As the church reflects on this past year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a fitting way to sing the Christmas story is Martin Luther’s own “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” It’s always remarkable when a song that was written nearly five centuries ago is still used and loved. One of the reasons “From Heaven Above” has stood the test of time is because it proclaims profound truths about sin and grace, yet in simple and accessible ways. That’s probably why this song has been arranged by so many composers and has become the basis of countless children’s Christmas services.
For those who notice the little details like punctuation, you can see that the first several stanzas of the hymn are actually in quotation marks, since Luther is paraphrasing the message of the angels singing to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. Who’s coming from heaven above to earth? It’s the angels, singing these “tidings of great joy.”
Remember, angels are messengers, and the message they brought to earth that first Christmas is still proclaimed. Who is to receive this good news? As the angel says, “every home!” How is that news proclaimed? In the words of the angel, “I now will say and sing.” To say and sing the message of salvation is really what the church continues to do in both word and song. It’s not one or the other, it’s both saying and singing the same Gospel.
Luther goes on in the hymn to unpack what the church says and sings: Jesus becomes man to save sinners, exchanging our sin for His righteousness:
You came to share my misery
That You might share Your joy with me. (stanza 8)
Our closing worship at Arcadia always includes a confession that we are baptized into Christ. This beloved stanza of “From Heaven Above” also recognizes that baptismal reality.
Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
A quiet chamber set apart
For You to dwell within my heart. (stanza 13)
Christ dwells in us because of baptism: “I have been crucified with Christ, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” (Galatians 2:20). As you sing “From Heaven Above” this Christmas season, look around your church, no matter how simple or ornate, and be reminded of Jesus’ dwelling with you: The nativity scene, the baptismal font where He comes to you in word and water, the pulpit where your pastor is God’s messenger, the altar where Jesus is really present in flesh and blood. May Christ bless your saying and singing the Christmas message this year.
“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”
by Martin Luther, 1483-1546
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.
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Luke 2: 1-18
Author: Martin Luther, 1535
Tune: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her
Translated by: Catherine Winkworth, 1855, alt.
1st published in: “Geistliche Lieder” Leipzig, 1539