Singing certain hymns merges us together with a long line of Christians who have sung these hymns before us. Puer natus in Bethlehem is one such hymn.
In addition to being the word for ministers proceeding into the sanctuary in ceremonial fashion, a “processional” is also the name for a book, in which were contained songs that were chanted during these church processions. The text Puer natus in Bethlehem first appeared in a Benedictine processional in the early 14th century. When the text was later standardized, the first Latin stanza read:
Puer natus in Bethlehem, Bethlehem
unde gaudet Jerusalem, Alleluia, alleluia.
A boy is born in Bethlehem (echo: Bethlehem),
wherefore Jerusalem rejoices: Alleluia, alleluia.
In 1439, Heinrich von Laufenberg translated the Latin verses into German:
Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem
Des freuet sich Jerusalem, Alleluja.
A tune of the same name (PUER NATUS IN BETHLEHEM) was associated with the text since the 14th century. By the early 17th century, the tune had all but become the same as it appears today.
The last hymnal for which Martin Luther authored prefatory remarks and what he would have regarded as his own hymnal for personal use was the 1545 edition of Geistliche Lieder, published in Leipzig by Valentin Babst (later known as the “Babst hymnal”). It was in this hymnal that the ten stanzas of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem settled into what would be the authorized German version of the text.
Sixty years later, in the first decade of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius’ nine-volume work Musae Sioniae included 1,200 chorale settings, some with elaborate eight or twelve voice arrangements. One of the four-part chorale settings was the setting for Puer Natus in Bethlehem, a setting which still finds use today.
Since this hymn text also had verses that made reference to the Wise Men and their gifts, Johann Sebastian Bach used the text and tune early in the 18th century for his church Cantata #65. He composed this cantata and it was first performed on the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 1724. 179 years after the hymn was published in the Babst hymnal in Leipizig, in that same city, the wondrous tones of a Bach cantata raised up that same song once again, proclaiming the message of how Wisemen from the East came to worship the boy who was born in Bethlehem.
The German text of this hymn was first translated into English by Hamilton Montgomerie MacGill. MacGill was educated and served as a minister in Glasgow, Scotland. He was a member of the Hymnal Committee of the United Presbyterian Church, contributing to the Presbyterian Hymnal of 1876.
God-willing, three short years from now, a newly published hymnal will be in the hands of WELS Christians scattered throughout this country and beyond. In the Christmas section of that new hymnal will appear a text that has made its way from a 14th century Latin processional to a 16th century German hymnal to a 17th century book of chorales to an 18th century church cantata to a 19th century Scottish hymnal to a 21st century English hymn (public domain translation by Chris Neuendorf, alt.) published by a small Lutheran church body based in Wisconsin, USA. The music of that hymn was set in SATB chorale form in the early 17th century by a truly Lutheran musician and choir director. Space permitting, the Epiphany section of the new hymnal will additionally include an Epiphany version of the hymn, allowing worshipers to echo the harmonies of Praetorius from his 1607 book of chorales, and to re-echo the harmonies of Bach from that Epiphany celebration in 1724 (Bach BWV 65, movement 2 [chorale] here from 3:35 to 4:17). I will be looking forward to a lead sheet version of the hymn that will allow for piano/guitar ensemble performance, sung at a lively pace.
And the best thing about standing in this long line of Christians who have made use of this one, particular hymn? We will be singing of Jesus, who became flesh to become our sin, that we again like him might be, set free from sin to serve and honor our God.
1 A child is born in Bethlehem, Bethlehem,
the joy of all Jerusalem. Alleluia, Alleluia!
5 Our feeble flesh and his the same, his the same,
our sinless brother he became, Alleluia, Alleluia!
6 from all our sin to set us free, set us free,
that we again like him might be. Alleluia, Alleluia!
7 Rejoicing in the holy birth, holy birth,
we praise our God who came to earth. Alleluia, Alleluia!
Peace in Jesus to you and yours this Christmas season!
Michael D. Schultz, director
WELS Hymnal Project