Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas carols

Christmas is over, and with it goes the singing of Christmas carols. I like some of those songs, and like singing them, but there are some that I just don't get. "O Holy Night" for example is a popular favorite for its dramatic musical escalation, and because singers like to show off with it. But theologically I might argue that there wasn't particularly anything holy or divine about the night. Jesus was divine, yes, but the point of his incarnation is that he set aside his God-hood and became man. To me, Christmas is MUCH more significant when you think about it as just another night. It's just that a very important baby was born. But perhaps this is a minor quibble. It was certainly a significant night.

Another in a similar vane is "Silent Night". Now I get that it's a pretty song, and I'm partial to the sound of it in the original German. But there is nothing silent about a woman in labor! It's just one of many Christmas songs that present this idea of the world standing still when baby Jesus makes his appearance. It even goes so far as to say that godly light goes shooting out of silent Jesus' face!

Still other songs are enamored with the idea of singing angels. Hate to break it to you, but the Bible never says there were singing angels. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a time angels are EVER presented as singing in scripture. Maybe in Revelation somewhere. If you remember your Charlie Brown Christmas,
Linus quotes "and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest" (emphasis mine). It was spoken. It was proclaimed. But never did they sing "that glorious song of old", nor did any mountains echo back the sound of "angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o'er the plains."

So where did this concept of singing angels come from? I can't be certain, but I believe a strong contributer to be the song "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".

You see, that title by which we all know and sing it is NOT how it originated. The words that Charles Wesley wrote began with the phrase "Hark how all the welkin ring". Now, the immediate question for modern singers is "just what the heck is a welkin, anyway?" Glad you asked. "Welkin" is an old poetic word derived from the Old English which refers to the skies and the heavens above. This reading is much more in keeping with the words later in that stanza, "joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies." It is the skies that are ringing with glory to the King. And if that weren't conclusive enough, Wesley specifically says "with angelic hosts proclaim", the same idea found in the gospel of Luke. Why would Wesley bring up angels here if the song began with singing angels? Because he never wrote singing angels. He wrote the much more lovely idea that the very skies were singing. At some later date, someone arbitrarily decided that "welkin" sounded clunky, and replaced it with the herald angels singing. I very much prefer the original lyric, and overall this is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

The only thing I don't like about "Hark! the [choose lyric here]" is that the second verse is full of horribly clunky rhymes. "Late in time, behold him come/offspring of the virgin's womb"? Ugh. It's also wordy for no reason at times ("hail th'incarnate deity!"). So when I was in college, I took the liberty of writing my own verse, and being very explicit about the incarnate Jesus. It is for this reason that my family can no longer sing the song without giggling. My minister father for several years refused to sing the second verse because it would make him think of my version. For your pleasure, or displeasure, my lyrics are as follows:

Christ divine, now human grown
Formed from God's Y-chromosome
Late in time, he comes to us
Sprung from virgin uterus
Son of Mary, bring salvation!
Bring her cervix to dilation!
Squeeze through her vaginal wall
So to give your grace to all!
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting - I had never given that much thought to Christmas carols, though I usually do with other songs.

    I have to admit that I literally laughed out loud at your lyrics, but I can't deny that they certainly fit.