Hosanna in Excelsis Review

Book Review: 

Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! The herald angels sing,

And you can join in that singing.

Here to help you in that endeavor is Hosanna in Excelsis: Hymns and Devotions for the Christmas Season, by David and Barbara Leeman. The book is a twist on the Family Devotional. Forty-three hymns, one per day from November 25 through January 6. (The final date is Epiphany. November 25, however, is odd. The authors say it is the first possible day of Advent, but that isn’t right. The earliest possible date for the first Sunday of Advent is November 27. It doesn’t take getting out a calendar and counting backwards to discover this by the way—it’s even in Wikipedia!)

The idea of the book: you gather with your family every day of the Christmas season. You first read about the hymn for the day. There are biographies of the writer of the hymn, the writer of the music to which the hymn is set, and a few paragraphs of a daily devotional. You and your family then sing the hymn together. If that idea sounds wondrous to you, no need to read the rest of this discussion, just get the book.

But, if you are of a discriminating type, you also want to know how this book is any different than just getting a cheap used hymnal and singing with your family. If this book has any value, it would have to be in the write-ups about the hymns and not the hymns themselves. There we have a mixed bag.

First, the really good news. By pausing each day to actually think about the hymn, these old familiar carols can suddenly reveal fresh surprises. We have all had that experience at some point in our lives. For me, the biggest puzzle when growing up was where on the map one would find that place called “Orient Are.” You can imagine the waves of relief when I realized it was just an oddly organized sentence structure; “We are three kings from the Orient” just doesn’t scan and loses the nice little rhyme with “traverse afar.” Poetic License.

Reading through this book, I had a similar Epiphany. Consider the incredibly well-known line “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” It turns out there is a comma in that line. Where is the comma? My guess, and I suspect that you Dear Reader assume the same, was that the comma is after “Ye.” “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman” is a nice message at Christmas. Merry Gentleman all being wished the gift of Rest at this fine, but busy, time of year. Ah, but that is not where the comma is. The line is actually “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It is not addressed to merry people, but to all people, and the wish is that God will bring the joy to all.

Let that sink in for a minute and then think about how Dickens employs the song in A Christmas Carol. An urchin sings the song through the keyhole of Scrooge’s establishment. If the comma went after “ye,” then the episode is just there to give more evidence of how much Scrooge—who is most certainly not a “merry gentleman”—hates Christmas. But, put the comma in the right place, and the episode is suddenly an invocation; the street urchin’s song proclaims the message of the entire story. Indeed, a nice paraphrase of the line from the hymn would be, “God bless us, every one.”

Who would have thought so much hinged on the placement of a comma? The biographies had a similar fascinating revelation. “Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the Newborn King.” It would be hard to get a more familiar first line. Charles Wesley wrote the poem, which was set to music written by Mendelssohn. Except: Charles Wesley did not write the first line.

"The first line of Charles Wesley’s poem reads, “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of kings.” Welkin is an Old English word that means, “the vault of the sky” or “heaven.” It exclaims that all of heaven rings glory! A friend of the Wesleys, the famous reformed evangelist George Whitefield, took the liberty of publishing Wesley’s carol, changing the words to proclaim who sings glory. “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Wesley was furious with his friend!"

One final insight from reading though this book. From which hymn are the flowing lines taken? “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.” You know the hymn. It is, indeed a very common Christmas song. “What Child is This?” has embedded in it both the sweet image of a baby sleeping on Mary’s lap and the horror of nails being driven through that same baby’s hands and feet. These Christmas carols are rather rich in content.

This book provides many opportunities for reflections like these. But, alas, along with the good, you have to take the bad. The devotionals are a mix of interesting insights and cringe-inducing literalism. An example of the latter. The carol “Ding, Dong! Merrily on High” opens with this verse: “Ding, dong! Merrily on high, in heav’n the bells are ringing. Ding, dong! Verily the sky is riv’n with angels singing!” The Leemans’ commentary begins with this paragraph:

"Is it scriptural that in heaven there were bells ringing? Not precisely. But Jesus tells us “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents….joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10). Certainly, there was joy in heaven when Jesus was born, as the angels knew what it would mean to all the world. Historically, bells are associated with religious rituals, and steeple bells would call communities together for church services. Bells are also used to commemorate important events. At the declaration of peace at the end of WWII, bells rang for hours and hours throughout England."

The only possible response to that is “Yougottabekiddingme.” How is it possible that anyone would think the most important thing to discuss regrading this carol is that while there is no scriptural warrant for bells ringing in heaven when Jesus was born, that is OK because, gosh, people use bells for lots of important events, like when World War II ended? I dearly wish observations of this sort were unique to this hymn; sadly, they are not.

We don’t want to focus too much on the good and bad of the Leemans’ commentary, however. Of much greater importance is thinking about the carols themselves. And, there, you have a marvelous opportunity. Put on some carols and sing along. Hosanna in Excelsis, indeed!

(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)