Good Christian Men, Rejoice

Good Christian men, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
give ye heed to what we say:
Jesus Christ was born today.
Ox and ass before him bow,
and he is in the manger now.
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

Introduction

I published this hymn as a later installment although in terms of age, it rivals O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Come, All Ye Faithful. However, I think it fits nicely here, after discussing a more “modern” Christian hymn of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice stirs emotions in my soul reminiscent of patriotism and martial fervor. It almost seems to me to be a battle hymn for the Kingdom of God, a declaration that Christ came and fulfilled the promises to bring salvation and redemption to the world, and a firm proclamation that Christ has already won the war and will come again in glory to restore creation to a rightful relationship with its Creator.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels like that? Enough said, though, let’s get onto the discussion of this beautiful Christmas carol.

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History of the Hymn

Good Christian Men, Rejoice is one of the older Christmas carols, going all the way back to antiquity. The song stems from the Medieval folk carol tradition, texts that may be “either sacred or secular, and usually are of unknown authorship. The sacred texts in the English and continental traditions are for the most part about the nativity of Jesus and other major feasts and days in the Christian calendar… Most authorities link dance to the folk carol” (Carlton Young, UM Hymnal editor).

While the tune was found in a Leipzig University Library manuscript dating to about 1400 A.D., many believe that they carol is older than that. In fact, the song remains with us today because of two priests, who were exiles in their respective times, being too radical for their contemporaries.

Heinrich Seuse (Henry Suso)

The story begins in 1295, with the birth of Heinrich Seuse (or Suso), a German nobleman who later decided to become a Dominican friar and mystic during the 14th century. Suso was the most popular vernacular writer of his time. An important author in both Latin and Middle High German, he also played an important part in defending Meister Eckhart’s legacy after Eckhart was posthumously condemned for heresy in 1329. He died in Ulm on January 25, 1366 and was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1831.

As a religious mystic and populist, Suso wanted to help the common man understand more about God, at a time when the church believed that the average person had no interest in, nor could truly understand, theology. After writing a couple of works influenced by the teachings of Eckhart, Suso was exiled to Switzerland.

The story goes that one night, Suso found himself immersed in a dream so real that he became part of it, as if in a vision. In the dream, the friar beheld countless angels singing and dancing. He listened in awe as they sang, eventually joining with them in their ecstatic dance. When Suso awoke, he remembered both the dream and the music in vivid detail. The vision invited Suso, or so he believed, to dispense with sorrow and rejoice in Christ’s death. Feeling led by divine guidance, Suso picked up a quill and ink and put Good Christian Men, Rejoice to paper. Until his death, he continued to reach the common man with the message of the carol.

John Mason Neale

The second installment of the tale begins with John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who was considered to be a crypto-Catholic. Many of his actions upset his colleagues who caught a whiff of popery in the Roman practices he adopted. He was exiled to a pastorate far from his native England. Once, a violent mob stoned and beat Neale.

Although ridiculed by the leadership of his own denomination, Neale still sought out ways to reach the lost and forgotten. In a radical move for a priest in the Church of England, and despite the objections of his superiors, Neale began an order of women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, to feed the poor, take care of orphaned children, and minister to prostitutes. This group would touch tens of thousands, and yet, it brought death threats to Neale and the women who served in the Sisterhood.

Another movement Neale chiefly led was the Oxford Movement of 19th-century England, which resurrected many ancient Greek and Latin hymns and translated them for modern use. It is no accident that one may sing Neale’s translations throughout the entire Christian year since the observance of the Christian calendar was part of the revival of the Oxford Movement. In 1853, Neale translated Suso’s carol into English from the original Latin and German, publishing the song in Neale’s Carols for Christmastide. The book would pave the way for the Christmas carol to reach the world.

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Good Christian men, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened heaven’s door,
and we are blest forevermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

Musicality of the Hymn

Good Christian Men, Rejoice was as radical a hymn as Henry Suso’s thinking was progressive. Christian music of that era was usually solemn, drew entirely from Scripture, not folk tradition, and hymnists never wrote in the common tongue. In one hymn, Suso broke all three rules. His song embraces the joy of being a believer and enjoins a spirit whose meaning any child can understand. Although the church itself did not immediately accept it, the German people quickly and enthusiastically took the song to heart. They believed that just as Suso was a priest to the common people, his carol was a song for them as well.

