Monday, December 13, 2010

Truth In The Songs Of Christmas

This time of year it can be really easy to enjoy only the sentimentality of the season. And while there's nothing wrong with sentimentality, we miss a lot of great opportunities to reflect on the truth if we don't pause to consider what it is we say we're celebrating.

The last few years I've posted the results of some research and reflection on Christmas Carols. I've added notes for two more this year, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed learning!

Angels From The Realms Of Glory

Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth. Ye who sang creation’s story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth! Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the newborn king!

Shepherds in the fields abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night, God with man is now residing. Yonder shines the infant light. Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the newborn king!

Sages, leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar. Seek the great desire of nations. Ye have seen his natal star. Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the newborn king!

Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear, suddenly the Lord, descending, in His temple shall appear. Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the newborn king!

Although the title suggests a song focusing on the angels of Christmas, each verse focuses on a different group from the Christmas story, including present day believers who now anticipate Christ’s coming to judge the world. (Malachi 3:1)

The phrase “desire of nations” comes from Haggai 2:7, where God speaks of both the temple and the Messiah. This song reminds me that the truth of God becoming a man is for all. Cosmic angelic creatures, blue collar workers leading simple lives, philosophers who may think Christ or Christianity is beneath their complex contemplations, and believers, who place faith and hope in Christ’s promise to come and remake the world. All are called to come and worship Christ, the King of the Universe.

Angels We Have Heard On High

Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains, and the mountains, in reply, echo back their joyous strains. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong? Say what may the tidings be which inspire your heavenly song? Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing. Come, adore on bended knee Christ the Lord, the newborn King. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

See within a manger laid Jesus, Lord of heav’n and earth! Mary, Joseph, lend your aid. With us sing our Savior’s birth. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

An ancient tradition of shepherds in southern France was to call to one another from the hilltops during the Christmas season, singing the angelic phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”, which translated from Latin means, “Glory to God in the highest!” Although they used the same tune we now sing, the verses were added years after this tradition began.

The word Jubilee is commonly accepted today as a term for celebration. In Leviticus 25, it is a time during which property is given back to its original owner. Although probably unintentional in the author's writing of this text, it is interesting to note that Christ came to give us back the life we threw away by sinning.

Hark The Herald Angels Sing

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 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 the virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men 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 Sun 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!”

This song is filled to the brim with wonderful truth. It is first helpful to understand the old English which can keep us from hearing the message of this song. Ironically, that is the exact opposite effect the author would prefer. The original first line read, "Hark how all the welkin rings", but as the language became dated, Charles Wesley, author of the text, made changes to modernize it and make it more understandable. A few other hands were involved in further modifications in keeping with the times. However at some point, despite previous efforts on the author's part, tradition locked it into its current state.

Hark comes from the word harken, which means “listen”. A herald is an announcement. So to “Hark the herald angels sing” means to “listen to the announcement” the angels sing. And in this song, the announcement is the Good News in a nutshell: God and sinners are being reconciled. The relationship between them is being repaired.

This is news worth getting excited about! It means that mankind, by the power of Christ, can have triumph over death, hence the “triumph of the skies” we are encouraged to join in celebrating. The second verse talks about the mystery and wonder of God becoming man. Christ, who is adored in heaven, who is the eternal, everlasting Lord, was born into flesh. As a man, Christ was still part of the Godhead, but “veiled in flesh”. He was content to live as a man among men; To be Emmanuel, “God with us”.

The last verse makes reference to Christ’s coming judgment by quoting Malachi 4:1-2. The Lord warns of the coming judgment where the wicked will be burned up and completely consumed. But for those who fear the name of the Lord, the “Sun of Righteousness” will rise “with healing in his wings”, and will set free those who believe in the Lord. How is this possible? It was Christ’s mission, as the rest of the verse explains. Paraphrased, it says:

Mildly, the eternal God laid down his infinite glory, and was born so that man would not have to die anymore. He was born to raise humanity (the sons of earth) from the dead, and give them a second birth. For this reason, listen to the announcement the angels sing, “Glory to the King of the Universe, who has just been born.”

