In Praise of Christmas Carols

I suppose it’s the music of the carols the capture our attention. Even as I write this I hear in my mind sweet strains of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “What Child Is This?”

But let us not miss the texts. Let us not miss that many Christmas carols are nothing less than a profession of faith in God’s revelation in Christ. Yes, the carols sing of the babe in the manger; but even more they sing of the Word-Made-Flesh and the Savior of the World. In the Christmas carols we sing the full truth of the Incarnation, the depth of human sinfulness and the glory of its redemption by God.

Consider the second stanza of “O Come”: God from God, Light from Light eternal, lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb; only begotten Son of the Father. This is the truth of the Nicene Creed in verse. This is poetry worthy of Athanasius.

Then there is Charles Wesley, who could be considered a father of the Church, but for the fact that he was an eighteenth-century Methodist Anglican. At his pen the herald angels sing of God and sinners reconciled. All this is the fullfilment of the prophets and the turning of the ages: Late in time, behold him come. When we hail the babe, we hail the incarnate Deity, and we the Godhead see. The paradox of divine abasement is sounded: Mild he lays his glory by. And this, not simply for a bit of spiritual inspiration, but eternal life: born that we no more may die.

In Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the Word, the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love are not just for my personal piety, but are something for the nations to prove.

Gentlemen may well rest merry – but it’s hardly the merriment of superficial social pleasantries. It’s the much deeper tidings of comfort and joy of those saved from the reign of evil: Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

To be sure, not every Christmas carol taps into the depths of the mystery of the Incarnation. Some carols avoid the deeper message and settle for the sentimentality of the manger scene. (I suppose “Away in a Manger” is the low point in this.) But still, carols such as these witness to the earthyness and the material reality of the Christmas story.

And even the rather sweet “Silent Night,” which is 200 years old tonight, speaks of our redemption: Love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…

Everyone loves Christmas carols. As we enjoy singing them, let’s not miss how deeply creedal and liturgical they are.

God has come to save us. We have much to sing about. Merry Christmas!

24 comments

  1. For the last five years that I taught “Catholicism: Tradition and Transition,” one of the iterations of the year-long undergrad core theology requirement at Boston College, I devoted the last unit of the first semester to Trinitarian theology. For the December final exam I made the first half a take-home essay assigning the students to explain to a fictional family member (I did my best to write up a funny Christmas party scenario) the four stanzas of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The 35-to-40 students always did quite well with it, to my grateful satisfaction.

    But just a month or two ago that gratitude was rekindled when, out of the blue, a young couple who had taken the course in 2005-2006 emailed me. They explained that they first met sitting near each other in that core course and quickly became close friends. This coming summer they will wed, they said, and they’d like me to preside at the wedding near New York CIty. In the past week we finalized plans for them to spend time with me (renewing our acquaintance) when they’ll take a Nashville long weekend in January. Wishing me a Merry Christmas, the young man relayed how they’d loved that final exam assignment and always recount it and the course and their falling in love that year when they hear or join in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” at Christmas.

    Yes, Anthony, here’s to Christmas carols! They continue to minister even to this old bachelor’s soul. I wish you and all great Joy throughout the Season.

  2. Joyful AND good theology; otherwise cast them out.
    Dearmer, Percy: ‘people crowd in our churches at the Christmas, Easter, and Harvest festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity’ Dearmer et. al. (eds); The Oxford Book of Carols; 1964(1928), Oxford, OUP; Preface p.xix

  3. Consider the second stanza of “O Come”: God from God, Light from Light eternal, lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb; only begotten Son of the Father. This is the truth of the Nicene Creed in verse. This is poetry worthy of Athanasius.

    This I assume is a (weaker) US variant of the original:

    God from God,
    Light from Light,
    lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
    Very God, be-
    gotten, not created
    .

    Those last two lines, in Latin Deum verum, genitum non factum, they really are worthy of Athanasius!

    Happy Christmas to one and all!

