David & Barbara Leeman: Hosanna in Excelsis (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell10 Minutes

John Farrell: How did you select the forty-three songs that made it into Hosanna in Excelsis?

David Leeman: First of all, prayerfully. I felt a great responsibility. At the time we put it together, we had no idea if a publisher would actually pick it up. We praise God that a great publisher like Moody has done so, but I still felt a huge responsibility to carefully pick.

There are hundreds of Christmas carols, but not that many that are still sung broadly across the Christian spectrum. And frankly, a lot of the songs that we sing come not only from our Protestant tradition, but from the Catholic. It’s amazing how hymnody is really the most cross-denominational expression that we have. So, we wanted to incorporate some so that the Methodists and Lutherans and Bible Church and Baptists, you name it, would recognize songs that are part of their tradition, at least in part. But so many of them, like “Silent Night”, I bet every denomination sings that. So, we just carefully and prayerfully culled them down and set that goal of forty-three.

Barbara Leeman: Well, you also picked ones, for instance, for the period of Advent that we would call “Advent hymns” that would fit in that category. For the after-Christmas hymns, we don’t usually sing Christmas carols after Christmas. I never did growing up. So, churches that celebrate the twelve days after Christmas to January 6th, or Epiphany, there are carols that actually refer to and have texts that fit that period of time. And you found those. So, part of it was just finding carols that fit within the particular portion of the holiday season.

David: As Barb said, a lot of church traditions don’t include these terms, but they understand that following Christmas or following the birth that we call the birthday of Jesus. The story of the wise men is what we call Epiphany because it’s the enlightening idea – the concept, first of all, that Jesus came not only to the Jews but to the Gentiles who these wise men were and came and worshiped him.

We believe there are songs other than the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is not in this book, but we think there are some great songs. One of the surprising ones, for instance, on Christmas Day, we’re singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” because it’s in the present tense — “born this happy morning.” If you’re singing that ten days before Christmas, it’s a little off-kilter. Then we sing “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” after Christmas, because that’s what we should be doing. We want to tell others about the Christmas story. And then, of course, the “We Three Kings” and others about the wise men.

Barbara: Another familiar carol that we put in the Epiphany section is “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come.” I think it’s the first carol after Christmas. I sing it all season long and love it. The “is calm” seems present tense. It’s really from Psalm 98. Christmas really isn’t mentioned in that carol. There are no angels or shepherds. There are no wise men. It’s based on Psalm 98 that ends with “when he shall come to judge the world with equity.” It’s a sense of the future coming. It’s talking about present coming, but also the future. So often we think of “Joy to the World” as an Epiphany carol even though it’s also a Christmas Carol.

David: In fact, I know churches that have sung it at other times of the year when perhaps the message is about the eschatology of Christ’s return in His second coming.

JF: I guess I’ve never really thought much about the timeliness or chronology of when carols or hymns are sung during the Christmas season. But it makes sense to sing a song like “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on Christmas day because it’s talking about the day of Jesus’ birth. It wouldn’t make much sense to sing it before then, but I would still sing it throughout the season because I love the song.

Is there a favorite song you included in Hosanna in Excelsis that’s either been your favorite for years or one that stands out more than others after learning about its history?

David: That’s like asking us which of our four children is our favorite.

Barbara: All four of my children think they’re my favorite.

JF: And that’s the way it should be.

Barbara: And they are.

I love hymns for different reasons. I love the ones that I have sung all my life because they’re so dear to me like “O Come, All You Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” and “Away in a Manger.” The first lullaby I sang to my firstborn son was “Away in a Manger.” It was the only lullaby I knew at the time. “Silent Night” was probably the first Christmas carol I ever learned when I was five years old.

But then through the years, I have those that are my favorite because they’re new to me. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is such an incredibly beautiful exquisite carol. I have times that that’s what I want.

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which is probably the oldest carol in the book, is from the 5th century. Then the Plainsong that is to the chant is from the 12th century. It’s very old, but it’s based on John 1: “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh … We have seen His glory.” “Of the father’s love begotten ere the world’s began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.” It’s just hauntingly beautiful. It talks of that mystery. The true name is Divinum Mysterium — divine mystery. That has become one of my favorites.

The second verse is “O that birth forever blessed, when the Virgin, full of grace, by the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race; and the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, first revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore.”

When I think about all the years of waiting, all the promises, all the history of the Old Testament, and in that moment, that face was actually there. He was there. He was visible. That touches me every time I sing that … that there was a moment in time that Mary and Joseph looked on that face for the first time. The face of God and the face of promise of thousands of years of waiting. All the times I thought of the manger and I thought of the nativity when I sang that or was teaching it to the children for the first time, it just grabbed me in a whole new way I had never thought about before. I think that’s why I love the poetry in these carols, because it takes us places where our mind hasn’t taken us because it’s written by people who are better poets or better with words than I could ever be. It gives me words to praise God with that I could never come up with on my own.

My praise is richer and my joy is richer because I’m singing beyond my own capability of language when I sing these.

Order a copy of Hosanna in Excelsis: Hymns and Devotions for the Christmas Season by David and Barbara Leeman