Joy To The World! The Lord Is Come

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ while fields and floods, rocks hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.

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.

Based on themes in Psalm 98, this is not really a “Christmas” song. Psalm 98 is in anticipation of Christ coming to rule the earth. My favorite verse is the third. When sin came into the world, death came with it, effecting not just people, but the world in which we live. One day, Christ will make a new earth, where there will be no sin and no corruption in nature, such as the thorns that infest the ground. He will make his blessings flow wherever the curse of sin is found, and death will be eradicated.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels. O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

God of God, and Light of Light begotten. Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Very God, begotten, not created. O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Sing, choirs of angels. Sing in exultation! O sing all ye citizens of heav’n above. Glory to God, all glory in the highest. O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning. Jesus to Thee be all glory giv’n. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

If you are one of the faithful, or one “full of faith” in the Lord, you can come into the Christmas season full of Joy, because Christ has made it possible for you to know God personally. You can also celebrate the season with a sense of triumph, because you know that Christ has given you victory over death. For this reason, we begin this song singing “Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

This song is a call to worship for all believers. We’re to come and “adore” Him. To worship and honor Him, recognizing that he is God. We’re to focus our minds on the baby who, amazingly, was born a King. And not just any king, but the King of angels. Angels.... terrifying, awe-inspiring cosmic creatures with power beyond our ability to imagine, trembled and worshiped in the presence of this baby Jesus.

The second verse attempts to describe the eternal nature of Christ, along with His complete humanity. He is God and He is Light, yet he was willing to sit inside a womb. Like us, He was “begotten” or “caused by an effect”. Unlike us, He was not created. Simply wrestling with that paradox reminds me of the incomprehensible nature of Christ’s being.

In the third verse, it is unclear exactly who is implied by the “citizens of heaven”, but is exciting to think that those we have lost that are now with Christ are worshiping Him with us whenever we express our love and adoration for Jesus. In that way, whenever we have a worship service, ALL believers are joined together.

In John 1, we are told that “The Word” created everything that is. Everything that exists anywhere was made by “The Word”. The final verse of this song reminds us that the creator of reality itself became flesh and bone. Even if He had done nothing else but that, He would deserve our unending praise. This song doesn’t even call attention to what He has done, but calls us to adore Him simply for who He is.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that morns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

O come Thou Rod of Jesse. Free Thine own from satan’s tyranny. From depths of hell Thy people save and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here, and drive away the shades of night and pierce the clouds and bring us light! Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

O come Thou Key of David, come and open wide our heav’nly home. Make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

O come, Desire of nations. Bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease. Fill all the world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

O come Thou Wisdom from on high and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in Thy way to go. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

This song finds its origins in medieval monasteries, where the numerous verses were originally sung by specific monks, during specific days before Christmas, without the refrain “Rejoice, rejoice…” which was added later. It highlights various prophecies about Jesus from the Old Testament:

The first verse remembers Israel's prayer that the Messiah would come and “ransom” them from their captivity to Babylon.

The "Rod of Jesse" reference is from Isaiah 11:1. A rod or a shoot would grow from the line of Jesse, and He would be filled with the Holy Spirit and rule with fairness and righteousness.

"Dayspring" comes from Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:78-79. Zechariah said that because of God’s mercy, a light from heaven would come to show us the path to peace. Light from heaven is translated as Dayspring in the King James, a reference to the sunrise.

"Key of David" is first referenced in Isaiah 22:22. The Key was a symbol of authority, allowing you to grant or block access, and the one who had the Key of David had the highest authority. This verse reminds us that Christ has the power and authority to grant access to heaven.

The phrase “Desire of Nations” comes from Haggai 2:7, where God speaks of both the temple and the Messiah who would be present on earth with us.

In 1 Corinthians 1:30, it’s said that “For our benefit God made Christ to be wisdom itself. He is the one who made us acceptable to God. He made us pure and holy, and He gave Himself to purchase our freedom.”

