Updated: Dec 17, 2020
OT Lectionary hymn Series B for Advent III Popular Swedish carol for doubters
Isaiah 61: 1-4; 7-11
Text: Gracia Grindal (1943-). Tune: Iteke Prins
1. The arctic air this winter evening
Has frozen all that grows;
There’s snow in all the summer gardens
And not a single rose.
Beneath our feet a grain of sunlight
Lies buried in the ground,
Invisible as choirs of angels
Rejoicing all around.
2. See high above the tree of heaven
Is blossoming with light.
Its starry crown is bright and shining
Against the sable night.
For here inside the frozen darkness
A king will soon be born
To wear the diadem of heaven
Beneath a crown of thorns.
3. The stars can see his light is shining—
And greet their newborn king.
With anthems far beyond our hearing,
The planets wheel and sing.
They know a seed of light will blossom
As music fills the skies,
A rose that blooms in darkest winter,
The rose of paradise.
Writers do not produce their works out of their imaginations with no influence from others. T. S. Eliot in Tradition and Individual Talent argued that most of us have one book in us—usually about ourselves—but if one truly is a writer, one must drink deeply of the tradition and all that is there in order to grow and write new works that are unique.
Hymn writers of course start with Scripture. My hymn text here is very much influenced by Isaiah 61:11 and the image of the earth as a garden that sprouts what is sown in the same way God raises up righteousness and praise before the nations. The images of gardens and blossoms, especially roses, is a familiar one in Christmas hymns.
One also has to read the works of others. This text is also inspired by a hymn from my friend Lisbeth Smedegaard Andersen in Copenhagen. Her January hymn for a series on the months has been a source. She uses an image of the seed waiting in the ground to sprout—and looking down at earth from space to see what is going on. Having her as a friend and colleague over the past twenty-six years has been a great richness for me. I feature her work now and then in this blog—I think she is one of Denmark’s greatest hymn writers and deserves attention for her hymns as well as her many books on Christian art from the beginning, especially what Danish painters are doing now. I wish they were in English.
The hymns that speak to and for a generation are fascinating to study. While there is a consistent set of biblical ideas and theological notions that need to be controlling the hymn, it is not simply paraphrasing those images and notions that will make for a hit. One has to find the right language. And any artist can tell you from experience that what strikes people and makes something popular is not something they can intend. If they could, they would.
There is some strange alchemy between the sources, the times, and the artist that brings something out into the light. I have heard some accuse popular Christian composers of simply writing hits so they could make money. Every artist would like to know that secret. Why a piece of theirs became a hit is a mystery to them. A good tune always helps, but dull theological texts will ruin it. If you look at the favorite hymns in these blogs, the text usually has a strong image, true to human experience, that makes the text memorable. How that happens is always a mystery.
One simply has to pray to be faithful and clear, using all of one’s talents for the sake of the Gospel.
The second song, something of a carol for doubters, has been popular throughout the Nordic countries. It speaks of the doubt of the singer who wants the story to be true and remembers well the wonders of Christmases past. It may be sentimental, but the Psalmist (Psalm 42) found hope in remembering the past moments of faith. Those memories can also make many depressed at Christmas, because their current state is so far from the joy of their memories. One thinks of the Thomas Hardy’s poem "The Oxen" in which he wishes against all odds to see the oxen kneel on Christmas Eve, as the old legend had it, so that he can believe Christmas is real. I pray that these seeds of hope planted in the darkness will blossom for all to see our Lord this Christmas.
Iteke Prins, whom I have written about two weeks ago, (see HYMN 247) wrote the tune above for my Treasury of Faith volume on the series B Lectionary hymns on the OT.
Py Marie Elisabet Ulricka Bäckman Wennborn (1948-) has been a force in Swedish rock and popular music since the 1970s. She continues to write songs that have a popular appeal, none more so than "Gabrielle’s Song" for the movie As it is in Heaven. She has become a writer of hymns in the later part of her life and some are included in the Swedish hymnal. The text "Koppången", named for a place the writer knew, was set to a tune by Per-Erik Moraeus (1950-), a Swedish composer, who originally had written the tune as a melody for a violin. Anne Sofie von Otter included it in her Home for Christmas Album in 1999. Since then it has gone on to be a part of Scandinavian Advent and Christmas celebrations, especially Lucia concerts. Its wistful hope speaks to the longing secular people have for the miracles of Christmas and the incarnation.
Anne Sofie von Otter/she sings it in English/and the translation is there https://youtu.be/eiJuWw7Wg50
Syssel/one can read the English translation if you click more at Preston Garrison’s translation https://youtu.be/AFvqniiUO4g
St. Jakobs youth choir https://youtu.be/d3xOHZtFVZc