I think it’s about time for a bona fide Reformation Christmas hymn. ”Vom Himmel Hoch” was written by Martin Luther in 1539 and has been translated into English by Catherine Winkworth under the title “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” (The Trinity Hymnal lists Winkworth as the translator but then uses the later modification by Winfred Douglas titled “From Heaven High I Come to You”). As a general rule, if Catherine Winkworth liked it, it’s good. Additionally, Luther tunes are always solid, and this one is classic Luther. The final bar sounds very similar to the end of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and the whole thing is very easy to pick up. The tune was made more famous by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote five more ornate variations for the organ in his Christmas Oratario and Magnificat. Bach’s are fantastic listening, but the plainer earlier version is the one for congregational use.
But watch out friends, there are a whopping fifteen stanzas to this song! That’s far too stout for most Americans these days, and so they tend to shorten it to five or six (which is still more than most can handle). Of course, the jolliest among the faithful should demand to sing the entire song, but as that other Reformer John Calvin once said, “Good luck.” It will work best if you play it at a brisk tempo or even split it up.
In fact, the lyrics are designed as an address and a response. The first half explains “the good news,” what exactly is happening at that Bethlehem stable. Though the site looks mean and lowly, the Creator of all things is actually sleeping there. The second half welcomes the “noble guest” and goes on to invite this same guest to dwell in the heart. This dual habitation then causes the heart to burst into a doxology of gloria. Fittingly, it concludes by mentioning the New Year.
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.
To you, this night, is born a Child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This tender Child of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all your earth.
’Tis Christ our God, who far on high
Had heard your sad and bitter cry;
Himself will your Salvation be,
Himself from sin will make you free.
He brings those blessings long ago
Prepared by God for all below;
That in His heavenly kingdom blest
You may with us forever rest.
These are the tokens ye shall mark,
The swaddling clothes and manger dark;
There shall ye find the young Child laid,
By Whom the heavens and earth were made.
Now let us all, with gladsome cheer,
Follow the shepherds, and draw near
To see this wondrous Gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.
Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
What is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this Child, so young and fair?
The blessèd Christ Child lieth there!
Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through Whom e’en wicked men are blest!
Thou com’st to share our misery,
What can we render, Lord, to Thee!
Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How hast Thou made Thee weak and small,
To lie upon the coarse dry grass,
The food of humble ox and ass.
Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
She yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
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.
Thus hath it pleased Thee to make plain
The truth to us, poor fools and vain,
That this world’s honor, wealth and might
Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Here in my poor heart’s inmost shrine,
That I may evermore be Thine.
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.
Glory to God in highest Heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given,
While angels sing, with pious mirth,
A glad New Year to all the earth.