Friday, December 09, 2016

'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'

If you want a quietly solemn way to end the midnight service, sing “Silent Night.” If you want a song that will transport the congregation to heavenly realms, go with “O Holy Night.” But if you want to get people out of their seats, charged up and ready to move, the Christmas carol you want is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

The secret is in that tune. Written with an upbeat tempo and in a major key, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the Christmas carol for a celebration. It's a versatile song, one that can sound heavenly when it's sung acapella or accompanied by a violin; but if you listen to the music, it's just as easy to imagine it played on trumpets like a quartet of heralds announcing a royal arrival. It's virtually impossible to get this song wrong. It can even be played on an organ and still come out inspiring.

We owe “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to the prolific creativity of Charles Wesley, the credited author of more than 6,000 hymns. Wesley — who, like his brother John and their father, was an ordained minister of the Church of England — is also remembered as the founder of Methodism. The denomination takes its name from a prayer group the Charles Wesley founded while he was attending Christ Church, Oxford, that was known for its intensive, methodological approach to studying the Bible.

Wesley considered hymns, made easier to remember by virtue of being sung, a natural way to teach. He brought his meticulous approach to Bible study to bear so that the lyrics became not just recountings of stories in the Bible or passages of Scripture set to music, but miniature lessons in church doctrine. It would be as though contemporary theologian N.T. Wright put portions of “Surprised by Hope” to music, and then received airtime comparable to popular Christian singers like Chris Tomlin.

Originally published in 1739, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" underwent some minor changes under the revival preacher George Whitefield, who changed the opening lines of the first verse (from “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”) and added the familiar couplet that closes each verse. The song originally had the same tune as "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," but in 1855 musician William H. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn's song to fit the lyrics. For all that, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is no exception to the depth of Wesley's writing.

The carol begins by placing the singers in the position of the shepherds of Luke's gospel as the angels appear and announce the birth of Jesus. To modern sensibilities, this a nice place to be. The shepherds are a quaint pastoral touch, and most of us are happy to identify with them in the gospel narrative as the first to hear that Christ has come.

We lose sight of how radical and subversive Luke's gospel is on this point, because the truth is that the shepherds embody the sort of people we usually go out of our way to avoid. People in the first century were discouraged from buying anything directly from shepherds because it was a given that anything a shepherd tried to sell was probably stolen. Even their testimony was inadmissible in the courts. This wasn't a quaint or pastoral group of people; it was an assemblage of crack addicts from under the bridge who aren't allowed to vote.

It's among this group of felons and illiterates that Wesley's hymn places us, as they receive the unexpected announcement from the angels, along with the news that the new king has removed any barriers that may have kept the from God:
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!”
That's standard Bible stuff. In the second verse Wesley starts to teach about the Incarnation.

In Bible studies I've attended or led, I've encountered some pretty surprising attitudes toward Jesus. It seems we like Jesus to be something unreal or unnatural. We see the miracles in the gospels and assume that he had special God powers, and that this is why people followed him; or we catch the doctrine of his sinless nature and assume that life was easy for him, free of temptation, doubt or fear.

This is an old error. Christian orthodoxy teaches that Jesus was not a demigod like Herakles or some other hero of Greco-Roman myth, but as fully human as he was fully God. The Bible makes a point of it. He gets hungry. He gets angry. He gets tired. He cries, and even has full-blown panic attacks. He even cooks food and folds the laundry. Wesley addresses that point of doctrine in Verse 2.
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.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The proclamation of the angels and the mystery of Christ revealed, Wesley in the third verse turns to the shepherds' response, which is to worship. But here Wesley sneaks in a reference to Easter, as he proclaims that Christ is come to see the end of death:
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun 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!”
There are two other verses Charles Wesley wrote for the carol that George Whitefield cut. To this day, they are rarely sung. But reading these, you can see firsthand the attention that Charles Wesley gave to Scripture as he wrote:

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 pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” 
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:
Oh, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

I hope your church incorporates this Christmas carol into worship at least once this Advent; and if it doesn't, I hope you can find time to enjoy it yourself, around the table with your family, or out caroling with your friends.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of the greatest Christmas carols ever written. It's scarcely possible to imagine Christmas without this song.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Savior"

No comments: