“Masters in This Hall” (alternative title: “Nowell, Sing We Clear”) is a Christmas carol with words written around 1860 by the English poet and artist William Morris to an old French dance tune. The carol is moderately popular but has not entered the canon of most popular carols and has a sixteenth-century feel, harking back to a simpler society, in line with Morris’s own romanticism. It also has elements of Morris’s socialist beliefs, with the poor bringing news of Christ’s birth to the “Masters in this Hall” and a warning to the proud. In this it reflects the Magnificat. You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPxipjPcr04
Masters in this hall, hear ye news today. Brought from over sea and ever I you pray
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we clear! Holpen are all folk on Earth, born is God’s Son so dear Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud God today hath poor folk raised and cast a-down the proud
Going o’er the hills, through the milk-white snow Heard the lambs to bleat and saw the wind to blow
Shepherds, many a one, sat among the sheep No man spoke more word than they had been asleep
Shepherds should of right leap and dance and sing Wherefore do you sit before this wondrous thing
Then to Bethle’m town, went we two by two Saw the new-born babe laid in a manger low
Ox and ass there were down on bended knee Wondrous joy had I this little babe to see
This is Christ the Lord, masters be ye glad Christmas is come in, and no man should be sad
St Luke 1: 46 – 55
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
I suspect this carol is beyond most congregations with its firm steady pace, multiplicity of parts, and dramatic sense of timing. I hear it as a march as it reminds me of the stirring call of the Virgin Mary to rejoice in God’s saving actions. We could sing it along with the Red Flag, Marsaillse or Internationale – the sentiments are similar.
Of course for Mary, God’s saving actions were radical. A lowly girl from a backwater was chosen to be God’s mother. How on earth could she have known she’d be forever blessed? The proud are scattered in the “imagination of their hearts”. The lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent away. All themes Morris would have delighted in with his proto-socialism; themes that worry us. It is said that Mary’s song was only allowed to be sung in the 1980s in many South American countries in Latin – in case the lowly got ideas above their station and started to cast down the mighty. Morris, in the chorus, has the poor telling the rich that God will cast them down. The good news they bring isn’t very good for them really – or is it?
Jesus, learning his faith and politics from his mother, had hard things to say to rich people. They could only get into the Kingdom by giving all they had away – and that’s hard, as hard as for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. What do we do with these sentiments? We can turn the hymn into a nice choral piece, we can play it as a jolly bit of background music, but Mary’s song? That’s not comforting, that’s not meant to stay in the background. What uses do we make of our money? How do we help the poor? How do we help fill the hungry? Do we work to cast the mighty from their thrones or to cling onto their power?
Help us, O God, to learn from your Mother’s song, to use our money wisely, to feed the poor, lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty. Help us to tell the rich that their salvation is found in giving their wealth away, and help us to ensure that our wealth isn’t earned at the expense of the poor. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk in Orkney.