship style Christmas songs.  They’re great historic hymns that we’ve set to new music which carry Advent/Christmas themes.  They aren’t “updated” standard Christmas carols.  They’re old hymns that modern worship has all but forgotten.  But they’re worth reviving, and here they are: 


All Ye Gentile Lands Awake

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A mid-tempo, indie-style song, with themes of light and confession.  For liturgo-philes, it’s technically a song for Epiphany, but works very well for Christmas.


Angels From the Realms of Glory

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

An up-tempo, drum-heavy number that works well as an opening song.  It’s refrain invites people to “Come and worship.”


Hark the Glad Sound

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A driving 4/4 song that works great with dotted-eighth delayed electrics and powerful drums.  Its chorus encourages us to shove the idols off the thrones of our hearts so that Jesus can come and reign.


Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A foreboding, mid-tempo, Coldplay-style Advent hymn that speaks about Christ coming in power, glory, and judgment.  This song isn’t for sissies.  It’s a fan-favorite from our first album, The Glad Sound.


O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A mid-tempo song that builds from soft to loud, filled with themes of light and God’s glory.  One of the oldest Christian hymns we still have (4th century!).


Psalm 76 (God is Known Among His People)

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

An upbeat, funky, even gospel-style number that rejoices in the power of God, trampling over His enemies.  The bridge walks through Isaiah’s titles for Christ (“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”).


The Word of Life (In a Byre Near Bethlehem)

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | about

An Irish pub-style number that walks through the story of Christ’s life, from birth to resurrection.  It’s got an earthy chorus and a singable melody that everyone loves.  Everyone.


There is Room

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A slow, graceful piano-led ballad that, in recounting the story of Jesus coming to earth, asks Jesus to come to our hearts.  Very melodic, and perfect for an offering.