December 10, 2016
These essays about Christmas were written two years ago, in 2014. I posted them of Facebook, but not on my blog. For those new readers: I hope these bless you as much as they’ve blessed me.
Christmas Musings #1: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!
Earlier this Christmas season, I started to make a list of the best new Christmas songs. Now, to me, anything after 1980 is “new”. But I thought it was an equally interesting exercise to choose the best traditional Christmas carols. I started listing those that should be considered, but it didn’t take long to realize which one is Number One. It was a very easy choice…
And, of course, it’s the favorite of a lot of people – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”
How could it miss, right? First, there are the words, written by the amazing and prolific hymn writer, Charles Wesley, brother of preacher John Wesley. It was published for the first time in 1739. Originally, the opening lines were: “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”. In 1754, another great preacher associated with the “Great Awakening” era in American history, George Whitfield, changed the words to what we know them to be today. Then, there’s that magnificent melody by none other than the great composer Felix Mendelssohn. He composed it in 1840, originally for a cantata to commemorate Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The English composer William Cummings adapted it in 1855 to the words written by Wesley and Whitfield, and the carol was complete.
But this song is more than just the nuts and bolts of songwriting, lyrics and music. It gets its power from the fact that it is loaded with truth – with GOSPEL truth. You have to sing all three verses to get the full effect – it actually packs more truth about Jesus in the second and third verses than even the first. Unlike other traditional carols, which tend to contain non-essential fluff, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is packed with important information from beginning to end.
Let’s start at the very beginning (sounds like another song starting!) with the first verse. Although all three verses of the carol are frequently sung and recorded, as is true of the other carols, the first verse is the most well-known. It is, as most people know, based on the passage in the gospel of Luke – Chapter 2, verses 8 to 14 – the story of the angels’ announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. This is the section that Linus reads (from the King James Version) in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to explain to Charlie Brown “what Christmas is all about.” It starts with one angel telling them the fantastic news of the arrival of their Messiah. After he tells them his message, in verse 13 there suddenly appears “a multitude of the heavenly host” – an uncountable number of angels that are “praising God and saying:
‘“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” ‘
Notice – it says they were “saying”, not “singing”, but that’s a minor point (and that may be why Wesley wrote it like he did originally; he was always trying to be accurate to what the Bible says).
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
Then, we get the key line in the first verse: line 4. The angels don’t specifically say (or sing) it in Luke’s account, but it is certainly implied, and it is certainly what the rest of the New Testament teaches – that, because the “newborn King” has arrived, and because of who He is, and because of what He will accomplish at Calvary,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Jesus, the Messiah, the King, came to this Earth to die as a sacrificial Lamb to pay the penalty for all the sins of those who believed in Him, and those who would believe in Him. The Sinless One died – the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:8) – so that our sins can be forgiven simply by accepting that free gift. Because that is true, all nations are called to rejoice and join in with the angels, worshipping God –
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, fulfilling Micah’s prophecy in Micah 5:2 –
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
There can be no doubt whatsoever why this carol is so popular, despite our secular society’s attempts to deny spiritual truth. It plays a significant role in both “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And this is only the beginning…