‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ – Reflecting on the Carol
Sometimes I feel compelled to write a reflection rather than an explicitly ordered and structured piece. In this post I want to reflect on the theological significance of the words to my favourite Christmas carol. I’m not writing this as a commentary, or explanation, of all the meaningful significance that is packed into these lyrics, but may this be a source of encouragement and insight this Christmas.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
On an evening in the fields of Bethlehem, in the darkness of night, the multitude of the heavenly host heralded the coming of a King. What could compel the messengers of heaven to appear in announcement, to a group of shepherds and flocks of sheep, no less? Yet, to ask the question is to answer it. Angels are, after all, messengers. So they come with a message. They demand attention. What they have to say is pregnant with meaning and significance and it must be heard.
But not only do their words inform – they call for a response. Glory…the magnificent display of the weightiness and excellencies that a subject or object possesses. They are ascribing honour and reverence of the weightiness and excellencies of a newborn baby. Actually, it’s more than that. They’re heralding it, calling for it, ushering it in. Who is this child?
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations rise
We aren’t told who the child is, yet. But its significance begins to be expounded. A broken world knows only too well the pain, suffering, and tragedies that are etched into the fabric of humanity. Could peace be possible? Well, it depends on what sort of peace. Horizontal? Amongst people? Surely we need peace there.
No, the angels announce that it is a vertical peace. Reconciliation between God and sinners. Indeed, the vertical enmity between God and sinners (with all of humanity, that is) is the source and basis for all our horizontal friction. When we abandon the source of the good, the true, and the beautiful we are destined for destruction. And somehow this baby, this newborn King, is bringing peace and mercy through reconciliation. Reconciliation – true restoration of a relationship that occurs from the removal of a barrier that separates two from relating.
Perhaps the angels were, in the present, announcing the victory that would be achieved by the King’s life (and death). But the birth itself is seen as a reconciliatory act. How can this be? We will come back to this later. In any case, the response from the nations is joy. God promised Abraham that through his family all the nations on earth would be blessed. Imagine: a blessing that crosses political machinations, cultural diversities, socio-economic divides, and linguistic differences. The hope of the God of Abraham finds its consummation in the newborn King. What else can we (all) do, but rejoice?
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
The King is here. This is the triumph of the heavens. The focal point of history. The apex of God’s purposes and plans. Certainly, the Cross and Resurrection are the center of the work of Christ, and where they are definitively achieved, but the entirety of His life from birth announces that God’s promises to Israel were not forgotten, and He is not unfaithful to His word. God said that there would be a King who would sit on the throne of Judah forever. God said to the prophet Micah that a ruler whose origin is found in eternity would be born in Bethlehem.
This is what God has been working towards since the beginning. The Apostle Paul burst into praise in announcing to the Ephesians that before the foundation of the world the person and work of Christ was what God had purposed. And as the angelic host proclaim that Christ, an anointed royal, is born in Bethlehem the skies are ablaze with the light and exclamation of God’s transcendent foreknowledge and abundantly faithful love.
Can you fathom the thought that the shepherds hearing the announcement of the heavenly multitude were being illuminated as to the purpose of the flocks they tended, the grass they sat on, and of their very existence? For in Him we live, and move, and have our being. And our hearts are restless and longing to be filled until they find their reason for being.
Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
I am a ‘human becoming’, meaning that I am constantly in a state of flux. The neurons in my mind are firing and the cells in my body are reproducing. From one moment to the next I am not exactly the same person. That’s why I am in a constant state of change, of becoming, of moving. I am a physical entity locked in the passage of time. But what would it mean to be everlasting? It’s more than living forever (future). It’s more than having lived forever (past).
Rather, it’s to be a constant…to be beyond decay, beyond flux, beyond irregularities or changes in character. Christ, the everlasting Lord, is supreme above all, through all, and in all. And that has always been, and will always be. Certainly, He is adored by God, the highest in Heaven, as His eternal Son.
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 Emmanuel
Here, we see a shift in focus, and the angelic host are announcing a movement. The everlasting Lord, the constant, comes into time, and becomes the offspring of a Virgin’s womb. At the appointed moment, taking place after the creation had been waiting for a time, the eternal Son enters, veiled in flesh.
But, wait! Does this mean that the everlasting Lord is no longer a constant? Hasn’t He changed?
The mystery of this occurrence is that the offspring born that evening in Bethlehem is the incarnate deity, the God-man, God who has taken on flesh. In and of Himself God has not changed. Instead, God has been inseparably joined to a human body, without adding or subtracting from what it means to be God and without adding or subtracting from what it means to be human. This truly is a mystery. In seeing this God-man we are given insight into the Godhead, though all members of the Godhead are not the God-man Himself (only the Son, the everlasting Lord, is).
Behold, the glory of the announcement. God, who would have been completely just to judge sinners, was pleased to dwell with humanity as a man. The transcendent and sovereign Creator drew near to us, initiating the reconciliation that would be achieved by the work of the Son. This is why the birth itself is seen as a reconciliatory act – God, instead of letting the enmity of sin remain in dividing us from Him, demonstrated His love by giving us Himself in the person of a High Priest who was like us in every way, yet remained sinless.
And this God-man has a name: Jesus.
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Hail, the King is here.
Hail, the one who brings peace.
Hail, the one who is both righteous and is born from moral perfection Himself.
Hail, the light who reveals God to a world lost in darkness.
Hail, the Saviour who gives life to the full for those who know Him.
Hail, the one who will wipe away every tear, mend every bone, and put an end to sorrow, pain, and death.
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
He will die, swallowing up death itself. He will rise, the firstfruits of all humanity. He will wash, by His word and Spirit, giving an opportunity for the dead in sins to be born again. Yet, we cannot forget this is a mild, newborn child. The everlasting Lord, bursting with splendour and magnificence, forwent the outward display of His sweetness, and hid it in flesh, laying it by.
See the King’s humility. See His veiled glory that was hidden, not diminished. See the Word who became flesh. See the light of life. See the hope of nations. See the God who has come.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Why did the angels go and announce this to the shepherds?
Perhaps it was because Jesus is the good shepherd, and so they were foreshadowing the image that the God-man would use to describe Himself in John’s Gospel.
Perhaps it was because God has, throughout redemptive history, called shepherds like David to manifest His purposes.
Perhaps it was because the shepherds were the only other people awake that evening in Bethlehem, apart from Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and the angels needed to announce to someone.
I don’t know. But what I do know is what the shepherds did with what they heard announced by the heavenly multitude. Though they earthly vocation was to care and tend the sheep, they left their posts in obedience to God’s word and went to give glory to the newborn King. And after they had done that, they went and spread the word concerning what they had heard and seen.
As I sing this carol and pronounce these words I ask myself: will I do the same? Will I declare the victory of God in the coming of the King? Will I go out and be compelled to share the message of reconciliation and hope? Will I proclaim the majesty of Christ, who is the incarnate deity and the Prince of Peace?
For this is the reason for the season.