Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite Christmas Carol

Aside from having an opportunity to see my far-away relatives, my favorite aspect of Christmas is the music associated with it.  Many Christmas carols have a way of cutting through all the distractions and commercial trappings and focusing on Jesus’ birth, which is, after all, the point of the holiday.  Unfortunately, for many people, these songs lose their meaning because they are so familiar.  Since I began writing hymns, I have come to appreciate the lyrics to these carols more.  If you stop to think about the words, you will find that many of them have tremendously deep theology expressed in a way that mirrors the beauty of the Incarnation.

One carol that I find particularly powerful is also one of the most common: Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Here are the complete lyrics:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The words mostly speak for themselves, but there are a few things I’d like to point out.  First, even from the beginning, the focus is on Christ’s role in mediating between God and humans – “God and sinners reconciled.”  At Christmas, it’s easy to celebrate the birth of Jesus without thinking about who He grew up to be or what He did.  These lines help us focus on the reason we should celebrate Jesus’ birth, the truth that he opened the way for us to have peace with God.

My favorite lines in this hymn come in the second verse:  “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity.”  Jesus’ flesh in one sense acts as a veil; although He is God, people who looked at Him only saw an ordinary-looking human.  And yet this veil paradoxically makes it possible for us to see the invisible God, the “incarnate Deity.” 

I also love the following line: “pleased as man with man to dwell.”  Incidentally, please NEVER try to make this line politically correct by changing it to “us.”  If you’re OK with performing Shakespeare using the original words, you should be OK with using the older sense of the word “man,” which just meant “human beings.”  If you’re not OK with performing Shakespeare without modernizing the words ... we need to talk.  Changing the line to “with us to dwell” destroys the poetic repetition of the word “man,” which as a poet I know was put there intentionally.  In this case, the repetition not only sounds nice, but also emphasizes that Jesus lived a completely human life, complete with all the problems people face.  Most problems in life arise from some combination of our own limitations and interactions with other sinful human beings.  Although Jesus wasn’t sinful, He was finite, and could definitely be hurt by the people with whom He was “pleased to dwell.”

The first few lines of the last verse refer to Malachi 4:2 “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”  The last few lines are also incredibly profound.  The line “born that man no more may die” includes a cool contrast between life and death, while the line “born to give them second birth” focuses on the idea of birth by repeating the word with two different meanings.

That’s enough of this poetry rant.  In this week leading up to Christmas, I’d like to encourage you to think and meditate on the words and the theology in some of the familiar Christmas carols.  There’s a lot more in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” than I pointed out here, and many other carols are equally profound.

I’d also like to encourage you to leave a comment.  What are some of your favorite Christmas carols?  Are any particular lines especially meaningful to you?


  1. many carols out there. this one is one of the best for theology and triumphant group singing.

  2. Elizabeth, thank you for your rant--I am looking forward to more of the same.

    Expanding the topic a bit, when Betty and I do our biweekly Bible hour at a local nursing home, a good portion of our time is spent singing the old familiar hymns. And frequently the hymns we have sung that morning become the source of my talk to the residents. There is always a message in those precious old songs.

  3. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence... wait that isn't Christmas, that is the... however you spell it.
    Oh Come Oh Come Emanuel, then.

  4. Brendan, I actually considered doing posts on both of those. In fact, the only reason I can call "Hark the Herald" my favorite Christmas carol is that the two you mentioned are really more about advent than Christmas. Still, good choices.