A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING
Have you ever noticed that “firsts” seem to have special interest for us? We remember them as being particularly notable. For example,
• First humans: Adam and Eve, created on the sixth day of Creation.
• First President of the United States of America elected after adoption of the Constitution: George Washington, elected February 4th, 1789.
• First production gasoline-powered automobile: The Benz Patent-Motorwagon, patented by Karl Benz in 1886. It had three wheels, and was powered by a one-cylinder motor producing 2/3 horsepower.
• First powered flight: December 17th, 1903, Orville Wright, approximately 120 feet (later that day he flew 852 feet).
• First man to walk on the moon: Neal Armstrong, July 21st, 1969. Little-known fact: he carried a small piece of wood from the Wright Brothers’ airplane.
Hymn 80, “All Praise to Thee, Eternal God,” also holds a spot as a notable first. It was the first Christmas hymn of the Reformation. W. Gustave Polack, in The Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal, says about this hymn, “This broadsheet very likely was distributed [in Wittenberg] for Christmas of 1523. The hymn was then also included in Eyn Enchiridion, Erfurt, 1524. We believe we are justified in saying that this hymn is the first Christmas hymn of the Reformation and thus the first of the many Christmas hymns and carols of Protestantism that have enriched our treasury of Christian song during the past four hundred years.” Actually, the hymn itself goes all the way back to the 11th century Latin sequence for Christmas, and the first stanza was even written in German as early as 1370. At the time of the Reformation, Luther added six more stanzas of his own.
Although this hymn is notable as the “First Christmas Hymn of the Reformation,” it is noteworthy for much more. Typical of the traditional Lutheran Chorale, it has great depth; it is not mere superficial sentimentality. When we sing hymns in church, we’re sometimes so focused on “getting the music right”—especially with the challenging melodies—that we fail to notice how rich in Biblical thought the stanzas are. Notice the depth of this hymn. It uses the literary device of contraposition (placing two contrasting things over against one another) to express profound theological truth.
The Biblical doctrine of the incarnation is noted in the first stanza, placing the eternal nature of God in contraposition to His astonishing incarnation as a true man: “eternal God . . . clothed in garb of flesh and blood.”
The shocking contrast of the Creator of the universe being placed in a lowly animal feed trough as a newborn baby is also expressed in the same verse: “Dost take a manger for Thy throne,/ While worlds on worlds are thine alone.”
The omnipresent God is nestled in the arms of a young maiden: “Once did the skies before Thee bow;/ a virgin’s arms contain Thee now.” (Verse 2)
God lowers Himself to raise us up: “Forlorn and lowly is Thy birth/ That we may rise to heav’n from earth.” (Verse 3)
Christ came to the sin-darkened world to bring man out of that darkness and into the light (John 8:12), “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”): “Thou comest in the darksome night/ to make us children of the light.” (Verse 4)
“We love Him because He first loved us.” (I John 4:19): “All this for us Thy love hath done;/ By this to Thee our love is won.” (Verse 5)
We will never be able to take a ride with Mr. Benz in his 1886 Patent-Motorwagon, fly with the Wright brothers on their 1903 airplane, or walk on the moon with Neal Armstrong; but we rejoice that we can join in a 495-year-long procession of Reformation Christians in celebrating the First Christmas with the “First Christmas Hymn of the Reformation.” All praise to Thee, eternal God.
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.