On just about every spiritual gift inventory I’ve ever taken, I’ve come out as having a whole cluster of truth-related gifts: teaching, discernment, prophecy (however the gift inventory defines it) and so on. Something that fascinates me, and which I haven’t seen a lot of literature on, is the way an individual’s various gifts interact with one another, but this is not today’s subject. I mention it because one of the drawbacks of having such a cluster of truth-related gifts is that almost all of them have as a downside or area for growth the tendency to nitpick, overfocus on minor issues or generally get grumpy.
It’s come to my attention that I’ve become guilty of that on this blog over recent weeks. Having what I generally refer to as a “truth cluster” of spiritual gifts is no excuse; I merely offer it by way of explanation. I’m sorry for being a grumpy nitpicker.
So in this post I’m doing what I can to depart radically from that by unpacking the lyrics of one of my favourite Christmas carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
The words go something like this:
Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”
Christ, by highest Heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel
Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings!
Mild, He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Now, not even I can have a problem with that! But I promised I’d unpack it a little. There’s a lot in here, though, so I doubt I’ll do much more than scratch the surface.
It begins in a good place. The angels aren’t just singing about peace on earth and goodwill to men, but about God’s glory. Technically, I suppose, the Bible records that the angels were singing “Glory to God in the highest”, not “Glory to the new-born King”, but since Jesus is God with skin on, the effect is ultimately the same. This is a glorious birth. The glory is not in a halo or radiance, nor in a barely-human “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”, but in a real birth with labour pains and tears and joy. The birth of the One who would ultimately bring glory to God the Father by His saving death and resurrection.
From there, it’s natural to progress to “peace on earth and mercy mild”, evidenced by “God and sinners reconciled”. Reconciliation of God with those who had made themselves His enemies by choosing the wrong and spurning the right, spilling over in mercy and peace.
It’s no wonder that the carol goes on with an imperative to all nations to rise up in joy. It’s the appropriate response to what God has done.
When it comes to this line, I have the soul of a true missionary. I picture Comanches and Kazakhs and Mongolians racing each other on horseback to be first with the Good News. I picture Iroquois and Australian Aborigines dancing the message of peace and reconciliation. I picture Jews and Arabs joining in celebration of a King of the Jews who is the Light of the World. I picture Japanese, Indians, Mexicans, Russians, Zulus, Maasai and Greeks. I picture wild Celts and civilised English retelling the Great Story in their own wonderful ways.
Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies, the victory-song of Heaven. The Messiah is born! Darkness is being kicked in the teeth for the sake of righteousness and mercy.
The next verse focuses in on the wonder of the Incarnation. “Christ, by highest Heaven adored”, the everlasting Lord, is coming down as a human baby, entering the world in blood and pain just like every other baby there’s ever been. Amazing.
Two thousand-odd years in the future from the great events of the birth, it’s perhaps less clear what “Late in time behold Him come” is supposed to mean. Was Jesus supposed to come earlier? This is, of course, not what it means. Jesus wasn’t “late” in the conventional sense of failing to be punctual. God always does things at exactly the right time. What it means is that even now, there’s a much greater span of human generations before Christ than there are in the Years of Our Lord. Even with the tightest possible Biblical chronology, there are still at least four millennia before Christ, during which time sin was given its head.
Most of us, if we were God, would have tried to fix the problem of sin immediately after it occurred. God didn’t. He let it go on until Jesus, giving the dark impluse to choose the wrong enough time and space to show that it really was bad and wrong. From that perspective, yes, Jesus does come “late in time”, the offspring of a Virgin’s womb, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah and the word of the Lord to Eve that one would be born of her seed who would crush the serpent’s head.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead. The entire fullness of God dwelling bodily. Pleased to live as a man amongst us. Coming from the purity and radiance of an unsullied Heaven to the squalid mess of a sin-infested planet with its cruelty and violence and greed. For love of mankind.
The last verse references Malachi 4v2: the prophecy that the “Sun of Righteousness” would rise “with healing in his wings”. I’ve talked before about the pagan solar imagery appropriated here to talk about God’s Messiah, and I don’t want to rehash that. I want instead to point to how Jesus is like the sun, bringing light and life to all, just as the sun sheds its rays and warmth not just on one people but on all. Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t just for the Covenant people of God in history (though they certainly are as well. God has by no means abandoned His Covenant), but they open the door fully for those outside the Covenant to be brought in. Praise be to God!
“Mild, He lays His glory by”. He could have come in radiance and splendour flanked by angel armies with drawn swords aflame. He could have been born in a palace amid gold and silver and pearls. He wasn’t majestic. He had no visible halo or beauty to make Him attractive. He was ordinary. Despised and rejected. A social outcast. A man of no reputation.
And yet this was the way God chose to come into the world. As a helpless baby, with human parents who had to teach the Word of God to speak. Born in a stable, laid in an animal feed-trough. But nevertheless born so that we might live forever. Born to raise us up at the last day, as Jesus would later put it, to give us a second birth, a new birth into a living hope, into the bloodline of the righteous Second Adam rather than the corrupted one from the First Adam that we were born into naturally.
Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the angels’ song. Christ has come!