The Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale

. . . bringing harmony to the community

Let's face it—most of us use language carelessly. I'm not talking here about coarse language or inappropriate words (though we could discuss that too!). What I have in mind is the fact that we increasingly seem to favor simple words—words we can grasp quickly and easily—over more colorful words that might necessitate our slowing down and pondering their meaning. I think some of this can be attributed to the rise of social media. When a Tweet only allows you 132 characters, you just aren't going to waste them on a word like "dissimulation." Fair enough. But I wonder what we've lost in ruling those more difficult words out of school.

This morning I've been looking at the amazing 15th century poetry which composer Stephen Paulus set as his Wonder Tidings. It is a poem of the Incarnation:

What tidings bringest thou, messenger,
Of Christ's birth this jolly day?

A babe is born of high nature
The Prince of Peace, that ever shall be
Of heaven and earth he hath the cure
His lordship is eternity
Such wonder tidings ye may hear,
That man is made God's peer
Whom sin had made but fiend's prey.

A wonder thing is now befall;
That King that formed the star and sun
Heaven and earth and angels all
Now in mankind is new begun:
Such wonder tidings ye may hear,
An infant now of but one year,
That hath been ever and shall be ay.

That seemeth strange to us to see,
This bird that hath this babe yborn
And Lord concieved of high degree
A maiden is and was beforn;
Such wonder tidings ye may hear,
That maiden and mother is one in fere,
And she a lady of great array.

Thou loveliest gan greet her child,
Hail, son! Hail, brother! Hail, father dear!
Hail, daughter! Hail, sister! Hail, mother mild!
This hailing was on quaint manner:
Such wonder tidings ye may hear
That hailing was of so good cheer
That man's pain is turned to play.

In pondering some of the words in this poem, one could ask: "So why not just say it straight? That on Christmas we celebrate the birth of God's Son? Period. Why use such flowery language?" Ah, but there's the catch! An event this awesome (awesome in its original sense, not the 21st century version) requires that I stretch language almost to the breaking point if I'm to capture the wonder of the event. So the poet says:

A wonder thing is now befall;
That King that formed the star and sun
Heaven and earth and angels all
Now in mankind is new begun.

That, in a quatrain, is the Incarnation! The God who made everything has now descended all the way into our humanity and been born in Bethlehem. And the poetry not only describes the event, but clothes it in such wonderful language that it virtually takes our breath away!

What a gift language is, especially when it is put into the service of expressing such lofty truth in such beautiful poetry! And then there is the music—in this case, the setting of composer Stephen Paulus. I hope you'll make plans to hear the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale sing this and many other pieces at Wintersong, our 2013 Christmas concerts (see this website for details).

That hailing was of such good cheer
That man's pain is turned to play.

Greg Wheatley
Music Director, Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale