“Is that really true?” the choirboy demands. “I don’t believe in angels,” says another. “My father said,” begins a girl … and we brace ourselves. This is the Information Age. Our youngsters want cold, hard facts.
Was the historical Jesus born in December? Not likely. Did a star appear directly over the manger, a sign to shepherds and sages? Pretty doubtful. Does it matter? That depends.
The Christmas story, with its angels, shepherds, and kings, did not become prominent in Christian consciousness for several centuries. Later, after neatly incorporating Christmas into various mid-winter festivities, church leaders were appalled to find it so easily secularized and trivialized. The Puritans banned any observance of it, but, in the mid-1800s, Christmas returned with a vengeance and morphed into today’s super-hyped season of shopping and sentimentality.
All is not lost, however. As we sing the traditional Christmas hymns and carols, we reconnect with the true reason for the season.
CHARLES WESLEY + FELIX MENDELSSOHN + TWO
Many Christmas songs have been lost to us, but “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING” has survived and thrived. When the Poet of Methodism, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), first penned the lyrics in 1739, he opened with the words: “Hark! how all the welkin rings./ Glory to the King of Kings.” Welkin means sky or heaven. Aren’t we glad that Wesley’s friend, the great Anglican evangelist George Whitefield, used his editing skills to rewrite the opening couplet!
In the third verse, Wesley borrowed words from the last book in the Old Testament — Malachi 4:2, bringing into the New Testament story some of the most beloved images of the promised savior.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
At Christmas, Christians around the world sing this hymn to a tune composed about eighty years after the words. It came from a cantata written by the Jewish-born German composer Felix Mendelssohn to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Fifteen years later, in 1855, William H. Cummings, a British organist, adapted the secular melody for the singing of this sacred Christmas hymn.
CHRISTMAS MYTH AND MYSTERY
When we open our hearts to the simple gifts of storytelling and music, we see beyond the conspicuous and confirmable to the truths inherent in our myths and mysteries.
Singing, our awareness of the divine is heightened, though it is as small as a newborn’s first mewling cry and as vast as the star-strewn universe. The images touch our deepest imaginings in this complicated season.
Whether verifiable fact or the stuff of legend, the story of the Christ child’s humble birth has touched the lives of the poor and the privileged. We know in our hearts the contradictory truth of hardship and hope, of cold winter nights and wonder, of alienation and angels’ wings. It’s all here. Tell the kids.
TO GO DEEPER
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: An Illustrated History” by Cait Miller, 12/20/16, Library of Congress website
“History of Hymns: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries
Words and Music on the Hymnary website
The Nativity by Julie Vivas, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986) on Goodreads. Of my many picture books, this one by Australian illustrator Julie Vivas is one of my favorites. Magical, full of holy mystery, and down-to-earth dilemmas, the watercolors depict a very pregnant, slippered Mary, earnest and attentive Joseph, and giant-winged angels, paired with the biblical text (KJV). The sweet humor and anatomical accuracy are why this book is sometimes banned by the dry and dreamless.
Mike Moyers Fine Art website