  4. I love this post and totally agree with its contention. I do savor the carols.

    But one of the examples does not sit well with me. The line “lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb” is, frankly, misogynistic. (This is entirely a problem of the English translation; the Latin is totally fine.) The assumption of the line is that a woman’s womb is abhorrent and we marvel that he was willing to enter one. The verb abhor may not have meant what it does today when this was first rendered in English, but now? A most unfortunate message, and one that modern people cannot really meditate upon without cringing. The saving grace in this is that nobody thinks about it. If they did, they’d find it, well, abhorrent! 🙂

    1. Indeed “Gestant puellæ viscera” doesn’t mean the same thing at all!

      But the English version of that phrase echoes the Te Deum: “non horruisti virginis uterum”. I don’t think horresco means abhor, here, or anywhere else. It’s more along the lines of “tremble with fear”. Is this misogynistic? I suppose it might be, and any translation must take care not to make it seem to be. But perhaps it is a reminder that for this particular child, entering Mary’s womb was the first step on a journey that would lead to the cross. What do you think?

      1. For “non horruisti Virginis uterum” the ICET Te Deum has “you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.” I wonder if the sense has less to do with the womb but rather the Son of God not shrinking from taken on our fallen humanity.

      2. The Episcopal prayer book in 1928 and in 1979 Rite I keeps the birth in the Te Deum but leaves the womb only implied: “Thou didst humble thyself to be born of a virgin.”

  5. Thank you, Christopher. You have understood the problem exactly: horresco and abhor are the proverbial “false friends” leading to unhappy associations in translation of which the original is innocent.

    The foreshadowing of Christ’s momentous decision to enter upon the life that would ultimately lead to the cross — this is a wonderful theme. I will add it to my meditations for Christmas!

  6. Thank you, John Francis. This is how I like to think of the sense of it too (“less to do with the womb but rather the Son of God not shrinking from taken on our fallen humanity”). Well said.

    Truth to tell, I like the word womb, and there is poetic value in concrete imagery. But it does have unfortunate connotations. By extolling her womb, Christian writers at times seem to reduce Mary to a kind of cabinet or incubator for the Savior. This problem is related to the pre-scientific view of gestation. People once believed that the man’s sperm contained the whole embryo and the woman provided nothing but the environment for its growth, i.e. the womb. What we now know to be the case is much more subtle and complex, and Mary’s contribution to the incarnation is more important!

  7. Just shows what liberties some people take with translation! Rita is right, the only reason we still sing it is that people don’t listen to the words. But wouldn’t it be a nice idea for this site to ask for alternative versions of ‘Gestant puellae viscera?’ If it’s ‘Deum de Deo’ then is the accusative ‘Deum’ not the object of ‘gestant?’

    Come on, someone more gifted than I. Give it a go!

    I watched (a few minutes of) the Midnight Mass from Buckfast Abbey on BBC1 this Christmas. They started with ‘Adeste Fideles’ partly in Latin and partly in English. The first verse was in Latin and I distinctly saw a man in the congregation singing ‘O come, let us adore him’ when everyone else was singing ‘Venite adoremus.’ He looked like the kind of man who’d do that on principle!

    AG.

    1. Is superior giftedness required for giving it a go here? If not, how do you like “God of God, Light of Light, of a lowly maiden is born”?

      It’s not as imaginative as Hugh T. Henry’s masterful version in the “St. Gregory Hymnal,” quoted below by Jonathan Day. But at least it avoids the voyeuristic overtones of GIA’s “Lo, he comes forth from the virgin’s womb.” I hope they’re willing to have second thoughts about their phrasing there.

  8. I always found the second verse of “What Child is This” poetically beautiful and awe-inspiring with just the right amount of holy fear:

    Why lies He in such mean estate,
    Where ox and ass are feeding?
    Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
    The silent Word is pleading.

    1. “What Child Is This” can be downright chilling in its expression of the mystery of the newborn Savior—if the original words are used! William Chatterton Dix followed the lines you cited with “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you: / Hail, hail the Word made flesh, / The babe, the son of Mary” (NOT “This, this is Christ the king . . .”).

      Every current high-circulation hymnal I’ve checked—even the glorious Episcopal 1982 book—turns that carol into verses-and-refrain. (Dix’s verse 3 ends with “Raise, raise the song on high; / The Virgin sings her lullaby: / Joy, joy, for Christ is born, / The babe, the son of Mary.”) Do hymnal editors think their readers are too squeamish to hear about the Passion at Christmas? They could remedy this big loss if they provided two alternate sets of words for “What Child Is This,” as they sometimes provide alternate tunes for other hymns.

