As I write this, it’s almost Christmas, one of my favorite times of year! One of the things I really enjoy about it is the Christmas carols. Not that I have any singing abilities, but I still love to sing them anyway, and unlike the rest of the year, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I sing them in December.
However, not all songs popular at Christmas time actually have anything to do with Christmas. For Christmas is not a celebration of magical snowmen, underdog reindeer, or interior decorating. Not that there’s anything wrong with singing about Frosty, or Rudolph, or decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s just always been a bit of a letdown for me, hearing “Christmas” songs with no Christ in them. It’s like going to a big concert and only seeing the opening act. It’s all about the headliner, and if you miss them, you basically missed the concert. Likewise, if you miss Christ, you really missed Christmas.
So what is it about the old Christmas hymns I love so much? The story. I’ve always been a stickler for wanting to know the lyrics to songs, whether I was listening to heavy metal, dance club remixes, folk music, or anything else. And I’ve been surprised more than once at how a good beat and some catchy riffs can get a lot of people taking in, and even singing along with, some pretty disturbing, messed-up, dysfunctional songs. But lyrics matter. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as you learn in programming. But in the old Christmas hymns I find rich veins of solid gold – little mini-sermons of good, sound theology that point me to God, and remind me of the events of long ago, why they are so vitally important, and why the gospel really is “good news”. Join me for a little buffet of Christmas carol goodness.
“Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “[Mt 1:23, Jn 1:14, Rom 5:11, 2 Cor 5:18-21]
Reconciliation between the perfect, holy God and us incorrigible sinners! What a staggering thought!How can this be? Not by anything we could do, but only by His mercy! I don’t know about you, but makes me want to sing out:
“Gloria in excelsis Deo”.[Lk 2:14]
“Glory to God in the highest” sang the angels as they announced the momentous event to the shepherds. And indeed, this was the start of a most glorious phase of God’s plan: the Incarnation!
“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born! Christ, the Saviour, is born!”[Lk 2:11]
“Christ” is from the Greek, and means “Anointed One”, as does “Messiah” from the Hebrew. After 400 years of silence since the last prophet had brought a message from God, an angelic choir was now belting out the news. The plan known to God from all eternity was now in full effect and being revealed to us humans. The world was ready and all the pieces were in place as Christ the Savior took center stage, in a lowly manger of all places.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”[Lk 2:7]
So often, we look to the proud and mighty to save us. Yet Jesus, through whom all was created, and who has the only real power to save, came in utter humility. No palace would’ve been too good for the King of the universe and beyond to be born in, yet He humbled Himself to be born as the lowest of the low. Why?
“Fear not, then, said the angel, Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”[Lk 1:34-37, Lk 19:10, Mk 10:45]
“O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.”[Mt 1:6, Mk 12:35 ,Mt 1:21, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 15:19]
He did not come to heal the sick, or feed the hungry or bless the poor, even though He did all those things. But He came above all else, to pay the penalty for our sin, to ransom us from the grip of Satan, to save us and reconcile us to God, to do what no one else could do, what no amount of hard work or good behavior could ever accomplish, to give His life for ours. And His arrival was accomplished through the virgin birth, not only to break the chain of human sin, but also to provide an extraordinary, naturally impossible sign that this was a supernatural work of God. Skeptics may mock the Virgin Birth, but would it really be much of a sign of something unprecedented happening if it were possible via nature alone?
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! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine![Rom 3:10-11, Phil 2:10]
Have you ever felt depressed? Worthless? Trapped in your bad decisions, your bad habits, your shortcomings, your human frailty? Now, consider how much worth must you have for the Son of God to come live as one of us, and then, in a shocking display of sacrificial love and mercy, take the punishment we all deserved? Not that we have that worth because of anything we did. Thankfully not, for then we could surely lose that worthiness by other actions. Rather, we are image-bearers of God, and loved by Him before we even existed. This was indeed a new morning compared to all that had come before. This was a game-changer that can only result in hope, rejoicing, and worship. But was that just a one-time deal?
“How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.”[Acts 16:30-31]
This last carol reminds us that this is not simply a story of what happened once and is no longer applicable to you and me. Rather the gift of heaven 2000 years ago is a living gift that still can make you a “new creation” if you but receive it. More than anything you could ever give or receive this Christmas, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
What does the sampling above tell us? That God reached down to us to reconcile us to Him, that those who are willing may receive the gift of redemption He offers, that our souls feel their worth only in Him, that we can truly have hope, that Jesus was born King and God, but also our sacrifice, for Christmas is only a signpost pointing toward the atoning sacrifice of the cross on Good Friday and the glorious victory of Easter morning. That’s all -just the greatest news in all of human history!
As R.C. Sproul would say, “everyone’s a theologian”; the only question is whether your theology is true or false. This Christmas, set Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the rest of the gang aside and take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means. Digging out some old Christmas hymns will put you on the right track.
 “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – stanzas 1 & 2 – Charles Wesley, 1739. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #192.
 “Angels We Have Heard On High” – refrain, traditional French Carol, date unknown. United Methodist Hymnal (1989), #238.
 “Silent Night, Holy Night“, stanza 2 – Joseph Mohr, 1818. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), #281.
 “Away in a Manger” – stanza 1, attributed to Martin Luther, date unknown. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #205.
 “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – stanza 3, traditional English Carol, date unknown. The Hymnbook (1955), #166.
 “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” – stanza 4, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, but poem dates to 7th century. Psalter Hymnal (1987), #328.
 “Oh Holy Night” – stanza 1, Placide Cappeau, 1847. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #194.
 “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – stanza 3, Phillips Brooks, 1868. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #196.
(This was just a small sampling of great Christmas carols. Know of some more good examples? Comment with your favorites and what they mean to you!)