Hosanna in Excelsis by David and Barbara Leeman is a nicely bound book of Christmas carols with individual short histories of their composition and contemplations of the message of the carols themselves.
There are many familiar carols, O Holy Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Away In A Manger…etc. And some new ones. The summarized biographies of the authors and composers were quite interesting too. Sometimes the information was quite tantalizing, leaving you wanting to know more about the author, and for others it was more disappointing to hear the background, though in some cases discouraging. "O Holy Night" has been a favorite carol of my family, but the background behind it was anything but inspiring ,"Written by a man with little belief in the Christmas story, put to music by a nonbelieving Jewish musician, and translated by a liberal theologian….". We of course, still really like the song, I suppose it just goes to show that you can have head knowledge of Christianity without being a Christian, without being a "new Creation".
There were also a few songs that were new to me that I found quite inspiring, like "The Hands that First Held Mary's Child", I found this part of the third stanza of that song was quite stirring: "This child shall be Emmanuel, not God upon the throne, but God with us, Emmanuel, as close as blood and bone…". Interesting way to describe God's unique choice of how He would demonstrate that He is 'with us'. And then in "Joy Has Dawned Upon the World", Son of Adam, Son of heav'n, given as a ransom; reconciling God and man, Christ our mighty Champion! What a Savior! What a Friend! What a glorious myst'ry."
I really appreciated the concern with the biblical accuracy of songs. For instance, They make sure to point out that the author of The First Noel probably wasn't very well instructed in the Bible, as they had the Shepherds see the star, which the Bible does not indicate.
Most of all, I really liked how they really wanted you to contemplate what you are singing, that you are not just singing for nostalgia but proclaiming profound truths/concepts. In the contemplation of one of Charles Wesley's carols they comment, "As is characteristic of the hymns of Charles Wesley, every phrase is packed with Theology and allusions to or quotations of scripture…(list of vs.)…Reading each one before you sing will give you a deeper appreciation of songs written from Scripture rather than simply from personal experience or emotions."
I really like this book, this is not merely a sentimentally pleasing look at Christmas Carols, it directs ones thought truly to the implications of what these songs are addressing, which brings more than sentimentality, it brings awe and chills to think of God's amazing work of salvation.
I'll end with an excerpt from the book's contemplation of "What Child is This?": "Notice that the first two stanzas ask two profound questions, 'Who?' and 'Why?' The first, 'What child is this?' is rhetorical, a way of asking 'who is this one?' Although you know the answer, you sing as an expression of wonder and awe, a way of saying, 'this appears to good to be true!' Is this baby on Mary's lap really Christ the King? The 'why?' follows: Why would God in Jesus come to earth 'in such mean estate' (a lowly place)? And why would 'nails, spear…pierce him through'? A false view of Christmas expects Christmas songs to be only lullabies of happy thoughts. Think of secular Christmas songs. While a few are melancholy, can you think of any that speak of death or tragedies. We understand the nativity is only the beginning of the story. We cannot stop at the stable. David Mathis writes: 'The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best, and even horrifying if we sever the link between Bethlehem and Golgotha…'Nails, spear shall pierce him through' doesn't ruin Christmas. It gives the season its power."
Many Thanks to the folks at MP Newsroom for sending me a free review copy of this book! My review did not have to be favorable.