Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany



Again in this issue at Reformed Worship, we offer a glimpse at the forthcoming Psalter Hymnal Handbook, a large project that is nearing completion at long last. You will be hearing much more about it in the next issues of RW!

The commentary on the Advent hymn "Hark, the Glad Sound!" is taken from the handbook commentary prepared by Bert Polman and others who worked on the biographies. One fascinating thing about the authors and composers of hymns is their varied backgrounds. Four different people were involved over three centuries in the hymn as we present it here. (This commentary includes only two of the four biographical sketches available.) Learning something about those who wrote our hymns helps us understand more deeply what the "communion of the saints" means.


Philip Doddridge (b.London, England, 1702; d. Lisbon, Portugal, 1751) wrote "Hark, the Glad Sound!" in 1735 with the heading "Christ's message from Luke 4:18-19" (where Christ quotes from Isa. 61:1-2). The text was revised and published in the 1745 and 1781 editions of the Scottish Translations and Paraphrases. Only four stanzas of the original seven (1, 3, 4, and 7) are usually included in modern hymnals.

"Hark, the Glad Sound!" is a fine Christological hymn; it uses the Old Testament text as Christ himself did. Stanza 1 speaks about the Savior's coming. Stanzas 2 and 3 quote the Isaiah and Luke passages about Christ's mission to release those in prison, to heal the wounded, and to enrich the poor. Stanza 4 concludes with a glad response of welcome and praise to our Savior.

Doddridge belonged to the Nonconformist Church (not associated with the Church of England), whose members were frequently the focus of discrimination. Offered an education by a rich patron to prepare him for ordination in the Church of England, Doddridge chose instead to remain in the Nonconformist Church. For twenty years he pastured a poor parish in Northampton, where he opened an academy for training Nonconformist ministers and taught most of the subjects himself. Doddridge suffered from tuberculosis, and when Lady Huntington, one of his patrons, offered to finance a trip to Lisbon for his health, he is reputed to have said, "I can as well go to heaven from Lisbon as from Northampton." He died in Lisbon soon after his arrival.

Doddridge wrote some four hundred hymn texts, generally to accompany his sermons. These hymns were published posthumously in Hymns, Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scriptures (1755), but relatively few are still sung today.


RICHMOND (also known as CHESTERFIELD) is a florid tune originally written by Thomas Haweis (b. Redruth, Cornwall, England, 1734; d. Bath, England, 1820) and published in his collection Carmina Christo (1792). Initially apprenticed to a surgeon and pharmacist, Haweis decided to study for the ministry at Oxford and was ordained in the Church of England in 1757. He served as curate of St. Mary Magdalen's Church, Oxford, but the bishop removed him from that position because of his Methodist leanings. He also was an assistant to Martin Madan at Locke Hospital, London. In 1764 he became rector of All Saints Church in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, and later served as administrator at Trevecca College, Wales, a school founded by the Countess of Huntingdon, whom Haweis served as chaplain.

After completing advanced studies at Cambridge, Haweis published a Bible commentary and a volume on church history. He was strongly interested in missions and helped to found the London Mission Society. His hymn texts and tunes were published in Carmino Christo, or Hymns to the Savior (1792, expanded 1808).

Some years later, Samuel Webbe, Jr., adapted and shortened the tune and published it in his Collection of Psalm Tunes (1808). Webbe named the tune after Rev. Leigh Richmond, a friend of Haweis. The name CHESTERFIELD comes from Lord Chesterfield, a statesman who frequently visited the Countess of Huntingdon.

At its opening the tune has a "rocket" motif radiating a sense of confidence. In the process of various revisions the melody has lost its original florid character, but the harmonization (from Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, 1950) provides strength and vigor, and the descant by Craig S. Lang introduces another florid line for festive singing of stanza 4.

Sing stanza 1 in unison and stanzas 2 and 3 with jubilant accompaniment. Because stanza 4 is the only one directed to Christ, it should receive a different musical treatment than the other stanzas. Strong unison singing, a full accompaniment, and the use of the vocal or instrumental descant will help the "glad hosannas ... ring."

Liturgical Use

During Advent; as a processional for Palm Sunday.


How many ways can we join the angels in singing glory to God? One of the insights of our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters is that coming to worship together in church is like entering into the great throne room of heaven; for an hour or so we join the angels and heavenly hosts who are always singing praises to God "day and night without ceasing" (Rev. 4:8).

Rather than our joining the angels in the heavenly realms, on the night of Christ's birth angels broke through to our earthly realm to sing their praise in front of an audience of shepherds. Ever since, the church around the world has joined the angels in singing "Glory to God." In fact, the text of Luke 2:14 is so universally known that most people know the Latin!

Here are three settings of the "Gloria in excelsis Deo"—in English, Spanish, and Latin.


This Gloria is associated with Lima, Peru, a city that was much in the news in the past year. When the World Council of Churches met in Lima, this Gloria was part of the eucharistic liturgy that has since came to be known as the Lima Liturgy.

I sang this song first in a call-and-response format with John Bell leading (for more on John Bell see RW 27:23 and 40:5). Bell, more than anyone I know, can get a whole congregation to sing without music, without accompaniment, and in harmony! I've heard him do this more than once, and talked afterwards to startled and delighted people who realized that they had just been transformed from a congregation into a choir. And everyone did it! He made it easy.

