WE HEAR THE CHRISTMAS ANGELS, a collection of true stories about God's presence made manifest during the Christmas season, kicks off with the story of its famous title. As Richard W. O'Donnell tells the tale, it was a week and a half before Christmas in 1868 and Lewis Redner was in a frenzy of preparation. As the choirmaster for the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, he was responsible for selecting the music the choirs would sing at the Christmas services and making sure the singers got enough practice. This seemed like a tall enough order when the rector, Phillips Brooks, walked into his office and presented a poem he'd written and asked Redner to set it to music and have the children sing it on Christmas.
Three years earlier, Brooks had taken a trip to the Holy Land and traveled the dusty, windy road to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The experience had provided fodder for some of Brooks's most memorable sermons, and the poem he handed Redner further demonstrated the depth to which he'd be affected by being in Christ's birthplace --- he clearly felt overwhelmed by the miracle that had taken place there so long ago.
But Redner was overwhelmed by the work already on his plate. Redner knew he couldn't say no to the important rector, but he didn't know how he was going to find time to do the poem justice. On Sunday, five days before the Christmas service, the choir would have its final rehearsal before the special service, and all the music would need to be ready by then. Redner hoped to dedicate some time to the project on Saturday, but when the day came, he was distracted by one thing after another: a choir robe was missing, there was a problem with the organ, he ran out of ink for his pen. Redner crawled into bed that night exhausted and frustrated. I can't write this music, Redner thought as he fell asleep. If You want it sung at the Christmas service, Lord, You will have to write it Yourself.
O'Donnell writes, "Deep into the night, Redner awoke. Did he hear singing? Redner opened his eyes. Someone was whispering a tune in his ear. Redner listened, transfixed, until the singing stopped. Then he lit a candle and looked around the room. He was alone. Seizing a piece of paper from the nightstand, he quickly jotted down the song he'd hear. One day I will find the perfect words for it. With a smile on his face, Render snuffed the wick and closed his eyes."
You guessed it. The next morning Redner realized the simple tune was just right for Brooks's poem. Redner called the piece "The Angel's Strain," giving credit where credit was due, and on Christmas the congregation at Philadelphia's Church of the Holy Trinity heard the debut of Brooks's poem, which has since become a holiday classic: "O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie…"
The song concludes with the phrase, "We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!" And the book, WE HEAR THE CHRISTMAS ANGELS, wears the mantle of this sentiment well, presenting stories of angels not as independent agents, but within the context of their most important work as heralds of God's presence.
I confess that I am usually quite skeptical of books (and television shows for that matter) about angels. Too often I think that such stories are a form of spiritual escapism and stoke an unhealthy appetite for schmaltz. So, on its surface, I was predisposed to dismiss WE HEAR THE CHRISTMAS ANGELS as sentimental fluff. But I knew that Evelyn Bence was the editor of this collection, and that provided enough optimism to forge ahead. I've read enough of Bence's work, a fellow reviewer for FaithfulReader.com and an author in her own right, to think that she wouldn't suffer a lack of substance in her work. And I was happily confirmed in this notion.
WE HEAR THE CHRISTMAS ANGELS does indeed offer up large doses of nostalgia and mysteries of the warm and fuzzy nature. And some of the stories seem to involve speculation about the involvement of angels when none is really warranted. But I was pleased to find that often the "angels" in view are people --- flesh and blood messengers of God. And in each of the stories, the encounter with the "angel" isn't an end in itself. Instead, angels serve as a reminder of the more important encounter with God --- a God who made himself into flesh and blood on Christmas. "We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell." Indeed!
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on October 1, 2006