Ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted to get married at Christmas, partly because I love snow and the delicious medievalism of the floral arrangements, dark winter nights and flickering candles.
The other reason is I would like to end the service with one of my favourite hymns, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’.
Of course, the stirring melody, not the original but the one by Felix Mendelssohn, adapted in 1840 by English musician William Cummings, helps to set the mood, especially when the glorious descant lifts above the refrain ‘Glory to the newborn King’. This makes tingles go down my spine.
And the words are so inspiring, God-given. An incarnation song that speaks of the unspeakable mystery of God humbling himself:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
And the expression of hope, of resurrection and ascension into heaven:
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings.
Not that Jesus literally had wings, but the words are taken straight out of Scripture — Malachi 4:2. And he will ‘return as he went up’ (Acts 1:11). He grants salvation to all who believe in him:
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth.
What more of the gospel could Charles Wesley possibly fit into this wonderful Christmas paean of praise?
It’s when you consider the scriptural content of this carol, with the doctrines of incarnation and salvation, blended in perfect poetic form, that you wonder what on earth went wrong with some of the other songs we sing at Christmas.
Now, I love to listen to ‘In the bleak midwinter’, with the music by Holst, and to hear the Kings’ College choir performing ‘The holly and the ivy’.
Something in me stirs when I hear these, reminding me of my MA studies of old English Christmas homilies, of early medieval madrigals, icy cobbled streets and postcard-perfect scenes of mistletoe by the hearth. But when you think about them, the words are pretty rubbish:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Christina Rossetti has never been a favourite of mine! I’ve seen better rhymes scribbled on bus shelters.
‘The holly and the ivy’ is indeed medieval, dating back 1000 years. Yet it is believed to have pagan origins, lamenting winter’s death and looking to spring’s rebirth — Christianised to make it palatable for the early Catholic Church:
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir.
This owes too much to the Victorian idea of searching back for a ‘golden age’. What has a frightened deer got to do with the gospel? True, both carols go on to talk about the incarnation:
The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
But there’s no depth to them. They don’t adequately convey the message of God’s amazing act, stepping down from glory to be born in a dirty manger and grow up to die for me.
‘Little drummer boy’ is another one that bugs me. Nobody questions the lunacy of the suggestion that the boy will bang his drum for the baby Jesus — biblical accuracy aside. I challenge you to find me a mother who would appreciate that going on while trying to get a newborn to sleep!
Don’t get me started on ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’! The song actually talks about someone seeing Mary and the baby Jesus s a i l i n g i n t o B e t h l e h e m o n Christmas morning. Doctrinal headaches aside, the geographical fact that Bethlehem is land-locked should be reason alone for ditching this ridiculous song.
When you consider the reality of why we celebrate Christmas — God becoming man to live as man, die for man, and rise again to bring to himself all who believe in him — such songs with no doctrinal truth should be ejected from the hymnal.
I’m not saying not to enjoy these from one perspective as part of the whole Christmas celebration. I personally also get a year-round ‘kick’ from listening to Wizzard’s ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’. I don’t wish that, of course, but I like the song. It’s fun!
But when it comes to really worshipping God at Christmas, I wish Christians put a little more thought into what they’re really singing about and to whom they’re singing.
When we have our singing groups and perform in various carol services, where many non-believers or young seekers will be gathering with us, are we more concerned about getting the right note and blending the harmony well, or about glorifying God?
Do we think more about what sounds nice, rather than what will really speak to someone’s heart? Yes we’re called to ‘make a joyful noise’, but that is ‘to the Lord’ (Psalm 100:1).
Think about what you’re singing this Christmas, what the words mean for you and for others around you. And worship God, in truth, with a sense of gratitude and awe.