My love of organ music has close connections to the season of Christmas. One year when I was about eight years old, my grandmother gave me two cassette tapes that she had purchased from the bargain bin at our local Rite Aid. The cassettes were volumes one and two of “The Christmas Organ.” The tapes featured various Christmas carols, both sacred and secular, being played on a real pipe organ in London, England. This was intriguing to me because the organ in the church where I was raised was electronic. Even at a young age, I could clearly hear the difference in the quality, variety, and power of the sound. I vowed then and there that I was going to learn how to play one someday.
The cassettes, along with the later funeral service of Princess Diana, were my first introductions to the broader world of church music. The tunes that the organist on the tapes played for “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were not the same as the ones I knew. As I listened, I began to realize that music, especially the music set aside for use in worship, could be so much more than what I had known or experienced in our small country church. Who would have thought that a simple gift from my grandmother would be the thing to set me off on a vocational journey of curiosity, exploration, and discovery?
My favorite carol to listen to on the tapes was “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” which they listed as “Adeste Fidelis.” I had always liked that carol, but I really loved how the organist interpreted it on the recording! He made the words come to life, and the music actually did what the text was saying! Little did I know at the time that the organist was playing the beloved setting of the carol by Sir David Willcocks. Willcocks’s third stanza incorporates strains of “Angels We Have Heard on High” when talking about the angels, and the grand final stanza includes a chord that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up the first time I heard it. Years later, I played this same setting as the first selection on my own Christmas organ CD.
The reharmonized chord I mentioned in the last stanza of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” has become rather iconic among church musicians. Some would even say that it is not Christmas until they either hear or play it. The chord occurs on the word “Word” in the phrase, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” I believe that David Willcocks did this intentionally to make the singer or the listener pay attention to what was being conveyed in that moment. The chord is complex (a bmin7b5 for the music theory nerds among us), and aptly accompanies one of the most complex references in our theological canon. Christ as the “Word of God” is a common and poetic analogy, but what does that really mean?
Through the incarnation, Christ came to be the voice (Word) of God on earth. Through the incarnation, Christ came to fulfill the prophecies (Word) of God. And, through the incarnation, Christ challenged us to think about the teachings (Word) of God in a new and different way. Christ’s entire ministry on earth was constantly challenging us to “re-image” what we knew the “Word” to be. So, as we journey through this Advent season, let us open our hearts and minds to the new ways that God may be speaking to us. And when you sense or hear something that makes the hair on your neck stand up, pay attention and rejoice!
- Justin L. Addington
Click here to listen to "O Come, All Ye Faithful" from "The Christmas Organ" cassettes.