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Hark! The Hymn Has Been Rewritten!

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Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 12/28/15

I’ve posted in the past about some curious word changes in popular Christmas hymns and carols. This, from 2010:

Visiting a parish in Maryland this weekend, I was surprised that the recessional hymn at today’s mass wasn’t altered for political correctness. But no: to my amazed ears, they actually sang “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” The reason this surprised me was because the entrance hymn, on the other hand, was changed from “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.” And the offertory was tweaked for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Seems that what the angels really said was: “Peace on the earth, good will to all…”

Well, five years later, people are still rewriting well known hymns. Just yesterday, I noticed another couple of adjustments, to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

Pleased, as man, with men to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel!

has become

Pleased, as man with us to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel!

The alteration isn’t glaring, but it does remove a certain symmetry and poetic elegance, doesn’t it?

Later, in the same song:

Mild he lays his glory by / Born that man no more may die /Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth.

has been rewritten as:

Mild he lays his glory by / Born that we no more may die /Born to raise us from the earth / Born to give us second birth.

That’s a little more problematic. “Born to raise the sons of earth” isn’t really the same as “Born to raise us from the earth.” The first hints at a spiritual elevation, being “born again”; the second, though, sounds more like a literal resurrection from the grave.

And there’s the phrasing.  “Born that man no more may die” has a simple directness to it. “Born that we no more may die” is strained and clumsy. Also, nowhere in the original hymn do the singers refer to themselves in the first person. Now, in the revised version, it’s unavoidable. We aren’t singing about God and mankind in the third person; we’re singing about God and us. The spirit and intent of the original has been changed.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the text has been tinkered with. Wikipediareports that the original, written by Charles Wesley in 1739, has undergone a number of significant revisions, the most notable being in 1961.

But these more modern changes, minor as they seem, have gone further and, I think, done harm. They’ve made the poetic prosaic and, in fact, clunky. Worse, it appears these and similar revisions have been implemented for one reason: someone presumes that intelligent Christians are too stupid to know that the word “man” doesn’t always mean a human being with testicles.

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