Martin Luther’s Favorite Christmas Hymn?

This woodcut was printed on the page before the hymns “Dies est laetitiae” and “Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich” in the 1535 edition of Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert.

The final section of the 1535 Wittenberg edition of Martin Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Spiritual Songs, Improved Edition), and possibly also of its no-longer-extant 1529 predecessor, was prefaced, “Here follow several hymns composed by the ancients.” The next page read:

These songs of old on the following pages we have also compiled as a testament to several pious Christians who lived before our time in the great darkness of false doctrine, so that you can see how there have still been people at all times who have known Christ rightly and quite amazingly persevered in that knowledge by God’s grace.

The section opens with the Latin Christmas hymn “Dies est leticiae” (Dies est laetitiae) in four stanzas, immediately followed by a loose German translation of that hymn under the title “Der tag der ist so frewden reich” (Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich). The first two stanzas of the German hymn read as follows:

Der tag der ist so frewden reich
aller creature
Denn Gottes Son von himel reich
uber die nature
Von einer jungfraw ist geporn
Maria du bist aus erkorn
das du mutter werest
was geschach so wunderleich?
Gottes Son von himel reich
der ist mensch geporen.

Ein kindelein so löbelich
ist uns geporen heute
Von einer jungfraw seuberlich
zu trost uns armen leuten
Wer uns das kindlein nicht geporn
so wer wir all zumal verlorn
das heil ist unser alle
Ey du süsser Jhesu Christ
das du mensch geporen bist
behüt uns für der helle.

Even though the hymn includes two more stanzas, these first two are the most significant. Each might have appeared independently of the other, and each was often used as its own hymn at first. The second stanza, for instance, was sung by itself after Luther’s sermon on Christmas Eve in 1531.

In fact, one could easily surmise that the second stanza was Luther’s favorite Christmas hymn. He quoted it at least five times in his Christmas sermons. He was no doubt responsible for the paragraph above which cited this hymn, among others, as proof of the perpetuation of the correct knowledge of Christ even in the darkness of the papacy. In the just-mentioned 1531 Christmas Eve sermon, the first of a series on Isaiah 9:6, he quoted it and then commented:

But no one knows what’s being sung. You should be able to sing this song from the heart and not snore so much while you’re singing it, like the world does. It is taken right from the prophet Isaiah.

The following year, in his morning sermon on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, he commented on the hymn more extensively:

Now the angels point to him with their song [like the prophets did in their writings] as the one who does it all and in whom all that we need is found. Their song beats back all the devils who wish to lead people to salvation in a different way. If this newborn child is the Savior, then the Franciscan, Augustinian, and Carthusian orders are most certainly not.

And actually the whole world has cried out against Mary and the priests and monastic orders, and the priests and monks themselves have sung against her at their altars and cried for judgment on their own necks, and we did too. And still today the angel’s words, “A Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord,” are sung in all the churches in the beautiful song “For Us Today Is Born a Child [Ein Kindelein so löbelich].” For what do we sing? “Were he not born, we all had dwelled In fear and fire, from God expelled— Salvation’s ours forever!”

And what does that mean—“we all had dwelled”? Whoever composed this song was a spiritual man, and everyone, both young and old, sings his song. It is a song that glorifies and praises Christ and cries for judgment on all the monks and priests, since when it says “we all had dwelled,” it includes them too. Therefore throughout the world a public judgment of condemnation is sung by every mouth against those who lead people away from Christ, yet no one was able to realize this and no one still does. It is sung everywhere.

Therefore, as I have often urged you, ask God to provide faithful preachers, otherwise, unless he himself should rouse the people, we will keep on singing and reciting those words, but we will not understand them. They are supposed to be aroused in the sermon, from the Gospel, from the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the sacraments, and the canticles. Even the adversaries have all these things that we have—baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the angel’s song, and the child in the manger. But since they are lacking a man in the pulpit who will open the people’s eyes and make the words in the text clear, so that they know what it says, they consequently have these things in a manner of speaking, but they do not really have them.

Both stanzas date back to at least the early 15th century, and the tune likewise dates to the same century. The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) included W. Gustave Polack’s 1940 translation “Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” (#78). The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS, 1996) also includes it (#131) with a livelier version of the tune, stanza 1 being an altered version of Polack’s translation – “Now Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” – and stanza 2 an altered version of a translation by C. Døving (1867-1937). The Hymnary’s version did have some influence on my translation below.

This hymn deserves to be resurrected in any circles in which it is not currently popularized. The content is rich, and especially the Hymnary’s setting of the traditional tune is both very joyful (and thus a fitting reflection of the text) and eminently singable.

This Day! So Filled with High Delight
A new translation of Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich and Ein Kindelein so löbelich

1. This day! So filled with high delight
For ev’ry earthborn creature!
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly light
Beyond the world of nature,
Is born into the human race
Of Mary, God’s own choice of grace
To be the virgin mother.
What awesome, wondrous deed is this?
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly bliss,
Came down to be our brother!

2. For us today is born a child,
A perfect son so peerless,
Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,
To cheer mankind so cheerless.
Were he not born, we all had dwelled
In fear and fire, from God expelled—
Salvation’s ours forever!
To you, sweet Jesus, glory be
For sharing in humanity!
Let hell subdue us never!

Sources
Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary Handbook

The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book

Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Geschichte des Deutschen Kirchenliedes bis auf Luthers Zeit (Hannover: Carl Rümpler, 1854), pp. 196-197

Martin Luther, ed., Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg: Joseph Klug, 1535)

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 8-10

Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied von der ältesten Zeit bis zu Anfang des XVII. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp. 520-527

Weimarer Ausgabe 36:399-400; 52:50-51

Luther Christmas Sermons to Press!

The bad news: I have removed Martin Luther’s five sermons on Isaiah’s six names for Jesus from this blog.

The good news: I have removed them as a result of a contract with Northwestern Publishing House (NPH), who will, God willing, publish them in connection with the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. The plan at this point is to publish them as an Advent/Christmas devotional.

This 1531 Christmas sermon series by Luther is not only thoroughly scriptural and edifying, but is also of historical value. It provides a good glimpse into Luther the man – his sense of humor, his past experiences in the Roman Church, his experience with the German Peasants’ War, and his down-to-earth manner of communicating God’s word.

Please watch for this book from NPH in 2017, and thanks for your continued support of Red Brick Parsonage!