People sang the carol as a choral hymn until 1683, when Dieterich Buxtehude set the melody as a chorale-cantata for soprano, alto, and bass, accompanied by two violins and continuo, as well as a chorale prelude for organ.

Johann Sebastian Bach

The renowned German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, would utilize the same melody many times: as a chorale in BWV 368; for organ in BWV 608 as a double canon in his Orgelbüchlein; and in BWV 729 as a chorale prelude. Additionally, Bach used the opening phrase of the carol’s tune as a fugal subject for two other choral preludes, BWV 703 (Gottes Sohn ist kommen) and BWV 724 (Gott durch deine Güte).

Notably, BWV 729, which Bach wrote to accompany congregational singing in Arnstadt, is traditionally performed as the first organ voluntary at the end of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Organ scholar Douglas Guest first introducted the voluntary to the service in 1938.

Continued Influence

Good Christian Men, Rejoice continued to influence music via other composers. Franz Liszt included the carol in his piano suite Weihnachtsbaum, in the movement entitled “Die Hirten an der Krippe” (The Shepherds at the Manger). Norman Dello Joio uses the theme as the basis of his Variants on a Medieval Tune for wind ensemble. In 1976, Ronald Corp composed a setting of In Dulci Jubilo for an a cappella SATB choir. Gustav Holst included Good Christian Men, Rejoice in his 1910 choral fantasy Christmas Day, accompanied by orchestra or organ.

Some recommendations for the carol I have for you are by the St. Olaf Choral Ensemble, Joel Hastings, and a beautiful improvisation of the song on piano by Greg Howlett.

Good Christian men, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all
to gain his everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!
Christ was born to save!

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Theology of the Hymn

Macaronic Carol

Good Christian Men, Rejoice is rather unusual compared to other translations rendered by Neale in that Suso wrote the song in two languages—Latin and German. The carol’s original title is In Dulci Jubilo, a Latin phrase meaning “in sweet rejoicing.” The technical term for this type of carol is macaronic, which combines Latin with the local vernacular.

Macaronic carols were most certainly not sung as a part of the medieval Roman Catholic liturgy for at least three reasons: only Latin would have been sung in the Mass at this time; macaronic carols used dance-like rhythms in contrast to the unmetered flow of plainsong chant; and folk instruments including percussion often accompanied these songs, whereas instruments usually were not permitted in the Mass.

Nevertheless, Good Christian Men, Rejoice become incredibly popular as a folk carol, part of a cultural tradition of music the people used in more civic and domestic festival celebrations outside of the liturgical structure of the Mass.

Rejoicing

As mentioned, Suso felt that the vision he had while in exile had invited him, and with him all believers, to dispense with sorrow and rejoice in Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. The entire hymn reminds one of the scene in Revelation 4, where the seven winged creatures praise God, proclaiming,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” (v. 8)

And the twenty-four elders declare,

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.” (v.11)

In the carol, Suso celebrates the salvation, redemption, and restoration that the Incarnation symbolizes–God with us, to dwell, to suffer, to die, to rise from the dead, and to come again in glory to reclaim His Kingdom and His People. Truly then will there be “peace on earth and goodwill to men.”

Language

Interestingly, the original Latin does not refer to “men,” “friends,” or people at all. A literal translation of the original stanza follows, coming from Methodist hymnologist Guy McCutchan’s text, Our Hymnody (1937):

In sweet jubilation
Now sing and be joyful!
The joy of our hearts
Lies in a manger
And shine like the sun
In the lap of his mother
Alpha and Omega!

The very use of language points to Suso’s goal in uniting all believers–Benedictine or Dominican friars, Catholic or Protestant (down the road)–in joy and worship of the King of Kings. The message of Good Christian Men, Rejoice rings out loud and clear in the last line of each stanza: “Christ is born today!” “Christ is born for this!” Christ was born to save!”

The song invites people to rejoice “with heart, and soul, and voice”—with their whole being. The reason for rejoicing is the birth of Jesus Christ, who “has opened heaven’s door,” bringing blessings to all people as the seed of Abraham’s offspring. We worship because “Christ was born to save!”—a line that is sung twice to close the hymn.

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