History of Hymns: "Star-Child"
By C. Michael Hawn
Shirley Erena Murray
The Faith We Sing, No. 2095
go-between of God,
love-Child, Christ Child,
heaven's lightning rod,
This year, let the day arrive
when Christmas comes
for everyone alive!*
United Methodist Bishop Joel Martínez once said, "each generation must add its own stanza to the great hymn of the church." This is especially true of songs of the Incarnation. We cannot rely only on the Christmas carols of the past, but must ask ourselves, what does the God who came to earth in a human form mean for us today?
New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931), one of the most accomplished living hymn writers in the English language, answers this question with a poignant text set to a beautiful melody by Carlton Young (b. 1926). The text "Star-Child, earth-Child" (1994) has a New-Age sound to it at first, but a closer examination of the words reveals a song rooted in Christian and human reality.
Shirley Murray, the wife of Presbyterian minister John Murray, studied Classics and French at the University of Otago in Dunedin in the far south of the lower island, where she was granted an M.A. with Honors. Her career has included experience as a teacher, researcher, and radio hymn program producer.
She began to write hymns in the 1970s to undergird the theology of her husband's progressive theology and the work of Amnesty International. The first independent publication of her hymns was In Every Corner, Sing (1987), a collection that featured many themes that she would continue to develop. Fellow New Zealander and hymn writer, Colin Gibson highlights these themes: "The search for peace, justice and human rights, inclusiveness, the honoring of women and the feminine element in spirituality, celebration of the natural world and the New Zealand environment, a call to social responsibility and a life of faith lived out with compassion and hopefulness."
Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and Hallmark greeting cards may condition us to view Christmas sentimentally. The Christmas trees in our lovely sanctuaries and homes may subtly reshape our thinking in ways that might almost suggest that the Son of God was born in a cozy rural bed and breakfast accompanied by a Walt Disney assortment of cuddly farm animals.
While I do not wish to play Scrooge during this season of wonder and hope, our songs should include those that remind us that there are many among us for whom the joy of Christmas has never been experienced.
Ms. Murray achieves this message through a series of short descriptive modifiers before "child." In very economical language she catalogues children of all ages and stations of life: "street child, beat child," "hurt child, used child," "grown child, old child," "sad child, lost child."
All of these children are created in the image of the "Star-Child, earth-Child" of stanza one and the "Hope-for-peace Child" of stanza five. The refrain, "This year, let the day arrive," is a petition for the presence of the "Christ Child" for "everyone alive."
Carlton Young's musical setting captures the lyrical quality and warmth of a traditional Christmas carol. The beautiful melody becomes a vehicle for singing a message that fits our generation's stanza -- a worthy contribution to the great hymn of the church.
Since the turn of the century, Shirley Murray’s awards and honors are numerous, including the New Zealand Order of Merit (2001) and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (2006). Her hymn "God, in your grace" was chosen as the theme song for the IX Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2006), and she has been honored as a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (2009).