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Musical Musings: Christmas

A Five-pointed Star

by Gary D. Penkala

Magi The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is a celebration of "manifestations," as the Greek epiphania suggests. Originally the feast day had a tripartite significance — it recalled 1) the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (represented by the Magi), 2) the manifestation of Christ's divinity in the events of his baptism in the Jordan, and 3) the manifestation of his power in the miracle at the wedding of Cana. This three-fold theme is still maintained in the current Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons for Epiphany which are of ancient origin:

(Ben. ant.) Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan's waters;
the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding;
and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.

(Magn. ant.) Three mysteries mark this holy day:
today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ;
today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast;
today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

Star The ancient co-mingling of themes notwithstanding, the current emphasis for Epiphany in the Roman Rite is the star which summons the Magi to Christ, the infant-King.

Here is a group of five hymns, as if the five points on the Christmas star, which serve to illumine our holy liturgies on this most solemn feast of theophany and manifestation.

  1. As with Gladness Men of Old
    Text:  As with gladness men of old
    Author/Source:  William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898)
    Tune name:  Dix [77.77.77]
    Composer/Source:  chorale Treuer Heiland! wir sind hier, Conrad Kocher (1786-1872), arr. William H. Monk (1823-1889)

    The text as written by William Dix appears in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), edited by noted music professor and organist William H. Monk. Dix was a High Anglican layman, an insurance agent in Glasgow and the son of a surgeon from Bristol, England. Tradition has the author writing this hymn during an illness in 1858, after having read the Gospel for Epiphany. According to Albert Bailey, "the arrangement [of the stanzas] is somewhat schematic: each stanza first draws a picture of some detail of the story, then makes the application to our own spiritual life.

    • Stanza 1 pictures the joy of the Magi in seeing the star and in their feeling of being led; then our corresponding prayer for guidance.
    • Stanza 2 pictures their joy as they worship before this representative of heaven and God; then our corresponding prayer for greater willingness to seek the throne of grace.
    • Stanza 3 pictures the episode of giving – their costly gifts contrasting with the poverty of the Bethlehem shelter; then our prayer for willingness to offer to Christ sincerely our dearest possession – loyalty and love.
    • Stanzas 4-5 abandon the story for a broader picture: the narrow way that leads to heaven, and heaven itself with its unspeakable glories; then the broader prayer that we may be kept, guided, and admitted to the heavenly country."

    The tune can be traced to a collection called Stimmen aus dem Reiche Gottes, published in Stuttgart in 1838. Conrad Kocher, a Württemberg native, studied music in Italy, particularly the great choral works of Palestrina. On his return to Germany he held the post of organist at Stiftskirche in Stuttgart, where he furthered the cause of sacred choral music. In 1852 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tübingen University. The tune name Dix honors the text author and his work, "As with gladness men of old," with which it was originally paired.

  2. Brightest and Best
    Text:  Brightest and best of the sons of the morning
    Author/Source:  Reginald Heber (1783-1826), alt.
    Tune name:  Star in the East / Morning Star / Stewart [ with refrain]
    Composer/Source:  from The Southern Harmony 1835 / James P. Harding 1892 / Albert Strohm 1933

    Considered one of the finest hymns by Bishop Reginald Heber, this Epiphany text was initially opposed as bordering on astrology or "star worship." Ronander & Porter indicate that in the original opening phrase, "the sons of the morning" possibly referred to angels, as in Isaiah 14:12 and Job 38:7. A recent move toward "non-offensive" language, even to the destruction of Scriptural allusion, has alterred the text to read, "the stars of the morning" in many hymnals.

    The author, a well-educated Oxford alumnus, was keenly interested in improving the quality of hymns sung by the congregations he served. To this end, he compiled a volume of his own hymns and others which were based on the readings of the day. Albert Bailey writes, "He was the first in England to apply the touchstone of literary excellence to hymns, to liberate the meters from the tyranny of Common, Long and Short, and to make use of contemporary rhythms and stanza structure." Unfortunately, this hymnal was never published.

    Heber was appointed bishop of Calcutta in 1823 and it was in India just three years later that he drowned in a pool after suffering a stroke.

    The text is sung to several tunes; the one called Morning Star was at first part of an anthem composed by James Harding at Gifford Hall Mission in Islington (London). The Church Hymnal, an Episcopal volume from 1894, was this tune's first appearance in America.

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The last three "points"

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