Hark, the [herald angels sing]
Glory to the [new-born] King
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With 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 a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail, the incarnate Diety,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel…
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.
Risen with healing in his wings,
Light and life to all he brings;
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace…
Hark, the herald angels sing glory to the new-born King.
~ Charles Wesley, 1739
Hymns and carols summarize our faith. Some achieve this end with amazing precision and yet with a stunning economy of words. The best texts function in the way the Creeds do.
Tonight we use portions of the Texts for Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America. Within these texts is a slightly revised form of the Nicene Creed. The several re-translations seek to restore original meanings. “Visible and invisible” are nearer to the Greek words, having wider implication than “seen and unseen.” Eliminated is the phrase “by the power of” when the original simply says that the Lord Jesus Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Eucharistic Liturgy is also rendered to bring all the refinements of the last fifty years of liturgical scholarship to bear on the Cranmerian text of the Holy Communion Service: such that the Reformation theological balance of humanity’s sin and God’s grace is wonderfully restored, while using contemporary idiom for address of the Almighty, and at the same time realigning ecumenical turns of phrase across Catholic and Anglican rites. Hymns, creeds and liturgies are living vehicles for timeless truth conveyed.
Charles Wesley wrote some 6000 hymns. Some of them are still among our favorite texts: “Love Divine, all Loves Excelling”, “Lo, He comes with Clouds, Descending”, “Christ whose Glory fills the Skies”, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, “And Can It Be?” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”. Tonight I want to focus on one text in particular that—like the Creed’s exposition of Trinitarian Faith and the Liturgy’s proclamation of Atonement in Christ Jesus—summarizes what we wish to declare to the world about Christmas, about this joyous Feast of the Nativity.
That “singing is praying twice” is an idea attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo [d.430]. It is the content itself – and the music that functions to make the content more memorable – that makes this true. In the case of Charles Wesley’s carol, slight alteration of the first and second lines by his Great Awakening colleague George Whitfield give us the text known for nearly three hundred Christmases. The addition of Felix Mendelssohn’s tune in the mid-nineteenth century – a tune originally written to honor an anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type press – renders “Hark, the herald angels sing” the near-perfect hymn.
This Christmas homily, preached by this Christmas homilist, seeks to set out the fullness of the Christmas gospel with words already well-known to you. What does Christmas mean?
- It means joy. “Joyful, all ye nations rise.” Joy for all nations. Joy for all peoples. Joy for any who will receive this news. Joy for you. Joy for me. It is the message of the prophet (Isaiah 6:6-7); it is the message of the psalmist (Psalm 96:1); it is the message of the apostle (Titus 2:11); it is the message of the angel (Luke 3:10). Joy.
- It means peace. “Peace on earth, and mercy mild.” God is providing a way out of the rebellion begun in the garden: the rebellion of sin, which none of us on our own finds a way to escape. God is offering a means – at his own expense – to undo the expulsion from Eden. “Christ” – Messiah – “is born in Bethlehem.” “God and sinners reconciled.” Peace.
- It means victory. “Late in time behold him come.” This is where the purpose of creation is fulfilled, what the whole of everything is about. The invitation is to “Join the triumph of the skies.” God wins. Victory.
- It means adoption. “Born to give us second birth.” We have access to become the sons and daughters of God. The circumstances of our first birth do not matter, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Whatever we do not have will be provided, if we but agree to receive it. We have access to the full inheritance. “Risen with healing in his wings. Light and life to all he brings.” “Jesus, our Emmanuel.” Adoption.
- It means atonement. God has come to us. God understands us. God loves us. God has taken on our flesh. (God is willing to take our place, pay our ransom.) “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see: hail, the incarnate Deity.” “Pleased as man with man to dwell…” “Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.” “Hark, the herald angels sing.” God has bridged the divide between Himself and us. God has bridged the chasm between heaven and earth. We can hear the message of his angels. We can join in singing with his angels. Atonement.
- It means glory. Glory – praise – to God, and glory – presence with Him forever – for us. “Glory to the new-born King.” “Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.” “Born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth.” “Glory…” Glory.
Joy…Peace…Victory…Adoption…Atonement…Glory… This is the meaning of Christmas.
Merry Christmas, one and all. Blessed Christmas! The greatest gift we receive is the one God has given to us, His Son, Jesus. If the meaning of Christmas ever escapes you, I encourage you to come back to these words and this tune. There is an amazing precision here, and a stunning economy of words. Yet, there is the fullness of the Good News of Jesus Christ in Christmas. Sing it to yourself. Tell it to others. Praise God for it.