Of all the carols I’ve shared over the past few weeks, none have excited me as much as this one. This is a carol that I keep close, one of my secret favorites.
I first heard “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her” (or “From Heaven Above To Earth I Come”) decades and decades and even more decades ago while watching a Christmas special on PBS. Leontyne Price, the opera singer, took the stage — and the most majestic, most moving sound came forth. Ever since, I’ve included it on homemade Christmas mix tapes and CDs and now on an iPod playlist. It’s the carol I play late at night while looking at the Christmas tree or while driving.
The history of the carol begins long before the PBS special and Leontyne Price. The carol was written by Martin Luther — yes, the Martin Luther of Protestant Reformation fame — somewhere between 1534 and 1539 as a hymn to entertain his children during his family’s Christmas Eve gathering.
Some time during the evening, a man dressed as an angel arrived to sing the first five verses, an address to the shepherds. The children, in turn, would sing the next nine verses as the shepherds’ response, a welcoming of the birth of Jesus. The last verse was sung by the angel and the children together.
Enter Johann Sebastian Bach, who happened to have been born in the same German city where Luther translated the Bible so it could be accessible by all. The composer wrote music for the hymn — and this is the version heard here.
1. “From heaven 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:
2. “To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
This little child, of lowly birth
Shall be the joy of all the earth.
3. “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.
4. “He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.
5. “These are the tokens ye shall mark:
The swaddling-clothes and manger dark;
There ye shall find the Infant laid
By whom the heavens and earth were made.”
6. Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Go with the shepherds and draw near
To see the precious gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.
7. Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
What is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child, so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.
8. Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?
9. 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!
10. Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
It yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
11. For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou, King, so rich and great,
As ’twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.
12. And thus, dear Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To make this truth quite plain to me,
That all the world’s wealth, honor, might,
Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.
13. Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
14. 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:
15. 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.
For those of you who would like a more pared down version, please enjoy this performance by Cantus Thuringia & Capella.