Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel IV: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

The lyrics to this classic carol were originally penned by the great Charles Wesley, though according to his preference they were set to a much more sombre tune.  Also, he opened with the amusing line "Hark! how all the welkin rings" ('welkin' being an archaic term for 'sky').  By the time William Cumming updated the music to the tune we know today (by Mendelssohn), the words had changed, too. 

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!”

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 man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.


Hail the heav’nly 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.


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.


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.

Most churches only sing the first three verses (or the first and third), and popular versions--like the one above--sing the first and maybe third verses, if that.  (Honestly, there aren't a lot of popular versions out there.)  I myself have never even heard the fourth or fifth verses before.  This carol is positively brimming with theological language.  It speaks of the reconciliation of man to God and the virgin birth, and contains possibly my favorite description of the incarnation: 
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail th'incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with man to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel. . . . Mild He lays His glory by . . .
Wow.  There is a lot packed in there.  God in flesh, man's first opportunity to see the Godhead, deity incarnate, dwelling among us . . . God with us. It's a great treatment of the incarnation and the dual nature of Christ.

The third verse continues by lauding the result of this miraculous incarnation: peace, light, life, healing, a second birth, the death of death, the hope of resurrection . . . Beautiful.  And very theologically dense.  Unfortunately, it doesn't really ever get into the death of Christ.  The consequences of the crucifixion are there (eternal life, reconciliation, etc.), but the crucifixion itself does not appear.  And there's precious little mention of sin.

The (lost) fourth and fifth verses help a little, invoking the fall of man and the curse (see Gen. 3:15), mentioning our ruined nature, and Christ as second Adam, ushering in life (I Cor. 15:21-22) where there was only death and sin (Rom. 5:12-19).  But still, for all its theological language, the real gospel references are subtler than I'd like.  I need a little death in my Christmas carols.  I need to be reminded of the ugliness of sin and the horror of Christ's death on the cross to pay for that sin.  It's not all angels and peace and shepherds and virgins.  This is a gritty story, and our Christmas carols should not be so sanitized that we forget that.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel V: Sweet Little Jesus Boy', click here.

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