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A Christmas Hymn Is Born

Adapted from the November/December 1949 Immanuel Lutheran, by Pastor G. W. Fischer; submitted to the Lutheran Spokesman by current Immanuel pastor, Wayne Eichstadt

It is the day before Christmas, 1534. 

The scene is the ancient Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg.
The monastery had only recently become a Lutheran parsonage.

In the kitchen of the large, massive house a faithful housewife was busy, and on the other end of the house, our “Herr Doktor” Luther was buried deep in thoughts for tomorrow’s sermon on the Christmas gospel. Adjoining his study is the large living room, with the ceiling-high stove made of shining tile. Close by stands a cradle which just then is being shaken by the wailing of a small child who is neither interested in a Christmas dinner nor in tomorrow’s sermon. He wants someone to rock the cradle and he wants this now!

“Herr Doktor, don’t you hear the little one crying? Please, I am so very busy now.” Kate Luther had a way which never found her busy husband unwilling to give a helping hand! Still deep in thoughts upon the great mystery of the incarnation of our Lord, he now sits by the cradle of the little child, gently rocking his little one to sleep.

Suddenly he becomes aware of the little child lying in a cradle, just like the Lord Jesus lying in a manger!

His heart swells with emotion; he begins to hum a popular folk song: “For foreign lands I now come here.” The angel also came from far with the sweetest story ever told. Hear the angel, little one?

“From heav’n above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:”

And so Luther sings to his little child, now fallen asleep, that “sweetest ancient cradle song”! Tiptoeing back to his study, he sits at his desk and writes line upon line, stanza upon stanza, until there are fifteen in all. He sings the words of the angel proclaiming the Savior’s birth in David’s town, of the virgin mother, of the swaddling clothes and manger dark.

“This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
Who in all need shall aid afford,
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.”

With the shepherds he goes “to see the precious gift of God, who hath His own dear Son bestowed.” He marvels at the great mystery that surrounds this little child:

Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed,
Where humble cattle lately fed!

That child is the Lord, a King so rich and great—yet “all the world’s wealth, honor, might, Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.” He came not to live in palaces of kings but in the hearts of humble folks:

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.

The singing of this hymn became a Christmas Eve tradition in Luther’s home and in many others since. Luther would have a student from the university dress like an angel and then sing the angel’s message given in the first seven stanzas. All would join in the remaining eight. And when they came to the last two stanzas, all would march around the Christmas tree while singing:

My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song:

Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.

From this beautiful hymn (TLH #85 – Ed.) we can sense the true spirit of Christmas in Luther’s home. He was a very busy man, a maligned man, a troubled man—yet nothing could rob him of the time, the joy, the peace in his home to sing glory to God, who to us His Son hath given. Truly a great man, a believer at heart!

It was probably about this hymn that he once said: “The tenor sings the simple melody, and then four or more voices accompany and literally surround this melody like joyous children singing and springing with joy, embracing as it were the simple melody as if it were Christ their Lord.”

Only in those churches and in those homes the true Christmas spirit will be found where “lips no more can silence keep,” because the “heart with very joy doth leap”! The joy is there because the Christmas gospel is believed. May this joy be in every home of our congregation! It is my prayer for you.

Pastor Gervasius W. Fischer became associate pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Mankato, Minn. in 1949. After suffering a stroke in 1955, he was encouraged by his doctor to winter in a warmer climate. In December, 1956 he began holding worship services in a rented hall in downtown Winter Haven, Fla. In 1957 the group organized as Immanuel Lutheran Church and was financially supported by Immanuel-Mankato. Pastor Fischer died of a heart attack in 1958. The Winter Haven congregation continues to exist as a member of the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC).