A few years ago, the Australian poet and writer Andrew Lansdown penned a reflection on the great hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Andrew is an evangelical Christian, and the hymn was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodists. In its present form, it is now part of the common heritage of all Christians, and indeed, of all mankind.
Andrew noted that the music and lyrics of many Christmas carols are strikingly beautiful. He said, “One way or another, carols tell and celebrate the story of Christmas, which is the true story of the miraculous birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, in Palestine 2000 years ago.” They also speak to us today.
The hymn opens with the Angels’ words to shepherds who were tending their sheep at night in the fields near Bethlehem, where Jesus was born:
“Hark! The Herald Angels sing, Glory to the Newborn King.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Andrew notes that these words are a poetic summary of what the Angels said to the shepherds. They declare that the newborn child is a King who has come to establish peace between Holy God and sinful humans, a King whose reign will be marked by mercy towards those who welcome him as Lord and Saviour.
The final four lines of the first stanza record the songwriter’s glad and urgent invitation to all people to join with the angels in praise and worship of Jesus:
“Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’.”
The hymn’s second stanza begins with two lines that emphasise the majestry of Jesus Christ:
“Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord.”
Jesus, he says, came to earth from heaven where he enjoyed the adoration of the holy angels. He is “everlasting”, meaning that he had no beginning and has no end. He is “Lord”, meaning that he has the same name, nature and authority as the Lord God Almighty, God the Father, and so is worthy of the same love, reverence and adulation.
Andrew then says that the majestry of Jesus portrayed in the first two lines stands in marked contrast to the humility of Jesus portrayed in the next two lines:
“Late in time behold him come, Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.”
Jesus left heaven where he was adored by angels to come to earth where he would be despised and rejected by men. He came “late in time” in the sense that a long time elapsed between the first promise of his coming (Genesis 3:15), when God promised Adam and Eve to reverse the effects of man’s sin, and the fulfilment of that promise. He came as the long-awaited Messiah, or Christ. And the way he came was through conception and birth.
However, the songwriter alerts us to something unique about Jesus’ conception. He was the offspring not merely of a woman’s womb, but of a virgin’s womb. Jesus was not conceived through the natural process of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Rather, as Luke tells us, “the power of the Most High” overshadowed the virgin named Mary, and she conceived Jesus miraculously.
The next two lines of the stanza celebrate the dual nature of Jesus:
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity.”
Jesus is both fully man and fully God. Although his “Godhead” (his divine nature) was partly “veiled” (concealed) by his flesh (his human nature), it was not diminished. He was the incarnation, the embodiment of God. Indeed, in him as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae, a city in what is now Turkey, “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)
Despite outward appearances, the newborn Jesus was no ordinary baby. The writer urges us to “see” and “hail” his deity, in his humility.
The final two lines in the second stanza emphasise Jesus’ identification with us:
“Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
Jesus became one of us so that he might live among us, sharing fully our human existence, and do everything necessary to redeem us. And as the writer says, he was “pleased” to do this. He did not come to earth grudgingly, or under compulsion. Despite the suffering he knew awaited him, he came willingly and gladly.
The words used to describe the newborn baby invite us to reflect on their inner meaning. The word “Jesus” was the contemporary Jewish word meaning “Saviour”, the name given to him by the Angel before his birth. (Matthew 1:21). And the word “Emmanuel”, “God is with us” in Hebrew, is the description of him given five hundred years before his birth by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). Little did the Jewish people realise that this was to be to take place literally, not just figuratively.
The final lines of the third stanza explain why Jesus came to earth as a helpless baby.
“Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.”
Through the words of this carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, we are invited to reflect more deeply on our Christian beliefs, and to enter fully into the wonderful feast of Christmas.