      1. I agree the original is a much stronger text, and would always choose to program with that rather than refer to a simplified hymnal version. (For the same reason, choose the French Cantique de Noel and provide a good translation, not the sappy English not-quite-paraphrase that goes by the handle of O Holy Night.)

  9. To Alan’s point: Deum de Deo … gestant puellae viscera could literally be translated as “The soft inner parts of a girl now bear (carry) God from God, Light from Light”. Viscera has connotations of softness, stickiness (cf. English viscous, viscid).

    If the verb had been gerunt rather than gestant, it might literally have been rendered “bring forth”, though this is an unusual use of gero.

    Note that the Latin of Adeste, Fideles isn’t that ancient (1740s), nor is the tune (perhaps from a French popular “Air Anglois”, about the same time); and there’s a case to be made that J. F. Wade wrote the first verses as a birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie, a coded Jacobite rallying cry. The Latin has changed over the years, and new verses were added in the 1800s; one version has venite, adorate (“Come, adore”) in place of venite, adoremus (“Come, let us adore”). So it wouldn’t be a misrendering to say “bring forth”.

    Google for more on all of this.

    I remember singing the following English rendition, a translation by Fr Henry in the old St Gregory Hymnal. Rita, what do you think of the second verse?

    1. Ye faithful, with gladness,
    Banishing all sadness,
    O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
    See to us given,
    Christ, the King of Heaven!

    Chorus:
    While angels hover o’er Him,
    And shepherds kneel before Him,
    O come, let us adore Him,
    Lord and King!

    2. Dear Mary, His Mother,
    Gives to us as Brother
    The Lord whom the angels are worshipping:
    God the eternal,
    Light of Light supernal!

    3. Again sounding o’er us,
    Let the Angel-chorus
    The anthem of gladness and triumph sing;
    “Glory be given
    To the Lord of Heaven!”

    4. Our voices now blending
    With their songs unending,
    All-joyful, dear Jesus, Thy glory sing.
    Be our endeavor
    Thus to praise Thee ever!

    * * *
    A very happy Christmastide to all!

  10. It’s interesting to see that the three largest publishers of hymnals/worship aids in the United States (GIA, WLP, and OCP) all translate the line discussed here as: “Lo! He comes forth from the Virgin’s womb.”

  11. ” But perhaps it is a reminder that for this particular child, entering Mary’s womb was the first step on a journey that would lead to the cross. What do you think?”

    I’m sure that’s the right track. I’m reminded of the opening lines of the famous canticle from Philippians:

    … he emptied himself
    and took the form of a slave,
    being born in the likeness of men

    Also the passage from Galatians that comes up on Marian days: “God sent his son, born of a woman …”

    I.e. the idea to be extracted from all this is the kenosis of the Incarnation. In contemplating that mystery, there is no need to find women’s bodies abhorrent.

    1. No one–or at least hardly anyone who is of normal mental capacity–finds women’s body parts abhorrent. For all the theology degrees around here! Even an average Joe in the pew can understand that the incarnate Son of God, did not shrink back from taking the form of His creatures and not that He was “abhorred” of entering a woman’s womb.
      If anything, “O come all ye faithful” should be dropped because it’s exclusive. It only invites >faithful< members in the Church to come and adore. What about those who are there in the church on Christmas Eve who aren't faithful/the faithful? If we're going to be inclusive, let's be inclusive.

      1. I’m sure that some people have some level of misogyny, even if they’re unaware of it. I don’t have any particular people in mind, I’m making a general statement. I think there is good reason to avoid a charged word like “abhor” in our day.

        I don’t think your jab at inclusivity in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” works. The liturgy speaks to the faithful all the time, as I’m sure you know.

        awr

  12. I(‘m finding this focus on the organ rather than the person a bit strange, a bit demeaning to the Mother of God. It is an echo of the discussions about translation that RM 3 have generated. Do we translate verbatim, or do we translate for meaning?
    Maybe we should be reaching for a translation of that verse which reflects Philippians rather than anatomy.

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