URC Daily Devotion Tuesday 22nd December 2020

Tuesday 22nd December – Masters in This Hall

This appears to be an ancient carol but only dates from the Victorian era when William Morris – famous for art, design, poetry and socialism, and much more – wrote it.  It tells of the poor shepherds who came to see Jesus.

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.’

Masters in This Hall
William Morris

you can hear this song here

1. Masters in this Hall,
    Hear ye news to-day
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 to-day hath poor folk raised
    And cast a-down the proud.

2. Going o’er the hills,
    Through the milk-white snow,
Heard I ewes bleat
    While the wind did blow: 

3. Shepherds many an one
    Sat among the sheep,
No man spake more word
    Than they had been asleep: 

4. Quoth I, “Fellows mine,
    Why this guise sit ye?
Making but dull cheer,
    Shepherds though ye be? 

5. “Shepherds should of right
    Leap and dance and sing,
Thus to see ye sit,
    Is a right strange thing”: 

6. Quoth these fellows then,
    “To Bethlem town we go,
To see a mighty lord
    Lie in manger low”: 

7. “How name ye this lord,
    Shepherds?’ then said I,
“Very God,” they said,
    “Come from Heaven high”: 

8. Then to Bethlem town
    We went two and two,
And in a sorry place
    Heard the oxen low: 

9. Therein did we see
    A sweet and goodly may
And a fair old man,
    Upon the straw she lay: 

10. And a little child
    On her arm had she,
“Wot ye who this is?”
    Said the hinds to me: 

11. Ox and ass him know,
    Kneeling on their knee,
Wondrous joy had I
    This little babe to see: 

12. This is Christ the Lord,
    Masters be ye glad!
Christmas is come in,
    And no folk should be sad: 


The most surprising thing about this carol is that it was written by William Morris, even as a Chaucerian pastiche.  Apart from a brief flirtation with Anglo-Catholicism in his early 20s, he was never attached to any religion, organised or otherwise.

But once you know he is the author, everything falls into place. As a child riding his pony in Epping Forest dressed in a miniature suit of armour, Morris was fascinated by the Middle Ages. As a student he came into the orbit of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with its devotion to medieval art techniques and a highly romanticised view of the labour of the common man in that era. He carried that on to his later career in the Arts and Crafts Movement where his company Morris & Co produced many church windows in the medieval style.

It is typical of Morris that the message of the Birth of Christ is carried to the masters by, one assumes, a servant informed by an even lower class of people, the shepherds. He was a tireless campaigning socialist, promoting the ideals of social equality and despairing over the widening gap between poor and rich in Victorian Society.

In the Magnificat, it is the simple village girl Mary who is chosen by God to carry the Saviour. She not only accepts the commission but understands the message, singing: “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.”

It serves us to remember that Jesus did not rush to recruit “the Masters” of his day to lend his ministry credibility. He sought out people like us, you and me, to hear his message and carry it forward.

Lord, help us to discern the extraordinary in the ordinary;
to value goodness, courage and generosity of spirit in those we encounter;
to serve those who need our assistance, rather than worship the idols of status, wealth and celebrity.

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