Home History of Hymns: German carol recalls spirit of 16th-century folk plays

History of Hymns: German carol recalls spirit of 16th-century folk plays

“Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine”
German traditional
The Faith We Sing, No. 2099

“Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
help me cradle the child divine;
God reward thee and all that’s thine
in paradise,” so prays the mother Mary.

Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“Adoration of the Magi,” a painting German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), depicts the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the infant Jesus. It exemplifies visually the spirit of the era that produced “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.”

He came among us at Christmastime, in Bethlehem;
let us bring him from far and wide Love’s diadem:
Jesus, Jesus, lo, he comes, and loves, and saves and frees us!

Originally, this carol was probably part of a 16th-century mystery play in Leipzig, Germany. Mystery plays were events in the community that took place beyond the established liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church. In a medieval environment that did not distinguish clearly between secular and sacred aspects of life, the mystery plays, often on themes of Christmas and Easter, bridged the gap between the wonder of the Latin Mass expressed in the liturgy and the lives of the common people.

The plays’ roots may be found in liturgical dramas that go back to the 12th and 13th centuries focusing on miracles, both biblical and apocryphal. The 15th century was the time of the flourishing of mystery plays—probably derived from “ministerium” or “act” in Latin. Since people were forbidden to attend pagan plays, these dramas sponsored by the Church not only provided sacred entertainment, but also imparted a kind of catechesis as well.

Sacred folk dramas were distinguished by their narrative quality—telling the story of the season, and use of the vernacular language, though some carols of this era used both the local language and Latin. An example of this kind of carol—called macaronic—may be found in the UM Hymnal: “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (No. 224), originally in German and Latin. In addition, instruments that were forbidden in the Mass could be played in the production of the mystery plays.

Sacred folk songs, in general, often tell the story from “inside” the narrative rather than from a third-person “objective” point of view. Such is the case in this carol. In stanza one Mary requests that Joseph “help [her] cradle the child divine.” In stanza two, Joseph responds that he “gladly . . . [would] help . . . cradle this child of thine.”

In the earlier versions there are as many as eight stanzas or more. Following the tender exchange between Mary and Joseph in the opening stanzas, various other characters labeled as “servants”—perhaps the shepherds gathered at the manger—sing each of the succeeding stanzas as the tableaux unfolds. As many as four “servants” share the remaining stanzas of which stanza three is one of them:

wise and happy their souls shall be,
loving such a divinity,
as all may see in Jesus, Son of Mary.

All join in on the refrain, a common device of folk music. The refrain, beginning with “He came among us at Christmastide. . . .” not only tells us the significance of the child, but also invites our participation in the adoration of Jesus, “Love’s Diadem.” Through the refrain, we become part of the tableaux at the manger.

The conclusion of each of the stanzas, even in the extended form, references Mary in some way, usually concluding a stanza with “Son of Mary.” By bringing Mary into the center of the tableaux, we firmly establish the incarnation of Jesus, born of an earthly mother—the Son of God and the Son of a human being.

The music is from a carol that extends back as early as the 14th century, “Resonet in Laudibus” (Let our praises resound). In oral traditions we find flexibility both in appropriating a melody for a new text and in several versions of the text appearing in different sources and regions. Unencumbered by the rigidity of the printed page, numerous versions arise according to local custom and context.

Scholar Elizabeth Poston notes that the tone of the text displays an idealized family life prized by Germans of the day. Indeed, the tune gives the feeling of rocking a cradle and many of the stanzas, though perhaps sentimental by today’s standards, still echo a tenderness that draws one into the narrative. A translation of a stanza not included in the hymnal displays both familial love and theological insight:

Little man, and God indeed,
Little and poor, Thou art all we need;
We will follow where Thou dost lead,
And we will heed our brother, born of Mary.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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