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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Four-part Harmony

Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, debuted on Broadway in 1947.

A journalist who was able to find his way backstage asked one of the performers how he would summarize its plot.

The actor replied, “It’s about a guy who comes to take a woman to an insane asylum.”

To put it mildly, that barely scratches the surface of the whole story. The fellow who talked to the journalist just happened to be the bit player who came on stage during the final scene to help escort Blanche DuBois, the leading lady, to a local hospital. He was confusing his brief and inconsequential role with the Big Story.

Something like that happens every Christmas. People are strongly tempted to confuse their own stories – their hopes, their needs, and their worries of the day – with the Real Story of God coming into the world as a human being twenty centuries ago.

How can we better see the big picture?

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has suggested that one of the ways to catch a glimpse of God’s work in the world is by approaching it as four-part harmony.

If you’ve ever been part of a choir, you know the letters SATB: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. All four parts contribute to the dynamic fullness of a musical composition.

Let’s illustrate this by looking at one of the most theologically rich of all the Christmas carols, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Wright proposes that when we open the pages of Scripture, the soprano part – which is usually the melody line or the main tune – is the story of Jesus. Everything, in the end, comes back to the meaning of Jesus’ life. If he really was God’s Messiah – specially called to bring about the healing of this broken world – why would he make his “grand entrance” into the backwater province of Galilee? And why would he choose to be tortured to death and then say he was doing it for you and me? We need to get the melody right.

Most of us can sing the melody of Hark the Herald without glancing at a sheet of music. We know that tune by heart. Likewise, we need to know the story of Jesus by heart.

Next comes the bass line. This is what Christians call the Old Testament. The bass line is how composers ground something musically. It’s how we keep a song solid and firm.

If you play just the bass line of Hark the Herald, however, you’ll notice that it doesn’t sound much like the familiar carol. In the same way, the Old Testament is merely the musical foundation for the melody that would begin one day at Bethlehem. On its pages we read, among other things, instructions for assembling a special tent or tabernacle for God, a sensual love poem, an ode to a hippopotamus, and interesting instructions like, “Don’t boil a goat in its mother’s milk.”

The bass line is incomplete by itself. But join it to the Bible’s main tune of the story of Jesus, and you’ve really got something.

Next comes the tenor line. Wright suggests that we let that stand for the experiences of all the men and women who have gone before us – the saints and sinners in the Bible and in church history who have wrestled with the meaning of both Old and New Testaments. We very much need to hear the tenor part.

If you turn to any chapter in church history, you’ll find courage and amazing faith. You’ll also encounter tragic shortsightedness and brazen selfishness. You can be certain that if we were to drop in unannounced at each other’s churches, we would find the same two things.

To experience God’s Story in its fullness, we will always need the tenor line to learn from those who have gone before us.

Finally, there’s the alto line – a line so humble that it’s almost shy. In Hark the Herald it meanders over just a handful of notes. But the alto line has to be heard in order to fill out the chords of this magnificent carol.

Wright suggests that the alto line represents your part of what God is up to. He writes, “The harmony isn’t complete without it… This is your own personal story, your private bit” of God’s history-changing song.

Now if you were to stand up and sing the alto line all by itself, most people would say, “What in the world was that?” The notes that we sing as part of God’s ongoing song were never intended to be a solo. They only make sense within the larger story of the Bible and the experience of other followers of Jesus.

Perhaps we can keep that in mind as we listen for the rich harmonies of carols like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Consider this inspiring version by the singers of the group known as Celtic Woman. Notice how the soloists begin with the familiar melody and then, along with the choir, begin to add in the other parts.

By way of background, this 1739 song emerged from the ministries of John and Charles Wesley, the brothers who laid the spiritual foundations of the Methodist church. John was the theologian and preacher. Charles was the musician and songwriter – a man credited with more than 6,000 original compositions.

The tune was crafted by Felix Mendelssohn, one of history's preeminent classical composers.

Wesley’s text springs from the second chapter of Luke, where shepherds tending sheep near Bethlehem are confronted by a “heavenly host.” A heavenly host is not the nice person who will greet you at your next Christmas party, but rather an angelic army equipped for spiritual combat. It’s no surprise that the shepherds are shaking in their sandals. But this host of angels brings the good news of the Messiah’s birth. Here are the familiar lyrics:

Hark! The herald angels sing "Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled"

Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim: "Christ is born in Bethlehem"

Hark! The herald angels sing "Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ by highest heav'n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin's womb

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with men to dwell: Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing "Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings ris'n with healing in His wings

Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing "Glory to the newborn King!"

What’s the ultimate surprise of Christmas? Jesus is the central character of God’s redemptive story. His life is the melody. He is the star of the show.

Yet he arrives on the stage looking very much like a bit player, as if he’s singing just the alto part – a helpless infant born to an ordinary girl in an obscure village.

And how does that impact the meaning of Christmas?

We can now know that our own stories, brief and humble as they are, have eternal significance because they’re part of his Story.


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