O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem: come and behold him born the King of angels:O come, let us adore him (x3) Christ the Lord.
God of God, Light of light, lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb; very God, begotten, not created:
See how the shepherds, summoned to the cradle, leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze; we too will thither bend our joyful footsteps:
Lo, star-led chieftains, magi, Christ adoring, offer him incense, gold and myrrh; we to the Christ-child bring our hearts’ oblations:
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing, all ye citizens of heaven above, ‘Glory to God in the highest!’:
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning, Jesus, to thee be glory given; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing:
(John F Wade (Latin) 1711-1786. Translated by Frederick Oakeley 1802 -1880)
This hymn is unusual among hymn texts in that it has no rhyme and an irregular metre, and its final verse is properly sung on Christmas morning only; but this has not prevented it from being one of the most popular of all Christmas hymns, found in books of every denomination and sung (often as the climax) at carol services everywhere. It has ensured Oakeley’s immortality.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
How come we celebrate Christmas year after year, and miss the whole point time after time? Why do we in the Church see it as some kind of temporary “time out” from the horrors of the world, like the German and British soldiers playing football in the trenches on Christmas Eve in 1914, only to resume killing each other the next day?
Jesus’ birth, with angels announcing to humble shepherds “Good News of great joy for all people” and proclaiming “peace on earth” isn’t about a temporary lull in hostilities. God is calling time on a world that works according to Roman diktat – that delivers joy and peace for a favoured few, but condemns the poor and unimportant people to the living hell of military occupation and slavery.
Caesar Augustus had established the Pax Romana – the “peace of Rome” that extended over the known world and would last for 200 years. For this, he was given the titles, “Saviour” and “Prince of Peace”. And he was worshipped as the Son of God.
The angel’s Good News is the announcement of regime change. Jesus is the true Saviour who will establish peace on earth by servant-hood, not conquest. The Kingdom of God will extend over the world and last forever, not Rome. And it comes to lowly shepherds in a field in Nowheresville first.
That is why God comes to earth in Jesus. O come all ye faithful says this more clearly than any other carol: the baby in the manger is not just a man of God, but God as a man. It’s a hymn that puts the Nicene Creed (R&S 760) into song. I love it. I believe it. But unless “coming and beholding the King of angels” means that the world can never go back to the way it was, and that we can never go back to our lives and politics and economics as we’ve always done, we’ve missed the point of Christmas …
Glory to you, Christmas God! O what a mystery – meekness and majesty: Lord of eternity dwelling in humanity; indestructible love, present in the frailty of a new-born baby. And what glorious news: you are claiming this world as your own! Deliver us from the despair that things cannot be different; that power and military might, greed and money have the Last Word; that brokenness and death triumph over forgiveness and Life. Fill us with Christmas joy! May we bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and proclaim the year of God’s favour. May we do it with our words and with our lives. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord! Amen.
Lawrence Moore is a Mission & Discipleship consultant and member of Worsley Road URC, Salford.