Church choir directors are fond of saying that he who sings, prays twice. I think I understand why.
What is it about the singing of Christian hymns that give expression to the deepest yearnings of our hearts? For many years I have marveled at the beauty of these ageless carols. The way the words seem to flow — always inspiring, consistently comforting, and, on occasion, even convicting my soul. The hymns of old, I have concluded, are more than just a featured aspect of worship. They serve a holy purpose by focusing our praise on the only One who deserves it.
I can’t sing. But that doesn’t stop me from making a joyful noise, especially when I am in an audience of thousands where my voice, hopefully, harmonically blends with those around me. Years ago, I fell into the rote habit of singing the lyrics without giving much thought to the message being sung. When I began to contemplate what the author was trying to express, singing became an act of worship. “Awake My Soul and Sing” (from Crown Him with Many Crowns) became a prayer. “Then Sings My Soul” (from How Great Thou Art) became the answer.
There is a legacy in these lyrics for all of us.
And there is no greater musical legacy than the lyrics found in our traditional Christmas hymns.
For some, Christmas time can be depressing with the abiding memories of those no longer with us. For most of us, it is an exhausting experience where one is easily overwhelmed with decorating, cooking, and shopping. Too much Santa Claus and not enough St. Nicholas? Too many Jingle Bells and too little O’ Holy Night? Too much Happy Holidays and not enough Merry Christmas? Gift-giving should remind us of THE GIFT of Christmas, not distract us from it. What better way to lift our spirits than to sing the carols of the season? It was St. Diadochus, 5th century Bishop of Photice, who reminded us of the power of singing hymns, “But when we are weighed down by deep despondency, we should for a while sing the psalms out loud, raising our voice with joyful expectation until the thick mist is dissolved by the warmth of song.”
The late Chuck Colson once said, “This is the central Truth of Christianity, that God invaded history, and became flesh, and has taken control over every aspect of our lives, and the rule of Satan has been broken…What is the reason to celebrate? It’s not that we’re going to get a Christmas gift. It’s not that we’re going to sit around the tree. It’s not that the family is going to come home to be together. It is that we celebrate—’joy to the world!’—God has come and is in our midst. He is with us, in a very personal way!”
Maybe that is why the hymns of Christmastide exude a power that transcends the familiarity of a well-known melody or the comfort of hearing traditional tunes during “the most wonderful time of the year.” We sing the hymns of Christmas because they are a natural overflow of hearts that have been redeemed. The sustaining power of these hymns echoes across generations. They remind us of the songs sung by the saints who came before us.
The lyrics of Christmas hymns are the Gospel put to music. These historic hymns might, at times, sound archaic and outdated. Yet the bards of old found a way to convey biblical truth in a heartfelt, memorable, poetic way. These timeless lyrics linger long in my soul, fulfilling their holy purpose to inspire, comfort, and yes, even convict.
The lyrics of the third stanza of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, written by Charles Wesley in 1739, speak to the why of Christmas.
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
The opening stanza of Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts in 1719, urges every heart to make room for the King.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room…
The song What Child is This? was written in 1865 by Charles Hatterton Dix. A layman and insurance salesman, Dix suffered from depression while stricken with a serious illness. Finding God during this time led him to write this song. The song title asks a question, a question every soul should be asking, should be wondering, should be yearning to know. The chorus proclaims the answer loud and strong.
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
The song, O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles), is attributed to many authors, but most give credit for it being first produced by John Francis Wade in 1743. My heart soars when we sing,
O Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels.
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!
Once we meet Him, once we behold Him, there is only one appropriate response — to drop to our knees in worship.
My most favorite hymn this time of year is O’ Holy Night. This timeless Christmas anthem has an amazing back story. The original lyrics were written in French as a poem, Midnight, Christians, by Placide Cappeau, who, ironically, was not a religious man. But when asked in 1843 to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the church organ’s recent renovation, he agreed. Soon after, in 1847, Adolphe Charles Adam composed the accompanying music. Years later, in 1855, an English Minister, John Sullivan Dwight, translated it into English.
With each singing, my soul anticipates the theological thunder that shakes me to my core when my weary soul hears:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
’Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’.
For me, “the soul felt its worth” is the lyric that best sums up the message of Christmas. Ponder that for a moment. Better yet, ponder it on a long walk. Such walks usually end up with me on my knees.
I pray this Christmas, no matter how many dark clouds rule your days, no matter the storms that cause you sleepless nights, no matter the sins that weigh you down, that the singing of these songs will remind you of the worth of your soul. Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, because you are worth it.
I cherish the sacred feelings I have when I sing these hymns. Yes, my soul sings “Glory to the newborn King” every Christmas.
How can it not? For “He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.”