Carols evoke the extraordinary Christmas story of the baby born in a stable. They also help us understand through their familiar words the tenets of our faith. Gerald O’Collins SJOUR MUCH LOVED carols can trigger deep delight and even intense spiritual experience. They tell wonderful stories and introduce powerful symbols: the birth of a poor child who is the saviour of the world; exotic people from the Orient who travel in search of a new-born boy; a gleaming star which directs their journey; an angel who comes at the dead of night to send a family fleeing from mortal peril into exile, and the dreadful deeds of a cunning and murderous tyrant.
The carols also embody a rich treasury of Christian faith. Taken together, they express a full range of beliefs about the Christ child and the divine purposes revealed at his birth. While examining some of the more familiar carols can serve to show the wealth of faith that they embody, commenting might seem to get in the way of these beloved hymns and inhibit our direct experience of them. Yet awareness of their doctrinal worth will enhance their impact rather than restrict their life.
The scheme of coming down from “heaven on high” to be born “here below” on earth provides a movement that runs through many carols. Once in Royal David’s city celebrates this “condescension” of the Son of God: “He came down to earth from heaven,/ Who is God and Lord of all.” A passage from the Book of Wisdom lay behind this language: “While gentle silence enveloped all things and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful Word leapt down from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wisdom 18:14-15). The passage from Wisdom thinks of the Word as “a stern warrior” who descends to execute the divine judgement. The carols, however, modify this picture. The Son of God did not leap down on the human scene as a fierce, adult warrior. Inspired by love, he came to reveal himself as a tiny baby. As See, amid the winter’s snow exclaims:
Sacred infant, all divine, What a tender love was thine, Thus to come from highest bliss, Down to such a world as this!
Repeatedly, the carols acclaim the saviour whose love has prompted him to “descend” on earth. They also take over from the gospels the language of his “coming” and “being born” on earth, and from a New Testament letter the language of his “appearing” among us (Titus 2:13). But the carols hardly ever use another way of presenting the Incarnation that is also found in the New Testament: the Son was “sent” or “given” to us by the Father (Galatians 4:4; Romans 8:3). The carols concentrate on the Son, and want to highlight the initiative of his self-humbling love.
The divine identity of the Christ child invites our worship. Thus at the end of each verse, Adeste Fideles repeats the phrase: “O come, let us adore him.” Angels we have heard on high also calls us to worship: “Come, adore on bended knee/the infant Christ, the new-born King.” Generally, it is biblical language that serves to state the child’s identity and prompt this adoration. The second verse of Adeste Fideles, however, draws on the language of the Creed: “God of God, light of light…very God, begotten, not created (Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine…Deum verum, genitum, non factum).” Even so these credal terms have their solid biblical roots. No carol that I know invokes the Creed’s more philosophical affirmation of Christ being “of one substance/being” with the Father.
In fact, God the Father, apart from “God of God [the Father]” and “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing (Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum) (from Adeste Fideles), hardly turns up in carols. They prefer the language of Christ’s “coming,” “being born” and “appearing” over that of his being “sent” by the Father. What lies behind this preference?
The carols want to evoke and concentrate on a striking paradox: the baby born in such lowly circumstances at Bethlehem is also truly divine. A well-known carol by Christina Rossetti (d. 1894) puts the paradox like this: “In the bleak midwinter a stable-place sufficed/the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” A detail from Luke’s Christmas story – Mary laying her child in the manger – is often pressed into service to make the same point: “See within a manger laid,/Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth” (from Angels we have heard on high). The newborn baby sleeps on hay and is surrounded by cattle.
To express the sacred mystery of divinity and humanity being united in his one person, some carols recall that without the tiny Christ child there could be no world at all. See, amid the winter’s snow expresses amazement: “Lo, within a manger lies/he who built the starry skies”. Another carol, The first Nowell the angel did say, develops this thought to include redemption:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.
This carol looks in two directions: both back to creation and forward to the redemptive death of Christ. But why add the reference to the redemptive death that the Child will accept and undergo?
Since myrrh was used to embalm corpses, Christian tradition consistently took that gift brought by the Magi to symbolise Christ’s death. Hence carols which introduce the Magi and their gifts naturally look ahead to the redemptive death of the Christ child. The first Nowell, which dedicates half of its verses to the “three wise men”, ends with such a reference to Christ’s sacrificial death. Another carol, We three kings of Orient are, concentrates from the start on the Magi, their journey and their three gifts, each of which receives a separate verse. The next-to-last verse spells out the meaning of the third gift:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
But the carol does not stop with the future death and burial of the Christ child. It presses on to complete the story with his resurrection:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and sacrifice;
Earth to heaven replies.
What happened at the birth of Jesus affected “earth” and “heaven”: that is to say, both human beings and angels. This belief, drawn from the angelic presence in the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke, brings angels into the carols in a way that seems unparalleled in any other class of Christian hymns. At Christmas angels come into their own through what we sing.
Angels even provide the opening lines and titles for some carols: for example, Hark, the herald angels sing and Angels we have heard on high. Angels also join with the human choirs, bell-ringers and priests in the exuberant joy of another carol: Ding dong! Merrily on high. Several well-loved carols bring the whole of creation into the joyful hymns sung by angels and human beings. Thus Joy to the world pictures “heaven and nature” singing together at the coming of Christ. This carol associates “fields, floods, rocks, hills and plains” with angels and humans in one resounding hymn. The birth of Jesus makes all created beings sing for joy.
This is the ecstatic delight evoked by the redemption of human beings and their world. One traditional carol, On Christmas night all Christians sing, portrays redemption as liberation from sin (“When from our sin he set us free,/ All for to gain our liberty”), as the gift of grace (“life and health” coming in the place of sin), and as light replacing darkness.
Carols are regularly concerned not only with the divine identity of the Christ child but also with the good news of the salvation which he brings for “all the people” (Luke 2:10). As its title indicates, Joy to the world, emphasises the cosmic impact of the birth of the saviour. But it is Hark, the herald angels sing that spells out most fully the beneficiaries and scope of the redemption brought by the birth of Jesus: “Light and life to all he brings.” Redemption means “healing”, “peace on earth and mercy mild”, and “God and sinner reconciled”. Christ is “Born that man no more may die,/Born to raise the sons of earth,/Born to give them second birth”. This same carol also yields a wide range of titles to express both the identity and redemptive function of the Christ child: “new-born King”, “the everlasting Lord”, “the incarnate Deity”, “our Emmanuel”, “the heaven-born Prince of peace” and “the Son of Righteousness”. Over and over again the carols summon us to respond to the redeemer’s presence with joyful adoration and, even more, with love, as in Away in a manger:
I love thee, Lord Jesus!
Look down from the sky,
And stay by my side
Until morning is nigh.
Joy to the world moves from radiant joy over the coming of the Son of God to end by celebrating “the wonders of his love”. O little town of Bethlehem evokes “the wondrous gift” of Christ to our “human hearts”.
The singing of carols lifts our spirits at Christmas. They do just that not simply because they beautifully blend text and music. They also express the heart of Christian faith by depicting who Jesus is as divine and human, what he does for us as redeemer, and how we should respond to him with love, gratitude and adoration.
* Gerald O’Collins SJ is Professor of Fundamental Theology and former dean of the theology faculty at the Gregorian University in Rome.