Christmas Eve at Holy Trinity
by Mrs. Jacqueline Smith, Director of Music
In December, along with other Christians around the world, we celebrate two seasons: Advent and Christmas. While department stores and radio stations and everywhere else imaginable are saturated with Christmas carols during the entire Advent season, we reserve these for the season of Christmas (12 days of Christmas, not one day!). So we always have a Sunday morning or two to also sing Christmas carols before Epiphany (January 6).
Advent has its own beautiful and soulful hymns that match the lessons for our Advent services. The Advent themes are watchful waiting, longing for the Savior, the watchman on the wall, the wise and foolish virgins, the people in darkness needing to be comforted, lifting high the gates for the Savior to come in, preparing our hearts and preparing the way before Him…I get goosebumps just thinking about these lessons and these hymns.
And then Christmas Eve arrives and we sing all the famous, beloved carols. We sing several before the service with accompaniment of brass, strings, and bells along with the organ. In the service we enter with the Christmas entrance hymn—“O Come, All Ye Faithful” —calling us to worship. We leave with the mighty exhortation “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” which recounts the Gospel truths we have heard proclaimed in our Christmas Eve service: now we need not fear the grave, Christ is born…. In all are 16 Christmas hymns, sung either as straight hymns, or used in the liturgical setting we use that night, and only that night.
And what about that liturgical setting for Christmas Eve? We have our very own Christmas setting of Holy Communion—all the normal parts—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus (Holy, Holy). Of course we will sing these, because we are not performing a Christmas concert, not putting on a Christmas program. No, we are at worship—hearing the Word proclaimed in lesson and sermon, and receiving our Lord’s body and blood. As Lutherans, we know that the words of our liturgy are irreplaceable. The Gloria alone contains the essential doctrines of our faith: the sacrifice of Christ to take away the sins of the world, Christ’s identity as the Son of God seated on the right hand of the Father, and the teaching about the persons of the Holy Trinity.
But rather than using LBW settings of the Holy Communion which we use most of the regular Sundays, we have a distinctive Christmas Holy Communion which uses tunes and portions of texts from other parts of the Christmas section in the hymnal. You can look these up!
Our Kyrie is taken from a famous Christmas chant (“O Savior of Our Fallen Race”, LBW 49). It includes the Kyrie text with interpolations from this hymn, which expresses our need of a savior.
The Gloria is taken from LBW 47 (“Let All Together Praise Our God”). This important Lutheran Christmas hymn is not a typical carol known by Americans, but I would encourage you to take an LBW and look it up—read the wonderful text which teaches our faith in a very complete way. The text and tune are by Nicolaus Herman, an important hymnwriter from the Reformation period. Like Luther, he used hymns to express Christian beliefs. This was the function of the early Lutheran hymn—to put song back into the mouths of the congregation and to have that song teach them vital truths of which there was great ignorance in the 1500s.
We use two verses of Luther’s Christmas hymn, LBW 51 (“From Heaven Above”) as responses. This is another hymn which is well worth getting your LBW and taking a look at. Luther wrote this for his own children to sing. It contains the entire Christmas story along with a verse making it all very personal: “O dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed, soft, undefiled, a holy shrine, within my heart. That You and I need never part.”
The Sanctus incorporates LBW 42 (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), an early chant hymn with Sanctus-like text about adoration by every tongue on earth along with the hosts of heaven. We also use other verses of this as responses.
At Communion we use “What Child is This” (LBW 40) because of its text about nails and spear piercing Him through, and His bearing the cross, “for me, for you.”
The Christmas Eve Psalm 98 also incorporates melody from “What Child is This.”
The Alleluia quotes the tune of “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” (LBW 45).
Our unofficial composer-in-residence, Kile Smith, who has composed so many Alleluias, Psalm settings, anthems, hymntunes for Pastor Mike’s wonderful hymns, and a responsory here and an antiphon or canticle there (sometimes on very short notice!) has put together this wonderful liturgical setting (he did our Easter setting too) so that we would have a special, Christmas setting. This was not done with the idea that it would be good for one time and next year we’ll have another one. Just like the LBW settings, it is well-written music that lasts (with hours and hours put into it, as you can imagine), that we use from year to year, and only on this night. It is our Christmas liturgical setting.
I look forward to our Christmas Eve services. The Family Service at 6:30 is always joyous and lovely with the pageant and the young children in church. The 9 pm service is a great celebration of the Feast of the Nativity. We pack as much music into it as we can to celebrate our Savior’s birth. But the music is always in service to the Word, because that is the Lutheran way. It is not a concert, nor a program. It is not an Anglican Lessons and Carols, but a service of Holy Communion.
We hope visitors will come and enjoy the service, and that friends and family will join us. God will speak to them as well as to us, through a faithful proclamation of His Word—He’s promised that, and it can come only from Him, not from our feeble efforts to enchant or inspire. Our purpose that night is to worship our Lord, to joy in our Savior’s birth, and to receive His gifts of Word and sacrament.