Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Angel Named Harold?

For your consideration, I want to reintroduce you to Charles Wesley's brilliant Christmas hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I believe this to be one of the (if not THE) greatest Christmas song in the church's musical canon. It is thick with theological insight and rich with biblical imagery. If you will take a moment just to read these words (aloud please), perhaps as a poem without music, I think you will be stricken by their power. (And please forgive the lack of gender-inclusive language. No offense intended.)

Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn 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 men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Even that familiar first verse deserves closer attention, with concepts like God and sinners being reconciled, and the plea for nations to rise and join in worshiping the true "King of kings" (Wesley's original words, replaced with "newborn King" by George Whitefield.) And for a real mind-scramble, let me introduce you to some stanzas we don't usually sing:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruin'd nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man.
O, to all thyself impart,
Form'd in each believing heart.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

I'll admit this is no "Frosty the Snowman" or "Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer," but maybe there's some stuff in here we should consider in our Christmas observances. In my humble Methodist opinion, little Chuck Wesley has given us a powerful work of art here, chock full of crunchy fruits and nuts!

And it's made all the better paired with Felix Mendelssohn's wonderful music. Mendelssohn was surprised at the idea of his "secular" music being used for sacred text, but this act of redemption only enhances the signficance of the hymn. Listen for this song during key moments of your favorite holiday films like It's a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and if you sing it this season, maybe think about the words and the message of those herald angels: Glory to God in the highest! Glory to the newborn King of kings! And on earth, peace...


Becky said...

This has always been one of my favorites--precisely because of the reconciliation between God and sinners being included. I'd never heard those other two stanzas before. Thanks for sharing them!

robert c. pelfrey said...

Thought I'd share some of the comments folks shared on facebook, just because I have such awesome friends/readers!

*I like Silent Night but have a soft spot for the dogs barking jingle bells.

*I'm going with "Oh Holy Night" done in the most traditional way where they really belt it out when it comes to "fall on your knees". Love that one.

*Have you heard Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart album? I would highly recommend it. He does a fantastic job of reimagining the classics: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/christmas-in-the-heart-donate

A good friend also turned me on to the following interview you might get a kick out of: http://streetnewspapers.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/sns-exclusive-bob-dylan-interview/

*"Adestes Fideles" and "Do they know its Christmas" by BandAid.

*Robert, your analysis of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing was a very well written and researched argument for that particular song. While it's not my "favorite," by your standards, it may very well be the most succinctly biblical and epically musical.

I too prefer O Holy Night. Or Breathe of Heaven (Mary's Song).

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