Tag Archives: Christmas Carols

“Christmas is for the Dying”

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Recently I was reading a blog about which Christmas Carol has the best theology (http://blog.livingstonesreno.com).  The author had previously named the three most “theologically misleading” Christmas Carols, in his opinion, to be (1) “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – what he described as “the Diet Coke of Christmas carols – bad taste, zero substance,” (2) “We Three Kings”  –  asking, “Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus?” and (3) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – explaining, “I’m not urging you to read like a legal treatise, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth… Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth…He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world… (and) Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns.  Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light,” but not until then.  “Away in a Manger” got “honorable mention” in this category – as the blogger explained, “we can’t downplay Christ’s humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.”

The author then came up with 16 contenders for the title of what he called “the most theologically rich” Christmas Carol of them all:

Joy to the World
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Silent Night
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
O Come All Ye Faithful
Go Tell It On the Mountain
God Rest Ye  Merry Gentleman
Angels We Have Heard on High
What Child is This?
Mary Did You Know?
O Holy Night                                                                                                                                       
 
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel

When he was done examining the theology of each of these Christmas Carols, the author of this blog moved four into the “Finals”

O Holy Night –

It’s uncontested redemption line Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth” is chillingly profound.”                                                                                                                                          

Mary Did You Know?  –

This upstart Christmas carol written in 1984 demonstrates theological solidity with its theme of rhetorically asking Mary if she was aware of the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, with the intensity of the song’s Christology building and building throughout.”                                                                                                                        

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

A Christmas Carol of “Solid Christology, featuring the highlight “Hail the incarnate deity.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel –

An onslaught of Christological foreshadowings from the Old Testament.”

And then he narrowed it to just two – “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – for a theological showdown before naming “O Holy Night” as his grand champion.  Personally, I would have gone with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I am struck by the theological depth of this Christmas Carol every time we sing it.

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 the 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 a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

As someone was overheard to remark after singing this carol, “There’s a lot of important stuff in there!”  But the theological “thickness” of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was powerfully brought to my attention recently as I prepared for our December “Faiths in Conversation” program with our Jewish and Muslim friends.  The topic was “Death and Dying,” not so much about what we believe happens to us when we die, our specific convictions about the afterlife, but rather about what are the traditions and practices of our particular communities of faith when someone dies?  Of course, that’s a rather artificial distinction since our funeral traditions and burial practices are rooted in our convictions and beliefs, and so in order to talk about our funerals Christians I had to begin by talking about what we believe as Christians that Jesus Christ has done about death, and that brought “Hark! The Herald Angels” immediately to my mind and heart –

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son 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!”

Several years ago there was a death in author Madeleine L’Engle’s family at Christmastime.   She wrote about in in her book The Irrational Season (Crossroad 1979).  The funeral for Madeleine’s loved one was on the morning of Christmas Eve, and when the service was over the family gathered in the front room of Madeleine’s home emotionally and physically spent, and the question that was hanging in the air finally got posed out loud: “What about Christmas?”  They were torn. “Is it proper (even possible) to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?”  they wondered.  And finally Madeleine spoke up – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all, yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all; yes!”  (24)

I hope that you will take a look at what I said last Monday night at the Interfaith Conversation about what we who are Christians do when someone we love dies.  I’ve posted it in the “Sermons” section of the church webpage in the “Worship” area (“Faiths in Conversation”).  It was a conscious attempt to explain what Madeleine meant when she said that Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the family funeral “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all… If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all!”

