There are many reasons I love Christmas time. I could certainly make a list, but for now, I’ll share a headliner.
My life largely takes place in airports. Lots of them. Even now (as I write), I’m sitting in an Air France lounge in Paris waiting to board back-to-back ten hour flights to Atlanta, Georgia and Santiago, Chile. But there is something wondrous about walking into these massive airports like Charles De Gaulle or Atlanta-Hartsfield around Christmas time because proclaiming boldly over the sound system you’ll hear words like, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus! Our Emmanuel. Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.”
Somehow, it brings a beautiful stillness to my heart and a peace in my mind. Such deep (not complicated) theology of hope, joy, and salvation.
AND YET, many miss it. Literally. In one ear…out the other.
Truth disseminated. Truth discarded. (Not necessarily, truth rejected.) But I’m not worried about the many who miss it. Instead. What about YOU? About me?
When Charles Wesley wrote this particular song at the age of 32 years old, it began a bit differently. The opening line read, “Hark how the welkin rings…” If you’re like me, at this point, it sounds like a Narnian creature or a some mythological being. I can imagine George Whitefield, a friend of Charles, asking, “What exactly is a welkin*?” (Go ahead and guess…it’s not an angel.) Thanks to some changes by George (and to Charles great dismay), we have the lyrics of the song that you hear today. (Though neither Wesley nor Whitefield ever heard this song sung as we do today. That music wasn’t added for over 100 years.)
Today, this hymn has made it even into film classics such as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.
But really, the journey of this carol isn’t so much about it’s success or progression. It’s about our response. As you walk the aisles of retail stores, and peruse the windows of shops in the mall, or sit in the hushed atmosphere of a doctor’s office and hear the words of these songs playing, will it go in one ear and out the other? I didn’t ask if you’ll appreciate it. I’m asking if you’ll accept it’s truth.
The first word of this song is HARK. Hark means listen or pay attention. What are we paying attention to? The same message given on that first Christmas.
Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14)
As God the Father said about Christ in Matthew 17:5, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Hark! Jesus didn’t come to earth to provide you fire-insurance from Hell. He came to save you from your sinful condition and give you new life. A new life meant to change everything. The way we think, act, give, love, you get it.
Wesley originally penned ten verses to this song, but the conclusion of our modern version sums up the purpose of the incarnation.
Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen 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.
Jesus didn’t come to renovate anyone’s life. He came to transform. He didn’t come to fix you up. He came to free you from bondage. To give NEW life. A new birth. Let this carol, as you hear it proclaimed in public during this season remind you (who follow Jesus Christ) that your calling is not to be different from the world (as the goal), but rather, to live the new creation you are. Imitators of Christ as dear children (Ephesians 5:1).
These aren’t just Christmas carols. These are vivid reminders of who we are because of who He is.
* noun: welkin means “sky or heaven” or “vault of heaven”