“Basic Christianity” as Sung in our Favorite Christmas Carols

by the Rev. Canon Mark A. Pearson

When one has written an article for the Christmas newsletter for almost three decades, he has to try something different.  This year I’ve decided to go through the Christmas carols we sing (and a few less known ones we should!) and note how they speak about the Gift God the Father gave us at Christmas, something far more profound than just a cute little baby in a manger scene.  Grab a hymnal and let’s have some fun.  Have your Bible handy to look up some verses.

 

HOPING FOR THE MESSIAH

The Old Testament Jews were given much from God.  They had the law (God’s direction for how one should live), the prophets (applying His unchangeable truths to specific situations), and the sacrificial system (whereby unworthy sinners could approach the holy God).

 But good though it was (and no Christian should ever disparage our Old Testament roots, much less be anti-Semitic), it was not enough.  They needed the Messiah to come deliver, lead and teach. During Advent we walk alongside this “future hope” so we may the better appreciate the tremendous gift Jesus — Emmanuel — truly is.

 Read the words of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel to see what the Jews were longing for and reflect how this was fulfilled in Jesus (words: Latin, circa 9th century; tune from the plainsong, in present form, 15th century).  This plaintive tune also reflects our desire to see the Second Coming of Christ and all wrongs righted.

   Who Is This Messiah?                                                                    

 1.  HE IS FROM HEAVEN

The origin of the Messiah is heaven.  He’s more than just a super prophet or another King David.  John writes  (1:1, 14), that this eternal Word, in heaven  from  all  eternity  with God the Father, at a point in time, became human and lived among us. 

 Sing the lesser known carol From Heaven On High I Come to You; also translated as From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (words, Martin Luther, 16th century German; tune, 16th century German). 

 

2.  HE IS FROM DAVID

The Messiah must come from the lineage of David (Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23).  This is why Matthew and Luke are at such pains to demonstrate Jesus’ lineage (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-28). 

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (words, 15th century German; tune, 16th century German).  Verse 1: “Of Jesse’s lineage coming as seers of old have sung.”    [Jesse was David’s father.]  While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night  (words by Nahum Tate, 17th century English; melody, 16th century English).  Verse 3: “To you, in David’s town, this day is born of David’s line….”

 

3.  HE IS BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY

The prophet Isaiah said, “Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son…” (7:14).  Luke tells how the angel Gabriel went to Nazareth “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary” (1:26-27).  Jesus must be born of a Virgin mother, else He is merely human, not God-made-man. 

 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  (words,  Charles  Wesley,  18th century English; tune, Felix Mendelssohn, 19th century German).  Verse 2: “…off-spring of the Virgin’s womb.”   O Come, All Ye Faithful (words, John Francis Wade, 18th century English; tune, arranged by Wade).  Verse 2: “…lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb.”

4.  HE IS KING

Jesus is King, but, as He told Pilate, His Kingship is not of this world (John 18:36).  He is not a King with a specific territory, but is King of those who enthrone Him on their wills and obey Him.  At His Second Coming, however, Jesus will return as King and before Him every knee will bow and every tongue confess, either out of a previously decided loyalty or out of a too-late capitulation (Philippians 2:10-11).  

 Joy to the World!  (words, Isaac Watts, late 17th/early 18th century English; tune by George Frideric Handel of Handel’s Messiah fame, 18th century German living in England).  Verse 1 “…let earth  receive  her  King.”  Angels, From  the Realms of Glory (words, James Montgomery, 19th century English;  music, Henry Thomas Smart, 19th century English).  Chorus: “Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King!”  Angels We Have Heard on High (words and music, traditional French carol).  Verse 3: “…come, adore on bended knee Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.” 

 

                                                    5.  HE IS GOD

John opens his Gospel by highlighting “The Word,” Who is divine but not the same as God the Father (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).  When “doubting Thomas” comes to faith he exclaims of Jesus, “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), a statement which Jesus neither corrects nor rebukes.

 O Come, All Ye Faithful. Verse 2:  “God from God, Light from Light eternal … only-begotten Son of the Father.” Verse  6:  “Jesus … Word  of  the Father, now in flesh appearing.”  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  Verse 2: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.” Once in Royal David’s City (words, Cecil Frances Alexander, 19th century Irish; melody, Henry Gauntlett, 19th century English). Verse 2: “He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God and Lord of all….”

 

HOW DOES HE HELP US?

1.  IN GENERAL

Jesus is better than any other Christmas present.  He fulfills our hopes.  He calms our fears, sometimes intervening to take the problem away, other times by giving us grace to triumph as “victors in the midst of strife.” He knows what we’re going through. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but … one who in every way has been tested as we are….”  And he rejoices with us as the best personal friend we’ll ever have.

 O Little Town of Bethlehem (words, Phillips Brooks, and music, Lewis Redner, 19th century Americans).   Verse 1 “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”  Once in Royal David’s City.  Verse 4: “For He is  our  lifelong  pattern; daily, when on earth He grew, He was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us He knew.  Thus He feels all our sadness and He shares in all our gladness.”

 

2.  IN SPECIFIC:  SALVATION

The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed by God to show the Jews they could not approach God on their own merit; they needed a God-given blood sacrifice to be saved.  It was good, but it was not good enough, for the sacrifices had to be repeated over and over  (Hebrews 10:1-4). What was needed was a once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 2:14-18).  Jesus said He was the ransom for sin (Mark 10:45). 

 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  Verse 1 “God and sinners reconciled.”   Go Tell It on the Mountain (words / music, 19th century Negro spiritual). Verse 3: “…and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.” God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (words, 18th century English; music, 19th century English).  Verse 1: “…remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone a-stray.”  The First Noel (words, 18th century English, melody, 17th century).  Verse 6: “…and with His blood our life hath bought.”

 How extensive is the salvation Jesus offers?  Joy to the World!  Verse 3: “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found….”   What is the result for fallen sinners who come to Christ?  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  Verse 3: “…born that man no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”

 

3.  AND MORE

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  Verse 3: “Risen with healing in His wings, light and life to all He brings.”  Away in a Manger (words, traditional carol; music, widely sung to three different tunes).  Verse 3: “…and fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” Once in Royal David’s City.  Verse 5:  “and He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.”

 

HOW DO WE RECEIVE JESUS, OUR CHRISTMAS PRESENT?

Seek.  If you search for Jesus, you will find Him (see Luke 11:9).  Angels, From the Realms of Glory.  Verse 3: “Sages, leave your contemplations; brighter visions  beam  afar: seek the great Desire of nations, ye have seen his natal star…”   

Let the overwhelming majesty of God capture you.  It Came Upon a Midnight Clear  (words, Edmund H. Sears, 19th century American; music in U.S., Richard Storrs Willis, 19th century American).  Verse 3 (not found in all hymnals): “O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!”

Give your heart to God.  In the Bleak Midwinter (words, Christina Rosetti, 19th century English; music, Gustav Holst, late 19th / early 20th century English of Swedish descent.  Verse 4: “What can I give Him…? … give my heart.” 

 Submit to Him as Savior and Lord.   What Child Is This?  (words, William Chatterton Dix, 19th century English; music, folk melody, Greensleeves).  Verse 3: “…let loving hearts enthrone Him.” 

 May God remind you of the message as you sing the Christmas carols this year. +

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