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

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Sing We Now of Christmas “Joy to the World”

a

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, 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,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, 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,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

bI grew up in a strongly Seventh Day Adventist neighborhood in Southern California.   I went past one of their Hospitals, their Regional Denominational Offices and their National Radio and Television Ministry Studio every day on my way to school.  Their “Academy” – a church-related school – was as big as the elementary school that I attended. And some of the friends I played with everyday in the park across the street from where I lived were Adventists.  We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.  And one of the things that I often saw when I was in their houses were paintings of what they thought that life after death was going to be like, and the images I saw cast a vision that was remarkably physical and this-worldly – like a nice day in a beautiful park.  They always left me confused.  When I died I expected to shed my body, leave this world, go to heaven and continue to exist there forever as a spirit – like an angel.   This wasn’t something that I was necessarily “taught” but rather it was something I “caught.”  “When you die you go to heaven,” that’s what everyone said, and then there was “The Littlest Angel” – that classic Christmas story that we saw every December in elementary school (it was the 1950’s and 60’s) and that made a very deep impression on me. 

C“The Littlest Angel” is the story of a little boy who died and went to heaven as the littlest angel and who then struggled to fit in until he was allowed to return to earth to retrieve his box of earthly treasures from under his bed which in turn were transfigured into the Star of Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.  It’s a memorable and moving story, and it only confirmed my general impression that the goal of life was to find release from my physical existence in this material world to live forever with God in a spiritual heaven.  It would take years for me to discover that my Adventist friends were much closer to the truth of the things that have been revealed to us than the impressions that culture had casually made on me over the years.  Now, more fully informed of what the Bible actually teaches, I believe that my final destiny is not the immortality of my soul in the eternity of heaven – a spiritual state, but the resurrection (not the resuscitation) of my body on a renewed earth.

Christopher J.H. Wright, the British Old Testament scholar who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Biblical theologians, in his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan), explains that what he believes in is “life after life after death”  (181).

dWhat is our final destination according to the Bible?  Most Christians tend to answer, “Why, heaven of course.” There is a question that is often used in evangelistic encounters which goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” I confess I have not been asked this question for a long time, but if I were, my answer now would be, “Yes – But I don’t expect to stay there!”  I suppose this might be rather shocking to any earnest evangelist.   Where else do I think I might be going later, or where would I want to go instead?  Of course I believe, as the apostle Paul did, that when I die I will go to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23).  For Paul, the thought of being with Christ made it a hard choice as to whether he wanted to die or go on living for the sake of the work he had to do.  But here’s the point: The heaven I will go to when I die is not my final destination… it is only the transit lounge for the new creation.  Heaven for those who have died in Christ is a place or state of rest, of waiting…  “Heaven when you die” is not where we will be forever.  It is where we will be safe until God brings about the transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament. (193-194)

“The transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament” — This is what the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” is talking about when it tells “earth (to) receive her King,” “and heaven and nature sing,” “while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,” that “sins and sorrows no longer grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The salvation that Christ affects is directly proportionate to those things that need saving, and in Genesis chapter 3, the Fall affects not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation, and so what will eventually be redeemed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not ejust us as individual human beings, but all of creation. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  This is what that Bible is talking about when it describes the wolf and the lamb grazing together (Isaiah 65:25), the leopard lying down with the kid and the child playing over the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ restores the original shalom of creation – the harmony of everything and everyone fitted together once again in a web of mutual interdependence and well-being.  This is the picture that lies behind the Bible’s talk of the new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 66:21-24; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 21:1-22:5).

As the Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema explained it in his book on The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans 1979) –

…To leave the (doctrine of the) new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come… (and it is to fail to) grasp the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program.  In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.  Because of man’s fall into sin,
a curse was pronounced over this creation.  God has now sent His Son into this world to redeem creation from the results of sin.  The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals… The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise lost has become Paradise Regained.  We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. (274-275).

When we sing of Christmas using Isaac Watts’ theologically lofty text and George Frederick Handel’s majestic tune, “Joy to the World,” we are singing about the full scope of God’s saving action from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the Consummation, from the Fall in Adam to the Restoration of all things in Christ.  There are very few Christmas carols, let alone hymns in general, with a more cosmic vision of the redemption that God in Christ accomplishes for us and our world, and it deserves to be sung not just at Christmastime, but all year round.  DBS+

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