Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas Carol Contemplation: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" & "O Little Town of Bethlehem"


"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" share enough in common that I felt the need to discuss them together, but the contrast between them makes the real impact. One song describes the explosiveness of Christ's coming, while the other focuses on His humble beginnings. They remind us that God has revealed the Savior, but we have to be willing to notice Him and the mercies He brings.

For this third entry in the Christmas Carol Contemplation series, I had a very difficult time picking a song to review. I narrowed my choice down to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but still struggled. They share the same subject (broadly speaking), and both of them have backstories that I find fascinating, so it was hard to decide which one to skip. In the end, I decided not to. Instead, this article will look at both.


“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is older, so that is as good a reason as any to start there. Unlike the last two songs we have considered in this series, it has been a Christmas hymn from the very beginning. Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism and the movement’s great hymnist, wrote it in 1739. But if that was not enough of a pedigree, the words were revised into (mostly) the form we know today by Wesley’s friend George Whitefield, the most famous revivalist of the Great Awakening. Then, in the mid 19th Century, the song was set to new music composed by Felix Mendelssohn. This carol is the product of quite a few powerhouses, and it shows.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” does not have that same name-dropping factor, but I think it makes up for it with the circumstances of its writing. The lyrics were developed in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopalian minister from Philadelphia. He’d had an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land a few years beforehand, and the sights he saw there inspired his words. I don’t know how long he took to write it, but he gave his organist, Lewis Redner, about a week to come up with music for it. After struggling for days due to the time crunch, Redner had an epiphany the night before it was to be first performed. He woke from sleep with the melody in his ear, wrote it down before going back to bed, and finished it the next morning before delivering it to the children’s choir that would do the singing (a bit beside the point, but it is comforting to know that procrastinators can accomplish great things).


There is a great deal of contrast between these songs. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is soaring and complex, while “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is relatively slow and simple. However, when it comes to theology, they are both similar. This is because they are both based on the same passage of Scripture. Even then, though, they go in different directions in how they present their story.

Both these hymns rely on Luke 2:1–20. These verses, of course, are the inspiration for most of the music, sermons, and stories that we hear at this time of year. Along with Matt. 1:18–2:12, it is the greatest source of information that we have on Christ’s Nativity. This is where we learn Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem rather than their hometown of Nazareth in order to be counted in the Roman-commanded census. It is here we read that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for His family anywhere in town. And it is where you can find the story of local shepherds being surprised by a choir of angels singing the announcement of the Messiah’s birth.

Naturally, this chapter has been especially meaningful to Christians for millennia. That is because it is a historical framework for our faith. The miraculous circumstances of Jesus’ birth point to His divinity, but the fact He was born at all is also a reminder of His humanity. He did not simply appear. He entered our world in a defined moment in time. This story is about reality. Christ was really born, and because He was really born, He was also able to really die as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. That may have had more impact in the past because there were times when people doubted the humanity of Jesus rather than His supernatural existence (as is more common today). But it is still a valuable reminder to know the circumstances of how God became one of us.


Though they cover many of the same details, these songs diverge in how to present them. Interestingly, both ways are still biblical. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is about the sudden impression made by the arrival of the Lord. Clearly, its focal point is the heavenly host of Luke 2:13–14. The miracle of the Incarnation was declared wondrously and unmistakably. The hymn attempts to lift us up into that wonder and invites us to join in the bold proclamation of the coming of Christ. It boisterously presents the truth in the hope that no one will miss it.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” on the other hand, allows us to reflect on how easy the birth of Jesus was to miss. Jesus was born in the hometown of King David, but not in the City of David, Jerusalem. He was not born to a queen in a palace, but to the wife of a traveling carpenter who could not get a room to rent. Rather than a royal bed, He had to sleep in a trough of hay. And though He was heralded by an angelic host, it was to a small group of shepherds rather than being proclaimed to streets filled with thousands. It did not even happen during the day, when there would have been at least a few other people milling around the tiny village of Bethlehem.

The contrasts between these songs are not a contradiction. They are the point. Christ came humbly, silently, because He came on a mission of sacrifice. He came in a way that could be ignored by most. But for those who cared to see the work of God, his coming did not go unnoticed. And it is still that way today. Even after the undeniable miracle of the Resurrection, it is still possible for people to choose to remain ignorant about the evidence and to live life without coming to terms with its implications. That does not mean nothing happened, though. The evidence does exist. God has demonstrated His love and power (Heb. 1:1–3), and those who have experienced His glory are transformed by it (Rom. 8:28–30). If God has not forced all people to acknowledge Him, He has certainly given them enough to be without excuse for denying Him.

These songs, taken together, are a beautiful reminder of that truth. There is peace in the silence of Jesus’ birth and grandeur in its proclamation. Those elements are with us in so many ways throughout this season, and their synthesis is just one of the reasons I love this holiday so much. But it also holds a lesson that goes beyond the seasonal. It is amazing how a single passage can speak in so many different ways. For that matter, it is wonderful how all of Scripture has constantly new application without changing in its truth. I hope this is a reminder to be grateful to God for giving us His word, and for giving us the skill to make use of it in returning praise to Him. Above all, though, I hope we will be grateful to God for giving us His Son, and for the eternal blessing we have through Him. That, of course, is the true meaning of Christmas. Let's be glad not to have missed it.

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