This Song Is Best

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who is a church organist posted a photo on Facebook of her preparations for Christmas. Not surprisingly, it was a picture of a musical score, an arrangement of a hymn, with all of her expressive markings and organ registrations scratched in in pencil. She posted the picture with the tagline: “Fixin' to be that time again.” Oh. Perhaps I should have mentioned that my friend Jessica is a church organist in Tupelo, Mississippi. But the thing that struck me about her post wasn’t just her fabulously southern use of the word “fixin” – it was the particular piece of music that she posted, or rather the particular part of that particular piece. The piece was Adeste fideles, the hymn with which we began our liturgy this morning. But Jessica’s photo wasn’t of the beginning of the hymn, with a big “full organ” written over the words O Come All Ye Faithful – the photo was of the middle of the last verse. Now, some of you know where this is going, I think. Because in the middle of the last verse of Adeste fideles in this particular arrangement by Sir David Willcocks, very recently of blessed memory, something miraculous happens.

** Musical demonstration by Mr. Simon Thomas Jacobs**

And that, my friends, is the most succulent, most titillating, most anticipated chord of Christmas, no doubt. And that is what my friend Jessica was referring to – that it was fixin’ to be that time again, that time when we get to sing this hymn with that sexy chord and just revel in the extravagance for a moment.

What’s particularly interesting about that chord is where it happens. Sure, it’s in the last verse, when you might expect some harmonic fireworks, but Willcocks was about more than that, I think. For Willcocks placed that wondrous chord on the word “Word” – “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” It’s the place in the hymn where today’s Gospel comes to light – and the Word became flesh, and lived among us. It’s a rare appearance of John’s Christmas Gospel in the hymnody of Christmas, which tends instead to focus on herald angels and midnights clear and little towns of Bethlehem. And no wonder, really. There isn’t much about today’s Gospel reading that sounds carol-y. “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” It’s good theology, but you can’t dance to it.

 Or can you? Because it turns out that the text of the prologue to the Gospel of John was, in fact, an extremely popular carol in the middle ages. Not all of it – just the phrase that Willcocks plays with – the Word was made flesh, or, in Latin, Verbum caro factum est. Verbum caro factum est was, apparently, kind of a hot lyric in the 16th century. Aside from the motets and sacred songs on that text that were composed for Christmas Day by composers like Hans Leo Hassler and John Sheppard, there were popular medieval Christmas carols based on that text, including one famously arranged by a contemporary of Willcocks, Sir William Walton, the refrain of which is “All this time this song is best: Verbum caro factum est.”

Verbum caro factum est was apparently so popular that it found its way into secular culture – specifically, as so many good lyrics and tunes do, into drinking songs. One such song began with Verbum caro factum est and then continued with, and I’m roughly translating the Old English here, Yo, I’m all up in the club, party people in the house, hold up, who’s got my bottle of bubbly. So how did the prologue to the Gospel of John get paired with a song about pouring out good cheer? Well, most obviously, in its original context, Verbum caro factum est was very cheery news – the best news, in fact. So good news, good cheer, let’s have a beer. But as the song itself began to separate from the occasion, when it became less of a song about Christmas and more of just a song to slosh your tankard too, the scriptural phrase, interestingly, stayed in. The reason? Well, one medieval poetry scholar has suggested that the use of Verbum caro factum est at the beginning of the song was a way of getting people’s attention. It was kind of the medieval equivalent of saying, “The Lord be with you” in a room full of Episcopalians. When medieval people heard Verbum caro factum est, they knew to pay attention to what was coming next.* Because Verbum caro factum est was the money line. That was when your ears perked up, when your head snapped to. Verbum caro factum est was the moment when you hit your knees.

And it still is. Verbum caro factum est is still the moment, the moment that this Christmas Day is all about, the moment that calls us to attention this morning, that had us hitting our knees a few moments ago. Verbum caro factum est, the Word was made flesh, is the moment when Christmas happened, when God’s only-begotten, most beloved Son became a part of this world, of deeply ordinary stuff like dust and microbes and liquid and lint. And this is the most miraculous thing imaginable – that God would choose us, choose us even after all of the mess we’d made, and choose us so firmly and so finally that God would jump right into the thick of that mess to clean it up. Verbum caro factum est.

So it’s no wonder that Willcocks chose such a sensual chord for that moment in the hymn, because that moment in the hymn is all about the sensual. It is all about the gift that because Jesus was born, everything we see and touch and smell and listen to is known deep in the heart of God. Because Jesus knew what it was to feel the scratch of hay on your cheek. He knew what it was to smell the earthy funk of so many sheep and goats in a dark damp cave. He knew what it was to look up and see rocks, hills, and plains, to listen to every stone as it cried out. Everything we see and touch and smell and listen to God also has seen and touched and smelled and listened to. And tasted, of course tasted, like the sweetness of bread on your tongue and the richness of wine as it slides down your throat like silk.

Verbum caro factum est. The Word was made flesh, knew our flesh, and took that flesh, this world, you and me and all of Creation into his arms and blessed it, redeemed it, saved it, loved it, now and forever. And this morning we greet that Word, born this happy morning – Jesus, to thee be all glory given. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. What better thing to sing, really? All this time, this song is best: Verbum caro factum est.


*This idea comes from the work Poems Without Names: The English Lyric, 1200-1500 by Raymond Oliver.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

25 December 2015

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on December 27, 2015 .