Tis the season — for lyrics to linger long within our earthly souls. Have you had such a moment? Why do our spirits soar at the climax of O Holy Night? Why do we feel compelled to stand during Handel’s Messiah?
There are certain songs and hymns that move us profoundly.
The 5th-century theologian, Diadochos of Photiki, found the singing of hymns a cure for depression. “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.”
My thought is that these hymns carry within them the answer to the yearning of every heart. There is a rich repository of wisdom and truth on display in the language of these holy homilies set to music. They are a balm to hurting souls. They are what joy sounds like. The “warmth of song” can indeed dissolve the fog surrounding us.
One Christmas many years ago, I recognized my habit of singing music at church without realizing what I was singing. That may sound absurd. Of course, you read the lyrics when you sing them. Who doesn’t? Yet I had grown numb to the familiarity of the lyrics, so much so that I sang these seasonal songs without much thought about their intent. It was as if I had swallowed a wad of chewing gum rather than chewing and savoring its flavor and taste.
So, I started to REALLY read the lyrics, to pause and ponder their significance, and to contemplate what the writer was trying to express. I savored the lyrical feast before my eyes and digested the poetic gospel story of redeeming grace. Singing became an act of worship. “Awake my soul and sing” (Crown Him with Many Crowns) became a prayer. “Then sings my soul” (How Great Thou Art) became the answer.
And Christmas carols are even more supercharged with meaning.
“O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.” (O Come All Ye Faithful)
”the dawn of redeeming grace.” (Silent Night)
“The King of kings, salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him.” (What Child is This?)
“Let every heart prepare Him room,” (Joy to the World)
“To free all those who trust in Him, From Satan’s power and might.” (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
“And in His Name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy Name!” (O Holy Night)
Books have been written about these lyrics. My wife reminded me that professional cantors read their music before singing it. Correction. She says they pray it before singing it. Choirs rehearse hours to sing them before audiences of thousands. And lives have been changed by the embrace of their meaning.
The late Chuck Colson reminded us why Christmas hymns pack such power. “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!”
And if that wasn’t clear enough, Chuck went on to add, “Christmas is not just about the birth of a Babe in a manger. It’s about the arrival of the King who has planted His flag on planet Earth, and announced that the reign of Satan has been broken.”
If that doesn’t start your soul a singing….
Speaking of a soul singing, my favorite Christmas hymn is O Holy Night. In the opening chorus are these heart-awakening words,
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth”
Songs like this clearly teach the Christian faith, communicating the deeper meaning of this holy-day. Contemporary holiday songs offer a nostalgic look back to reflect on Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and dreams of a white Christmas. But as we look beyond the commercialization of the season and stare into the uncertain future of pandemics, war, and inflation, let us not ignore the eternal significance of the hymns we sing. This Christmas —
May you find tidings of comfort in joy.
May your soul sing as you grasp the meaning of historic Christmas hymns.
And may there be a moment, if not a lifetime, when your “soul felt its worth.”
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