The Story Behind “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”

Candlelight

“Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is also one of the more older of the carols. This song remains with us today because of two priests who were exiles in their respective times and too radical for their contemporaries.

Heinrich Suso was a German nobleman who decided to become a priest during the 14th century. He was a Dominican monk with mystic beliefs that brought him conflict with the church. He was a religious populist who wanted to help the common man understand more about God, this in a time when the church believed that the average person had no interest in theology. After writing a couple of works that were influenced by the teachings of Eckhart, who was condemned as a heretic, Suso was exiled to Switzerland.

One night, Suso found himself immersed in a dream so real that he became a part of it. In his dream, the priest saw countless angels not only singing, but dancing. He listened as they sang, and eventually joined with them in “an ecstatic dance.” When he awoke, he not only remembered the dream in vivid detail, but also recalled the words and the music. Feeling led by divine guidance, Suso picked up a quill and ink and recorded “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to paper. Until his death in 1366, he continued to reach the common man with this song and its message.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice” was as radical a hymn as Suso’s thinking was progressive. Christian music of that era was usually solemn, based totally on Scripture, and never written in the common language. Suso had broken all three rules. His song embraced the joy of being a believer and enjoined a spirit whose meaning any child could understand. Although it was not immediately accepted by the church itself, the German people quickly and enthusiastically took the song to heart. They believed that just as Suso had been a priest to the common people, his song was a song for them as well.

Our second character in this story is John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who was thought to be a crypto-Catholic. He translated many old Roman and Greek hymns into English. He founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret to minister to the poor and that ruffled some feathers among his colleagues who caught a whiff of popery in the Roman practices he was adopting.

He was exiled to a pastorate far from his native England and even stoned and beaten by a crowd once for his beliefs. Although ridiculed by the leadership of his own denomination, Neale still sought out ways to reach the lost and forgotten. In a radical move for a priest in the Church of England, and over the objections of his superiors, Neale began an order of women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, to feed the poor, take care of orphaned children, and minister to prostitutes. Though this group would touch tens of thousands, it brought death threats to Neale and the women who served in the Sisterhood. Nevertheless, in 1853 an English publisher released Neale’s English translation of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in Carols for Christmastide. This book would pave the way for the song to be taken to the world.

The verses of the carol are a reminder of the description of heaven in Revelations where angels, elders, and creatures are worshiping and singing at the throne of God. Christians can look forward to the time when this sight will be the real thing and not just a dream.

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