Advent Stories: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

William Hayman Cummings

Essex, England, 1855

William Cummings fifty years after this narrative.

Good day. My name is William Cummings. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?

No? Well, I’m not altogether surprised. At twenty-five years of age, I haven’t yet made my mark on the musical world. It’s rather a shame. All those classical pianists who began composing when they were still toddling in the nursery created an absurd standard for the rest of us. By the time you’re old enough to have ambitions of being a prodigy, you’re too old to actually be one.

But perhaps you know the men whose work I have here altered and combined for our upcoming Christmas service.

First, Charles Wesley, the Methodist preacher inscribed in every beloved hymnal, wrote the carol. Second, George Whitefield, he of the Great Awakening, adapted it, changing some of the words. (Losing one of my personal favorites, “welkin,” an underappreciated bit of frippery.)

And I? I gave it a new tune, which I daresay it needed, no offense meant to either aforementioned man. As I read the verse and hummed the original melody line printed above it in all its plodding dreariness, I thought of Felix Mendelssohn, the renowned composer.

When I was a youth, I was able to meet Mendelssohn in person, as a tenor in the London premier of his opera, Elijah. One has perhaps not fully lived until he has shouted a call for Baal to bring down fire in guttural German. And to a hall packed with reserved Englishmen in evening dress, no less.

Mendelssohn, like Bach and Handel before him, desired to use his tremendous gift to honor his creator. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory.

None of the pieces from Elijah sprang to my mind, however, when reading Wesley’s poem. No, the melody I heard in my head was from his Gutenberg Cantata.

Well, properly, it is known as Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst.

Ah, German, language of untold wonders. You can see why most prefer “Gutenberg Cantata.”

That name comes from the piece’s commission: it was created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the printing press. The movement I selected was a favorite of Mendelssohn’s, according to the journal of music I read not three weeks prior, and he’d always hoped to use it for another purpose. “It will never do with sacred words, though,” said he, reckoning that the festive air of timpani and trumpet would be out of place inside a hushed sanctuary.

And yet I say, what better way to celebrate the nativity of our Lord than with such joy as this melody brings? And how fitting that a tribute to the invention that made possible the printing of Luther’s pamphlets and Tyndale’s Bibles and yes, Charles Wesley’s hymnals, will now be overlaid with a declaration of the greatest news of all time? “God and sinners reconciled.”

Yes. The Gutenberg Cantata it is. I’ve arranged it and will seek its publication, humble church organist that I am. Perhaps the other names, more impressive than mine, will see that this carol survives outside of my drafting board: Wesley, Whitefield, Mendelssohn, Gutenberg.

It makes one think: what if Christ had been born today, so long after the invention of Gutenberg’s press? Ha! Imagine it.

The shepherds might have printed leaflets with their testimony to be distributed far and wide. No need for a star to guide the Magi; a telegraph message would have traveled miles across the wire to bear the news. And they would likely have heard warning of Herod’s nefarious deeds in the headlines of every daily newspaper, perhaps even satirized in a political cartoon. The Bethlehem innkeeper might have written a bestselling penny dreadful: “Escape from the Slaughter—or How a Stable-born Boy Fled Murder in the Streets to Find His Later Destiny.”

We’d have their words, not just the ones preserved in Scripture, and photographs too, perhaps, if Christ had been born here in London in 1855.

He could have, I suppose. God might have sent him at any time, in any era, to live and love and die among us. And yet…he chose the year that he did. He chose humble Bethlehem. And he chose shepherds and kings and an innkeeper whose names we will never know, this side of heaven.

Come to think of it, not even the vast host of angels desired to be known or noticed for their own sake. No. They only proclaimed the arrival of Jesus, our Emmanuel.

And so shall I, joining in bearing the news with the angelic host, to whatever small corner of the world my voice can reach. It is not so insignificant a thing as I had thought.

“Glory to the newborn King!”

And Soli Deo Gloria.

(This is the latest in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true origins of beloved Christmas carols. To learn more about William, go here. To read past narratives, go here.)

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