Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Hymnody: Theology and History (1)

Advent slowly but surely gives way to Christmas, and most churches can't resist sneaking in a carol or two before all the candles on the wreath are lit. The hymnody of Christmas is perhaps the most diverse of any season of the Christian year: a lively blend of good and bad theology, spiced up with a generous helping of some rather ugly historical inaccuracies. On the latter, Ben Witherington has much to say. Bad history breeds bad theology, and much of the blame for the loss of the sacred elements of the Feast of the Nativity can be laid at the feet of an overly sentimentalized version of Christianity which is never more apparent than in the singing of some of the most cherished songs of the season. At the same time, however, some of the most deeply theological hymns of the faith are celebrations of the birth of the Christ child. What many mature believers know about the Incarnation, they learned from the stirring texts of some of their favorite Christmas carols.

Charles Wesley's "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" is so much a theological treatise in verse that it has often been called "The Theologian's Carol." Its familiarity may cloud its high Christological, soteriological, and (in the often omitted final two stanzas) eschatological message. We do well simply to read and meditate upon Wesley's words (with some minor alterations by his friend George Whitfield).

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!”

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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 th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

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Hail the heav’nly 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.

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Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

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Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

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Angels are also prominent in the traditional English carol, "The First Noel." Note, however, some rather glaring inconsistencies with the biblical narrative.

The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay tending their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

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Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

They lookèd up and saw a star
Shining in the east, beyond them far;
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

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And by the light of that same star
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.

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This star drew nigh to the northwest,
Over Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay.

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Then did they know assuredly
Within that house the King did lie;
One entered it them for to see,
And found the Babe in poverty.

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Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon the knee,
And offered there, in His presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.

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Between an ox stall and an ass,
This Child truly there He was;
For want of clothing they did Him lay
All in a manger, among the hay.

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Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made Heaven and earth of naught,
And with His blood mankind hath bought.

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If we in our time shall do well,
We shall be free from death and hell;
For God hath prepared for us all
A resting place in general.

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Like many "traditional" carols, this one blends the many elements of the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany panorama, creating the impression that the whole event--from the angelic proclamation to the arrival of the Wise Men--took place on one "cold winter's night" (a dubious seasonal and climatological assumption in itself, despite the traditional date of December 25). The shepherds, according to Luke's account, went to Bethlehem after hearing the angelic proclamation, but there is no mention of them following a star. A celestial light was the guide for the Wise Men, as recorded by Matthew but, despite their frequent inclusion with the shepherds in decorative Nativity scenes, these men from the East likely did not arrive until some two years after Jesus' birth. Note, also, a number of the sentimental elements to which Witherington objects, although there is mention of an actual "house" within which "the King did lie."

Rich incarnational theology is mixed, perhaps, with some slightly inaccurate historical presuppositions in John F. Wade's "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Translated from Latin, most Christmas Eve worshipers are familiar only with stanzas 1, 3, and 7. This is unfortunate, as the uncut version is a tapestry of adoration to the Lord of heaven come to earth as a baby in a manger, and an invitation for all creation to join in the chorus of praise.

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;

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O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;

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Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;

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See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;

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Lo! star led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child bring our hearts’ oblations.

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Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?

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Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

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