Last week we talked about one of my favorite carols, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Today is another favorite – one that had quite a circuitous route to becoming the version we sing today…
When you sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” this year, I want you to take a moment to remember the song writer.
His name is Charles.
It takes a village to write a Christmas Carol.
This carol you’ve sung 1000 times is actually not at all what was originally intended. Imitable hymn writer Charles Wesley originally penned the lyrics as follows:
“Hark! How all the welkin rings!
Glory to the King of kings!”
Do you know what a welkin is? Is it some kind of new Star Wars character?
Welkin is old English for sky, firmament, heaven, etc. – the residence of the angels.
Here’s something noteworthy. I’m not sure you are ready.
Did you know the Bible never, ever mentions angels singing? It’s true. It never says they don’t sing, but it never says they do. It says they praise (and as a music teacher, I adore that the common cultural assumption is that praising is done through singing), but the Bible never says they actually sing.
Hark! The herald angels said
Could have been the words instead
Back to Charles…
Here’s a joyful thought: Charles Wesley intended for his words to be very serious and sung accompanied only by a somber tune. (He probably would not have be down with this version.)
A few years later George Whitefield got ahold of the words and decided to up the merry game by changing it to “glory to the newborn King.” He abandoned some other lyrics and consolidated the words into the version you know today. The tune was still snoozy though.
Enter the final two participants in this carol.
Felix Mendelssohn was born Jewish, though his family converted to Christianity when he was a child. In 1840 he wrote a little tune to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Mendelssohn had a specific request: that the music never be used for religious purposes. Spoiler: that did not work out. By 1856 Charles and Felix had both passed on into the welkin, so all bets were off.
Christmas history was born.
God and Sinners Reconciled
“Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing” is one of my favorite carols because of the incredibly rich text:
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
When I am teaching this carol to my students, I have them put one hand as high up as possible, representing God. I have them put the other hand as low as possible, representing themselves as sinners — desperately separated from a holy God.
As we sing the word “reconciled,” we bring our hands together with a loud clap to represent the restoration of our relationship with God — because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is accessible theology, even for the youngest child.
As you sing this carol with your children this year, take a moment and explain the concept of reconciliation. Understanding the separation of God and man because of innate sin is crucial to our theology as Christians, and it can be beautifully taught through this carol.
A few versions I love for listening and pondering this Christmas:
Beautiful symphony version:
For the country fans:
And for the Irish Celtic/Bluegrass fans:
I leave you today with another of my favorite lyrics from this carol we all know and love…
“Veiled in the flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel”
Veiling His holiness in human flesh, God was pleased to dwell with us, his people.
Let that make you merry this season, dear friends.
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