The night the Lord Jesus was born, a solitary angel appeared to some very bewildered shepherds. The night was lit up as by a floodlight, only a floodlight that shone glory instead of mere brightness. The response of the shepherds was a natural one—they were, it says, “sore afraid.” The angel reassured them immediately, saying that they should not be afraid. He brought them good tidings, good tidings of great joy. This was not just joy for a handful of shepherds, but rather great joy for all people. Two thousand years later, here we are, on the other side of the world, still talking about it. This is right and proper. Great joy.
They were then given the central message, which the angel invited them to check out for themselves. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord. How will they know? The baby will be wrapped up in swaddling clothes, and lying in a feeding trough.
The heavenly host had been able to restrain themselves up to this point, but they could contain it no longer. A multitude of them blazed into view at that point, and glorified the first angel’s comparatively straight-forward message. The message had been delivered, and it was now time for poetry and praise.
This was the refrain they offered:
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, good will toward men.
Unlike the message given by the first angel, this is all poetry. It serves as the refrain, the chorus, the doxology given at the end of the service. This thing had happened in Bethlehem, in the middle of the night, and the angels had to find someone who was awake to make their declaration to.
One of the great things that poetry does is inscribe immense things within a small compass. They did not sing their poetic refrain to the shepherds because the shepherds were a literary audience. They put it this way because nothing else would serve. Literary audiences are a distant downstream residue of glorious events, and words spoken in the glorious moment to pay some appropriate homage. The altar sanctifies the gold, not the other way around.
This is actually why this kind of poetry resembles the Incarnation. It cannot duplicate it—no created thing could. But every created thing is commanded to imitate the Incarnation.
The heavenly host sang because there was nothing to do but sing. They spoke poetically because it had to be expressed that way. And ever since that night, two thousand years ago, the children of God have been imitating the angels. Why do we have so many Christmas carols? We have them for the simple reason that we must have them.
Echoing Their Joyous Strains
What child is this, now laid to rest
Within a rustic stall?
We hail the Sun of righteousness,
A gift from God forever blessed,
To gain His everlasting hall.
This little town of Bethlehem,
Obscured in darkness lies,
But angel hosts did not condemn
They praised His royal diadem,
And joined the triumph of the skies.
O come, o come, Emmanuel
Let justice mercy kiss
Deliver us from death and hell,
And ransom captive Israel,
For Jesus Christ was born for this.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
The virgin toiled and gave
The one desire of nations bright,
To bring us to eternal light,
A Savior who could fully save.
So Savior of the nations, come,
Let earth receive her king.
And let us total up the sum
Of mercies in that kingdom come,
And echo why the angels sing.
These angels fill the skies with praise,
And mountains in reply,
All promise that through endless days
We all will sing what glory weighs
And offer it to God Most High.
Now see Him in a manger laid,
That pure one undefiled.
He came to give what could not fade,
He came to see the ransom paid,
With God and sinners reconciled
So veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Let heaven and nature sing.
A wooden box, a golden key
Will bring us to the crystal sea
Where God’s cathedral bells all ring.
It came upon a midnight clear—
Proclaim that holy birth.
To banish guilt and shame and fear
The Christ of God has now appeared
And brings good will and peace to earth.
And so from realms of endless day
From tender stem has sprung
A bud to bloom in our cold gray.
What Satan and His Herods say,
We answer with our myriad tongues.
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
The Son of love’s pure light.
In manger and on throne adored,
Before Him all our anthems soared
And there expressed redeemed delight.
So God imparts to human hearts
The gift of life again.
We sing in true harmonious parts,
And mimic high angelic arts.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen.