“Angels near the earth with golden harps” and other old but strange songs

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silentnightNew and improved versus old, obsolete and traditional. Our culture idolizes whatever is new. A couple of years after buying a car, a computer, or an iPhone, we regret having bought them then and not today. Sometimes we don’t even know that what we bought was already obsolete before it even left the checkout counter.

But not so with Christmas carols. O how we cherish these endearing, cuddly, romantic images of being home for the holidays, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh rides in a winter wonderland, or even a mother cuddling a soft baby sleeping ever so peacefully among bleating lambs and lowing calves. No matter how old and traditional they are. Who cares if “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” is a 700-year-old politically incorrect carol, even using the three-letter “a” word? Or that “Joy to the World” is a 300-year-old composition by the 17-18th century hymnwriter Isaac Watts? 1

Not only does the obsolete and traditional become suddenly acceptable. Even the weird and strange images are ignored—why spoil the spirit of fun and goodwill of the season by pointing them out? Take for example, the Unitarian Edmund Sears’ “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold” at midnight. The whole world—not just the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem—in its “solemn stillness” listened to the angels softly plucking their harps. When he wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1849, Sears of course saw a world in need of peace and stability in the midst of the uncertainties and the frantic greed of the Gold Rush and Industrial Revolution, and the tension over slavery. So instead of the reconciliation of hopeless sinners to a holy God as the mission of the incarnated Emmanuel, he saw in Bethlehem the inauguration of rest from toiling under a “crushing load” and of the onset of an “age of gold” of worldwide peace.

Bethlehem and the angels seem to be a popular motif with Unitarian songwriters. Phillips Brooks paints a picture of a sleepy “dreamless” town whose “hopes and fears of all the years are met” on that first Christmas night. (What this really means, I don’t know. But this verse reminds me of Vineyard’s idea of how one receives eternal life in John Wimber’s 1979 “Spirit Song”: “Oh give Him all your tears of sadness; give Him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name.”) Unlike his colleague Sears, Brooks’ idea of the birth of Christ is not so much about worldwide peace, but about a “personal relationship” with God. “Meek souls” will receive the holy Child of Bethlehem, so that their sin will be cast out, allowing him to “enter in.” Union with Christ then is not through being born again by the Spirit, but by Christ being “born in us today.” I wonder whether Brooks had the idea of human “little gods” so common today among Word-Faith heretics, or did he think that Jesus became one of us by being born in us? Or was he merely echoing the popular revivalistic idea that one is saved by inviting Jesus into his heart?

wassail

The story of toasting "wassail" begins when a girl named Renwein presented the Anglo-Saxon king Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute “Lavert King, was hail!” which means "Lord King, to your health!" Source: "Wassailing Through History" by Robert Doares, http://www.history.org/visit/christmas/hist_wassail.cfm (click picture to enlarge)

The manger scene is another favorite, especially when our little toddlers sing “Away in a Manger” in an annual Christmas pageant. The song is about a cute newborn baby Jesus so quiet he doesn’t even cry when he awakes. This cuddly baby then ascends into heaven and watches all the other cuddly babies on earth while they sleep “til morning is nigh.”

Tragedy was an important part of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” penned by the beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also a Unitarian, in 1863. It was a reflection on the horrors of the Civil War in which his own son, an army lieutenant, was seriously wounded:

Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But all is not lost. Like all Christmas carols, Longfellow also puts hope for peace and quiet in this troubled world in the coming of Christ, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men!'”

Even the not-so-evangelical Unitarians, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics wrote Christmas carols that are Biblically-sound. An infamous character, Nahum Tate, a 17th century English Poet Laureate, wrote the beautiful “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.” One hopes that he wrote this carol while sober, because he was a free-spending drunkard who lived the last years of his life in a debtors’ refuge in London. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” may have originally been a 13th century Latin hymn, but the popular English translation we know today is an 1841 translation by an Anglican minister, Frederick Oakeley, who later became a Roman Catholic. “Silent Night” was composed by a Roman Catholic priest from Austria in 1818, while “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was originally written by Episcopalian priest John Hopkins in 1857 for a Christmas pageant he wanted to present to his beloved nephews and nieces.

It seems odd that most evangelicals react very negatively against words and practices that they deem to have Roman Catholic motifs. Liturgy, sacrament, infant baptism, catechism, creeds and confessions, anything Latin (Does anyone know that “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is the English translation of Adeste Fideles?)—even Incarnation—are met with a frown and a suspicious look.

But surely I would be branded a cuckoo if I ever suggested that we evangelicals should not sing “Silent Night”—because it was written by a Catholic priest—and other beloved Christmas carols written by Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Unitarians.

Perhaps we should limit ourselves to singing only Psalms and other inspired texts?

1 Most of the history of the carols in this article was taken from Kenneth W. Osbeck’s Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990).

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