Swilling out the nonsense

It’s that time of year again, the time when I lament the lack of good Christmas and Advent hymns. Last year I discussed the lack of Advent hymns as opposed to Christmas hymns, and this year I’ve been struck with the quantity of overly sentimental and theologically inaccurate Christmas hymns that have made it into our hymnals.

The brief blog post here spells out some good points to consider about Christmas hymns in worship. I especially appreciated point number four, which says to “choose songs that tell the whole gospel story.” Christ’s incarnation would be incomplete without a view of his death and resurrection, so to sing songs that leave Jesus in the manger are doing Christians a disservice. Some of the many examples of good Christmas songs that are rich in gospel truth include Joy to the World, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Who Is This So Weak and Helpless. Some words from Of the Father’s Love will suffice as a representative of these:

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

I’m not saying that each Christmas song we sing should be all gospel. There are some great Christmas songs that are biblically rich, but don’t explicitly mention the full gospel. Take the beautiful Trinitarian hymn Angels, from the Realms of Glory, for example:

God with us is now residing…
Suddenly the Lord, descending
In His temple shall appear…
Though an Infant now we view Him
He shall fill His Father’s throne
Gather all the nations to Him
Every knee shall then bow down

Even the favorite “O Come, All Ye Faithful” lacks the gospel in explicit form, but the verse that incorporate the Nicean Creed is fantastic:

God of God, Light of Light;
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created

Christ didn’t come to be born and stay in a manger and give us warm fuzzies. As Jeremy Begbie states, “sentimentality is perhaps the single most dangerous feature of our Church and culture – and the sentimental air is never thicker than at Christmas. The Incarnation is messy, dirty, and resonates with the crucifixion. We need a new wave of carol writing that can gradually swill out the nonsense and catch the piercing, joy-through-pain refrains of the New Testament.”

I think he’s right on, though he missed that we already have many of these carols that swill out the nonsense! Dr. T. David Gordon also laments the fact that the church is in danger of losing some of the most potent Christmas songs merely because they aren’t peppy, sentimental, or Americanized. In fact, some of the best ones are more somber and reflective. Gordon has pointed out that Christmas songs for centuries were like this because people rightly understood the awesome profundity that the incarnation represented, and the songs reflect this wonder – God made man to save sinners! Songs like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and How Bright Appears the Morning Star are some examples of these types of Christmas songs. This isn’t to say that joy and mirth are to be avoided in Advent. On the contrary, they are to be characteristic of the entire Christian life. But with most things, a balance between the two extremes is needed while avoiding the overly sentimental, Americanized, or biblically inaccurate songs.

It’s a difficult line to try to straddle, as many have deep emotional ties to some of the overly sentimental Christmas songs. Everyone raised in the church sung Away in a Manger, even though it is cheesed up and claims that the baby Jesus didn’t cry. But some of these also include truths of Scripture. Take Silent Night, for example. Right after the line “beams from thy holy face” comes the great line “with the dawn of redeeming grace.” Also, does anyone else find it awkward to sing to Bethlehem personified in O Little Town of Bethlehem?

Besides the rich Christmas songs mentioned above that are already familiar, I think it would benefit the church greatly to rediscover some of the best Christmas songs out there. One I would suggest is Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light (words Johann Rist, 1641; music Johann Schop, 1641; harmony J.S. Bach, 1734). It’s only one verse, but it’s simple to learn, and it is amazingly succinct and rich:

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
And usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with afright,
But hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.

Another one I would suggest is Who Is This So Weak and Helpless, which is a great example of a full-gospel Christmas hymn (and recently re-done by Indelible Grace). I’ll close with the lyrics to it:

Who is this so weak and helpless, Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered, coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation, who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting, and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows, walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping, over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior, who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth, where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold Him shedding drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected, mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, who gifts and graces on His church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in righteous judgment all His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying while the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors, torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis the God Who ever liveth, ’mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city, reigning everlastingly.

6 thoughts on “Swilling out the nonsense

  1. Joel,As usual, a thoughtful look at something we don't usually think about. I admit that I love Christmas music (even the sentimental stuff), but usually go for the deeper pieces, like the ones you list.However, I wonder a bit at your restriction of Christmas music telling the whole gospel. I think if music pokes at things deeper than raw emotion, that is a good thing.Take, for instance, Brian Wren's "Good is the Flesh":Good is the flesh that the Word has become.Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh, longing in all, as in Jesus to dwell, glad of embracing and tasting and smell, good is the body, for good and for God,Good is the flesh that the Word has become.(Verse 4). I think Wren is rejoicing in the simple act of incarnation, and what the Word becoming flesh means. Or take Robert Southwell's "The Nativity of Christ":Behold, the father is his daughter's son,The bird that built the nest is hatched therein,The old of years an hour hath not outrun,Eternal life to live doth now begin,The Word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,Might feeble is and force doth faintly creep.These are texts JAC Redford put to music for Christmas, and speak of deep things in a beautiful way. There are elements of the Gospel in them, which makes them great. But sometimes we need to focus on something small to understand the larger implications (and to live those implications), like the mystery of the incarnation itself.Just a thought!

  2. Great post, I am going to share it with the girls. Glad to see that the Sayer's quote form the last post did not intimidate you into silence.Looking forward to the creme de la creme event Sunday evening.

  3. Thanks for the responses, y'all.A quick response to Brent – I wasn't restricting Christmas songs to those that tell the whole gospel, as I said in this sentence: "I'm not saying that each Christmas song we sing should be all gospel. There are some great Christmas songs that are biblically rich, but don't explicitly mention the full gospel." Just that some of the best ones incorporate the full gospel, or aspects of it – in other words, they don't leave Christ in the manger. I could have phrased it better and more clearly.Love the verses that you shared, very poetic. Have you heard of the second-to-last hymn that I quoted (Break forth O beauteous…)? I think of you guys every time I hear it, sing it, or see it. If you haven't heard of it, check it out. Harmonies by Bach can't be wrong, right?

  4. If harmonies by Bach are wrong, then I don't want to be right.Thanks for a thought provoking post. I heartily agree that we need to probe more deeply into the meaning of the incarnation, particularly as it relates to the atonement, rather than singing the songs we have always sung because we have always sung them. But I don't think that opinion surprises anyone who is reading this post :-).

  5. Joel, of course you are right (and my fault for only partially reading stuff — got to stop that!).Yes, love the melody for Break Forth, but have never sung it, so the words are a bit new to us.

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