Friday, December 23, 2016

'Angels We Have Heard On High'

Surveying the collection of carols in American hymnody, one might be excused for thinking that Christmas was about angels.

The Christ child gets attention in carols like “O Holy Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and the magi of Matthew's gospel take center stage in “We Three Kings,” but we just can't get enough of those angels. Whether the heavenly host sings alleluia in “Silent Night,” or angels greet the newborn Christ with sweet anthems in “What Child Is This,” it's rare to find a Christmas carol that doesn't mention them. We just can't get enough of the angels proclaiming Christ's birth to a group of frightened shepherds.

The angels take center stage in the story of the first Christmas in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” In the structure of the song we are neither shepherds receiving the announcement of Christ's birth, nor are we angels declaring the news. We are instead a third party, wandering the countryside and arriving too late to witness the stunning tableau that transpired outside Bethlehem.

Imagine and take it in for a moment, what that spectacle would have been like. The gospel of Luke mentions a group of shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem tending their flocks of sheep, one presumes in connection with the sacrificial system at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem.

On the one hand is the landscape, barren except for the scrub, meadow muffins and a small flock of sheep that dot the area. Scattered through that flock are rough-spun shepherds, some sleeping, some possibly drunk and some watching the scene with whatever emotion sits in the hearts of a shepherd late at night. On the other hand is a heavenly visitor who has just appeared, illumined and illuminating with an unworldly light that burns with a wondrous terror.

Caesar and other rulers concern themselves with halls of power and faraway kingdoms. Whenever they have an important proclamation to share, like the birth of an heir, they send messengers throughout the realm to declare it to the mighty. The angelic messenger is here to declare that God has restored the royal line of David, Israel's golden king.

Fifteen hundred years earlier, Moses went to Pharaoh and declared that God had sent him to save Israel from slavery and genocide, and to deliver his people to their own land. Now the angel is declaring that God is sending a new Moses to free Israel again, but the announcement isn't going to Caesar or even to Herod. It's going to the beneficiaries of that news, a group of social outcasts who can't even give testimony in court.

It's hard to tell which is a bigger shock to the shepherds: that the messiah has been born, or that they're the ones who are receiving the birth announcement.

This is the scene of wild, uncontainable wonder expressed in the opening lines of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” That first verse comes from the shepherds themselves, struck senseless with wonder. They have seen a host of angels and heard those angels, lost in worship, as a heavenly song rolled over the plains and came echoing back from distant mountains.

This is their witness account of what they heard and what they saw, and frankly it is incredible.

By the time we arrive on the scene, it is 2,020 years later. The angels are gone. Their music, however glorious it once sounded, has faded into silence. There is no one left living whose great-grandfather might have been stirred by that song. All that remains is what purports to be a written record of their encounter, and whatever questions we have.

The first verse is the account of the shepherds; the second verse is ours, and it is addressed to the shepherds. Why this celebration? Why this singing? What could you possibly have heard to set you to such celebration?

These are all reasonable questions, whether they are asked as the shepherds rush toward Bethlehem, or two millennia later as we wonder at the story we have heard. Either way, the shepherds' response in the third verse is the only one suitable. They don't argue theology with us. (As for how they feel about it, that should be obvious from the major key and upbeat tempo to the carol.)

Nor do the shepherds even talk about what they think the birth of Jesus will mean for them personally, for their nation, or for the world. Their initial response is simply “Come to Bethlehem and see.”

What do we find there? A baby, certainly; some would say, no more. The remainder of the third verse, and the fourth verse as well, state what the shepherds themselves believed they would find: Christ the Lord, the newborn king, Lord of heaven and earth, laid in a manger.

And woven throughout the song at the end of every verse is the song of the angels itself, rendered in a rolling chorus that rises and falls in rapid tempo, the Latin Gloria in Excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest.”

This, then, is our cue, as visitors to this pageantry. We have missed the angels, and are witness only to the record of what Luke tells us the shepherds found.

Follow the shepherds. Come to Bethlehem. What do you see there?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" "O Come O Come, Immanuel"

"Angels We Have Heard On High"

1. Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

2. Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
3. Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ, whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

4. See Him in a manger laid,

Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Savior's birth.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

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