The birth of Jesus Christ has elicited poetry from the beginning. A few weeks before the scene in the barn behind the inn, Jesus’ uncle Zechariah heralded the appearance of the unprecedented by singing about a dawn sun that would appear at the zenith (the “dayspring from on high”). Today we sing of angels bending near the earth, of love’s light beaming from the face of the Infant, and of a Savior with healing in his wings.
One of the most common poetic effects of the lyrics of Christmas hymns is the placement of the singer in the midst of the events of two-thousand years ago. And while we stand with shepherds in the field or with animals next to the manger or with Simeon in the Temple or with two other kings on the road from Persia, we sing to all manner of folk and even thing that we don’t normally talk to in the course of the rest of the year. We sing Christmas songs to the Christ Child, to the angels, to Shepherd and Sages. We sing to a star of wonder. We sing to a little town in deep and dreamless sleep. And once per year, Protestants pray to saints when they sing, “Mary, Joseph, lend your aid.”
In one of the most indispensable of Christmas hymns, we stand in some impossible position (at the center of Heaven?) and sing to every worshiper both human and angelic of God Almighty. O Come, All Ye Faithful. Come from every corner of Heaven and Earth, from all the span of time and from the spanless reaches of eternity. Come with me and adore Christ the Lord. Come and adore the King of Angels. Come and adore the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
What good this song does! What leaven it introduces to our contemporary lump! Because of this hymn, I learned some Latin verse from Bing Crosby when I was about five. Because of this hymn, the Latin language sings out for one month in the year over car radios and mall muzak systems. Because of this hymn, twenty-first-century Americans say the word “exultation” at least once a year. Because of this hymn, today’s church-goers even in some CCM megachurches sing imitative polyphony once a year. And because of this hymn, a few blessed souls in nonliturgical congregations – provided they sing the traditional second verse – sing part of the Nicene creed
I’ve written on other great Christmas songs in earlier posts. Just look through December in each of the years past for more articles entitled “Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol.” I hope you sing all of them with joy and triumph this season.