But you don't have to be a musician to lead the congregation as Bell does. I know pastors who have taken courage from his approach and have successfully led this Gloria. Preparation is the key. Here is the pattern Bell followed, keeping a steady rhythm throughout:

  1. He sang the first four-measure phrase in a strong and sturdy voice. Then he extended his hand and arm to invite everyone to repeat it with him.
  2. Ditto for the next two-measure phrase.
  3. When he started on the last section, he sang the top line in each measure with everyone following measure by measure.

Then he returned to the final "Alleluia, Amen!" sections, dividing us into three groups. This is the tricky part that the leader really needs to practice ahead. It goes something like this:

Without missing a beat, the leader sings the first "Alleluia, Amen!", extends the arm toward group 1 for them to repeat it and then continue repeating that one measure while the leader sings the next measure (pointing back to himself or herself) for group 2, which repeats and again continues repeating while the leader sings the highest part, finally joined by group 3. Once you've got it going, repeat the last measure until you notice the whole congregation gradually grow in confidence, joy, and delight that they are singing in three-part harmony—six parts if you count the treble voices as well as the lower voices of the men. When it feels right, cue everyone to end by holding the final chord until you give the cutoff.

Such a short song is more acclamation than hymn and would be a fitting response, for example, after the Assurance of Pardon, the reading of the Gospel lesson, or perhaps—during Advent and Christmas— in place of the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy") during the Lord's Supper.

But don't sing it just once. If you're going to try it, the first time will be a learning experience for you and the congregation; the second time will be a joy; and by the third time, glory to God will begin to grow.


Here is another Gloria, this one from Argentina, composed by Pablo Sosa (b. 1933), a Methodist minister and well-known authority on religious folk music of South America. I had the privilege of meeting him at a Global Praise conference earlier this year and was very impressed by his liturgical and musical insights.

Sosa composed this Gloria for a church nativity play and taught it to the whole congregation, since they had no choir. They were accompanied only by a percussion instrument, the panderita. The rhythm, which mixes 6/8 and 3/4, is based on the form of the cueca, an Argentine folk dance. The choice of that dance rhythm for the Gloria text takes on poignant meaning when you begin to understand some of the cultural background: women whose husbands had "disappeared" sometimes met in a central square in Buenos Aires to dance the cueca.

I also learned this Gloria from John Bell, who included it in his collection Songs of the World Church: Many and Great (G1A, 1990). In the preface Bell writes: "These songs, coming from oppressed peoples, who were sometimes silenced for singing them, were actually a means of intercession. By using them we can identify with the joys and concerns of Christians in other countries and offer both our concern and our solidarity to God."


Finally, we offer this Gloria from the community of Taize in France. Many have come to know the power of the short refrains (see RW 8:26) that are characteristic of music from Taize, such as "Eat This Bread" (see RW 19:26) and "Jesus, Remember Me."

This Gloria is constructed as a four-part round with many options for singing. The harmony provided by the grace notes could be sung by a choir of women. The descants could be played by flute, recorder, oboe, or violin. Additional descants for trumpet and cello are found in Music from Taize (G.I.A.; this Gloria is from Vol. 1 of the two-volume collection).

Choose one of these Gloria settings to teach your congregation this year. Learn it by heart first yourself, and then teach it so that everyone is able to sing it from memory. Choose another setting next year. And whatever singing you do, sing "Glory to God in the highest."



Some songs, though new to you, may seem familiar. This hymn by Kathleen Thomerson is that kind of song—immediately accessible, yet with depth of meaning and expression that will not quickly wear thin. It serves equally well as a carol sung by a choir in a Service of Lessons and Carols, for example, or as a congregational hymn. It also works well for many different occasions—for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, or as a general hymn of commitment; for healing services, commissioning services, or even weddings and funerals.

One reason the text sounds familiar—to those with good Scripture backgrounds—is that almost every line is based on Scripture. Those without much Bible knowledge will learn much from meditating on this text, a virtual tapestry of phrases woven together from many different parts of Scripture. Thomerson's knowledge of Scripture and love for Christ come through with gentle and strong conviction in this hymn, which she wrote as a Scripture meditation and prayer. The Worship Leaders edition of the hymnal The Worshiping Church (Hope Publishing, 1991) includes the following references: Genesis 1:17; Isaiah 60:19; Psalm 75:16; 139:12; Ephesians 3:17; 5:8; Galatians 4:6; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:19; 1 John 1:5-7; and Revelation 21:23.

Another reason the hymn might sound familiar is the way the text and tune fit so beautifully together. Not many text writers are equally gifted as composers. In fact, Thomerson's educational background is more musical than literary. The strength and beauty of her text are rooted in the strength and beauty of the Scriptures she chose. The text is not rhymed, but in this text, rhyme doesn't matter. The many scriptural images centering on light hold the text together.

Thomerson wrote this song to take as a gift to her friends at the Church of the Resurrection in Houston, Texas, in 1966. The church made songsheets available in the pews, but the sheets kept disappearing, and the song started to spread. It was included in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 but has only become widely known in the past few years. Now other composers are starting to write arrangements for organ and handbells, a sign that this hymn will be around for awhile.

Thomerson retired at the beginning of this year from the organ faculty at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville; she retired earlier as director of music at University United Methodist Church, St. Louis, Missouri. She now lives with her husband in Collinsville, Illinois, and travels with Renewal in Christ Ministries, a nondenominational Bible teaching and healing ministry that leads retreats all around North America. Thomerson is musician for the group, which recently published a collection of nine of her songs: Sing, My Heart, and Be Not Silent (taken from Psalm 30:12, NIV), available from Renewal in Christ Ministries (309-755-5114).

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.