Sing in the season: On Christmas Carols and opening our ears.

I really love this time of year – so many of the songs of the church are not only well-known by all, but are jam-packed with theology-on-fire lyrics that preach the incredible gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s a time of the year when the culture around us opens their ears to the gospel through classic Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that seem innocuous at first, but if you are really listening, these make life changing and earth shattering claims. 

Sometimes texts are pretty dense, such as Wesley’s well known “Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Wesley doesn’t just tell the Nativity story; he drenches it with theological truths and tells us why the angels sang:

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 th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

Phrases like “God and sinners reconciled” and “Born that we no more may die” are distillations of the gospel in seven words or less. Other phrases are a bit more archaic (“veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate deity”) and seem a bit like Yoda-speak, but when you catch the meaning (see the entirety of God as a human / praise the God who makes Himself a human) it is quite astounding. Either way, these lines pack quite the punch and when paired with the well known tune MENDELSSOHN make the theology leap off the page and into our hearts.

Other Carols might sound quaint and sentimental but if we think about the text carefully we see deeper and heavier implications.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Phillips Brooks (1868)

Did you catch that? Some carols are rightly tinged with the sobering truth that Christ’s second Advent – his second coming – will be when he comes again to, as the creed says, “judge the living and the dead.” This is the Christian’s highest hope, and for those who have not yet trusted in God, a fearful moment.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found,

Isaac Watts (1719)

For Christ’s second coming is to finally, once and for all, remove all sins and sorrows and undo the curse from Genesis 3. Because a holy God cannot dwell fully with sin and evil. That means if we are walking in sin and not living a forgiven life of faith in Jesus Christ, something’s gotta give. Either we turn to Christ in faith, placing our whole selves, identity and all, in Him, or turn away from God. It is not he that rejects us, we would reject Him.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope – the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees…

Placide Cappeau (1847)

So as you’re walking around the malls this December or driving from one commitment to another and one of these songs comes on, listen to the words and avail yourself of a holy moment of worship amidst a busy season. When we sing these hymns on Sundays at TCC, sing all the words! God uses our singing to write truths about Christ on our hearts. They expand our prayer language and our ability to talk about the Gospel with others. As Pastor Tom preached last Sunday, Advent is about the mute opening their mouths and singing for joy that the promise of God-With-Us is being fulfilled. Join Zechariah (Luke 1:67-80) and all of us in the fun! 

A Few Nice Christmas Carols

If you’re looking for some suggestions on what to listen to, here’s a by no means exhaustive list of Christmas Carols, but a lovely curated list for you to enjoy. Enjoy!

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