As I sing this song, I think of Israel today, and how as a whole, they have rejected Christ and are still waiting for the Messiah. When we think of this song now, we can change the word “shall” to “has”, and pray that God’s chosen nation would recognize their Savior, and that He has ransomed their lives with His own.

Silent Night! Holy Night!

Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright ‘round yon virgin mother and Child. Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight: Glories stream from heaven afar, heav’nly hosts sing “Alleluia! Christ the Savior is born!”

Silent night! Holy night! Son of God, love pure light, radiant, beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

Alternate Translation:
Silent night, holy night. All is dark, save the light shining where the mother mild watches over the holy child. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night. Shepherds first saw the sight, heard the angels song, “alleluia”, loud proclaiming near and far. “Christ our savior is here.”
Silent night, holy night, God's own son, oh, how bright shines the love in thy holy face, shines the light of redemption and grace. Christ the incarnate God.

This text is translated from the original German text of “Stille Nacht”. I believe this song has been misunderstood, as many Hymns have, because the musical phrasing does not lend itself to comprehension of the sentence structure. I have included another translation from the same German text. To better understand the traditional translation, I would also humbly offer this paraphrase, which will hopefully express what I believe to be the original meaning of the traditional translation.

Paeter's Paraphrase:
Silent night, holy night. Everything is calm, and yet everything is bright around this virgin mother and her Child.
Tender, holy and mild Infant, Sleep. Sleep with a peace that is like the peace experienced in heaven.
Shepherds shake with fear at the sight of glorious beams of light from heaven. Meanwhile, angels sing “Alleluia! Christ the savior has been born!”
Son of God, the pure light of love is beaming radiantly from your holy face. It’s beaming with the beginning of grace that will be given to redeem the world. From the moment you were born, Jesus, You were Lord over everything.

What Child Is This?

1. What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds worship and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him praise,
The babe, the son of Mary!

2. Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Come, have no fear; God's son is here,
His love all loves exceeding:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross he bore for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

3. So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
All tongues and people own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
While Mary sings a lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Originally written in 1865, this carol has gone through multiple textual changes that continue to result in variant versions today. This song so wonderfully contrasts the beauty and simplicity of Christ’s entrance to earth with the wonder of who he is and the incredible destiny he came to fulfill.

Stitching together parts of the versions that have been most meaningful to me, and that I believe are more easily understood by the common listener, I’ve copied my “best of” version above.

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The bless├Ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing.

And you, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The prince of Peace their King
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Although the title looks back to the night of Jesus' birth, this song is much more centered on what that event means for us today and what it will mean in the future. Jesus' entrance to earth signalled a reopening of communication between God and humanity (to say the least). And that communication started with a simple message from God. One promising peace and blessing from God to humanity. A restored relationship with God made possible by Jesus, the promised Messiah.

This message of restoration is still floating around the world today, as verse 2 indicates. Despite our constant yacking and endless, meaningless activity, the message is still being communicated for those who will stop and listen to it.

For two thousand years, this message has been circulating the planet and still we haven't really changed. We continually wound each other because of our sin. We shut God's message out and busy ourselves with conflict. These words ask us to set aside the conflicts that consume us and listen to the amazing love song that God is sending out to us through the life of Jesus.

There is hope, in that message, for those who are beaten down by life. Who are tired and just barely crawling along, every step agony. A time is coming when God will finally put an end to all evil and pain. Take a moment, set aside your stress and discouragement, and hear the message the angels brought and continue to bring today.

Every day brings us closer to this amazing future. And when we arrive, we'll see just how quickly the time before it passed. God's complete and perfect rule has been talked about and sung about for years in scripture, in sermons and in songs. What seems to be an endless cycle of years will culminate in a new earth. A new universe, in fact! Remade to be perfect and last forever, ruled by a God who is synonymous with peace. It will be so amazing that we won't be able to help but explode back to God a massive expression of love and thankfulness for the relationship he has allowed us to have with him.

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