The Celebration of Christmas in Song
Read Luke 1:46-55, Revelation 5:6-14
“And they sang a new song, saying, Worthy are you to take the book and break the seals”.
Christmas carols have long been an important part of our celebration of Christmas. Christmas carols bring nostalgic memories of past Christmas celebrations. They bring to mind childhood memories of Sunday School Christmas pageants where children would play the various roles of the people who visited the new baby. They elicit the smells of Christmas, the fragrance of a freshly cut tree flowing through the house. They celebrate the winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow and the cold nip in the air as we go about our Christmas shopping. But most important they remind us of the birth of Jesus.
Throughout the history of the church, we find people not only utilizing hymns and songs to express their worship, but also to celebrate the birth of Christ. In 129 A.D., the first carol to be sung in the church was “Angel’s Hymn.” However, it was not until Christmas became officially celebrated in AD 336 that Christmas carols began to be a part of the church calendar. The oldest printed carol on record is “Boar’s Head Carol” written in 1521. Several of the Christmas Carols written in the Middle Ages are still part of our favorite carols today, including, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” and “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks by Night.” However, it was not until 1880 when Edward White Benson initiated what is thought to be the first Christmas carol service.
However, surprisingly the first hymns celebrating the birth of Jesus come from the pages of scripture. In the gospel of Luke, we find two recorded hymns song to celebrate the arrival of Jesus. The first hymn was composed by none other than Mary the mother of Jesus. In response to the words of blessing by Elizabeth, Mary wrote a hymn celebrating the wonder of her virgin birth. In her hymn of celebration, she celebrates the infinite power and sovereignty of God who governs nations and given her the blessing of being the mother of the Messianic King. The second hymn was written by Zacarias for the occasion of the dedication of his son, John, dedication who would serve as the forerunner announcing the arrival of the Messiah. His hymn celebrates the coming of Jesus as the “horn of Salvation” and John’s role in preparing the way.
But even as we sing the carols celebrating the 1st arrival of Christ, we are to do so recognizing that there will be a new song we will sing and that is the song of his 2nd coming. This song is found in Revelation 5:9-10. But this song has a different focus. While the Christmas carols celebrate the salvation Christ brings, the second song celebrates the coming of Christ to bring judgment upon sin. This provides us with a greater perspective. The babe in the manger is also the one who thunders in his judgment. He came the first time as an innocent baby. At his second coming, he will appear as “the son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash, with eyes like flames of fire and a two-edged sword proceeding out of his mouth (see Revelation 1:12-16). The carol of his second coming will celebrate Christ’s worthiness to execute judgment upon the world. We need to keep in balance these two images. Christ the baby, is also Christ the awe-inspiring judge. Christ, the giver of salvation and the hope of the world, is also the judge who inflicts terror on those who reject him. Only when we sing both of these songs will we truly understand the meaning of Christmas, for Christmas is not about a celebration, but a choice to either accept the salvation Christ offers in his first advent or face the judgment in his second.