Music Notes | Second Sunday After Christmas

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The liturgical celebration of the various events surrounding the Nativity of Our Lord comes, in a way, as an interruption of the narrative of Christ’s public ministry which we follow Sunday by Sunday. On the two middle Sundays of Advent we hear St John the Baptist’s call to repentance and announcement of the coming Christ, a narrative thread that is continued on the Sunday after the Epiphany and beyond.

The many scenes of the nativity narrative thus must be fitted in on the two or three Sundays, and three feast days, in between, and another a month later: the Fourth Sunday of Advent gives us the Lucan annunciations to Zechariah and to Our Lady, as well as St Joseph’s dream from Matthew’s Gospel, in the course of our three-year lectionary; the familiar Lucan accounts of the birth are read at the midnight and dawn Christmas Masses; the Circumcision and Holy Name of Our Lord are celebrated on January 1; the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple and Purification of the Blessed Virgin are marked forty days after the Nativity, on February 2 (Candlemas). Meanwhile, returning to Matthew and incidents that took place perhaps a couple of years later, the Holy Innocents are commemorated on December 28, and finally the Visitation of the Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. When there are two Sundays between December 25 and January 6, our lectionary offers three options for the Gospel reading on the second of them: the Visitation of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt (skipping the slaughter of the Innocents), or the one anecdote from Our Lord’s later childhood, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. The music chosen for this Sunday reflects some of this diversity.

‘Dormi, dormi’, an arrangement of an Italian carol, places us with the infant Christ and his Mother as she rocks him to sleep, her lullaby punctuated by music we can imagine being sung and played by the shepherds. The arranger, Mary Goetze, is a prolific choral composer, arranger, clinician, and conductor, and Professor Emerita at Indiana University. 

‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy’, written in 1934 by the (white) lawyer and composer Robert MacGimsey in the style of an African American spiritual, is a meditation on Christ’s self-abasement in the Incarnation and human blindness to his presence then and now, on his example and our failure to follow it, and at the same time on his solidarity with the human condition, particularly that of those who suffer. 

‘We three kings of Orient are’ is so familiar and beloved as to seem not to need any introduction or comment – but its text and especially its tune, both rather picturesque, can sometimes make us pass over the symbolism contained and explained within. The gifts of the Magi, following ancient tradition, acclaim and proclaim various aspects of Christ’s identity and life: gold crowns the King; incense is offered to God; myrrh, used in incense and in oil for anointing, is also used in the preparation of Christ’s body for burial – clearly the reference in this song, which ends with an acclamation of the Resurrection that also recapitulates the symbolism: ‘Glorious now behold him arise, / King and God and Sacrifice’. The author and composer of this song and its tune, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., was a lawyer, poet, musician and teacher of church music, journalist, designer of liturgical furnishings, and Episcopal priest. Another text [336] and another tune [503] of his also appear in the Hymnal. 

‘Angels, from the realms of glory’ was written by James Montgomery (1771–1854), a Scottish-born poet, newspaper editor, and social activist who advocated for the abolition of slavery and other worthy causes. Like his hymn ‘When Jesus left his Father’s throne’ (in all, nine of his hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982), ‘Angels, from the realms of glory’ takes in a good swath of Christ’s life and our liturgical celebration of it, leading us from the Nativity in the first two stanzas (angels, shepherds), to the Epiphany (‘sages’, i.e. the Magi) in the third, to Candlemas, in a final stanza that comprehends both the literal, incarnational, and the symbolic, eschatological, aspects of this feast:

Saints before the altar bending,

watching long in hope and fear,

suddenly the Lord, descending,

in his temple shall appear:

Come and worship…

These saints are, of course, the aged Simeon and Anna, who had spent their lives in the Temple awaiting the Savior – but they are also, we hope, ourselves, or at least saints living in our time and in all times, too. The Lord appeared in his Temple at the Presentation (and on many occasions thereafter, of course), but will also come again (as the original prophetic context of the passage quoted – Malachi 3.1 – reminds us) to judge, cleanse, and purify. As those prophets of old did, so we too ‘watch long’, looking for the coming King and the signs of his Kingdom, praying, as did Simeon, that we might depart in peace, having seen the Savior. 

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