The Whole Gospel in the Songs of Christmas

The season leading to Christmas is a wonderful time to draw attention some of the all-too-familiar lyrics of some Christmas carols. Some of the best Christmas carols not only speak of Jesus as the child in the manger, but also the gospel reason for why the Christ had to come—the presence of sin that cannot be satisfied but through the peace that comes from the blood of the cross. Jesus did not come to be a sweet child but as the Word made flesh, the bruised and broken sacrifice, the conqueror of death by death, and the ascended Lord at the right hand of the Father.

Sadly, when artists record popular versions of carols or when publishers add Christmas sons to hymnals and songbooks, too often they excise the core gospel message in exchange for sentimentalism. As the radio plays Christmas music 24 hours a day, it is not unusual for us to hear altered lyrics or simply the first verse of a carol repeated two or three times instead of the original verses. Here are some notable examples:

“What Child is This” by William Chatterton Dix is one of my favorite carols. I remember my grandfather singing this in church when I was little. However, it was not until much later that the words of the second verse came to my attention:

Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

The reference to the cross is often replaced by the final lines from the first verse—if the second verse is sung at all. What is lost is the flow of the ideas from the question of “who is this child?”, to the recognition that this is Christ the King (vs 1) who came for the sake of sinners and the reality of the cross (vs 2) and who is worthy to be adored (vs 3).

“Creator of the Stars of Night” is another fine example of the Gospel worked through an Advent carol. This 7th century text and Sarum chant still powerfully represent the curse of sin, the light of Christ, the sufficiency of redemption through Christ, and the reminder of the second coming in light of the first coming, or advent, of Christ. This translation by John Mason Neale is from 1852.

Creator of the stars of night, Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all, And hear Thy servants when they call.
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe,
Hast found the medicine, full of grace, To save and heal a ruined race.
Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the bride, As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a virgin shrine, the spotless victim all divine.
At whose dread name, majestic now, All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And things celestial Thee shall own, and things terrestrial, Lord alone.
O Thou whose coming is with dread to judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below, from every insult of the foe.
To God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might, and glory be from age to age eternally.

The fifth century hymn “Hark! A Thrilling Voice in Sounding” is one of our favorites during this time of year. This translation by Edward Caswall from 1849 also highlights the preparation for the coming of Christ—both first and second—and the recognition of the forgiveness that come through the long-expected Lamb of God.  

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding; Christ is nigh, it seems to say,
Cast away the works of darkness, O ye children of the day.
Wakened by the solemn warning Let the earthbound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all ill dispelling, Shines upon the morning skies.
Lo, the Lamb, so long expected, Comes with pardon down from Heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow, One and all to be forgiven.
That when next He comes in glory, And the world is wrapped in fear,
With His mercy He may shield us, And with words of love draw near.
Honor, glory, might, and blessing Be to God: the Father, Son
And the everlasting Spirit, While eternal ages run.

And finally, this short stanza from Johann Rist (1641) beautifully and succinctly speaks of the Incarnation, the adoration of the shepherds and concludes with the paradox of the weak child being the power to break the effects of the Fall and to usher in true peace.

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, And usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with afright, But hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy, Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking, Our peace eternal making.     
Greg Wilbur