Christmas Carols: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
My all-time favorite Christmas carol is Charles Wesley’s, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. I trust you will see why as we move through its stanzas and consider its message. While you may be used to the three-stanza version found in most hymnals (e.g., Psalter Hymnal #339; Trinity Hymnal #203), I will use a five-stanza version my congregation sings every Christmas Eve at our service of lessons and carols.
The fact of the Incarnation of the Son of God is for us a powerful invitation to worship him. This is what the first stanza is all about. The angels sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Because of their cry, we are invited to echo back: “Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; with th’angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Meditation: The Incarnate Lord
The second stanza is a meditation on why the angels and the nations sing every Advent and Christmas. We sing because Jesus is eternal God: “Christ, by highest Heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord.” We sing because this eternal Son has become man, in what we call the incarnation. It is always amazing to sing the doctrine that the Son of God added to himself a human nature, what we call the hypostatic union:
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
The One who was born on Christmas causes us to be born again as Christians. —Daniel Hyde
Meditation: The Benefits of the Incarnation
The third stanza is another meditation, this time on the benefits of the incarnation. We sing, “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,” because Jesus gives peace. We sing, “Hail the Sun of Righteousness,” because Jesus gives the righteousness of God to sinners. We sing, “Light and life to all He brings,” because Jesus opens our eyes and resurrects our souls unto eternal life. We sing, “Ris’n with healing in His wings,” because Jesus heals us from the sickness of our sins. The stanza then says, “Mild He lays His glory by,” and the threefold benefits of this act of the Son:
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Invocation: Dwell in Us!
Stanza four is an invocation—a calling upon—of Jesus Christ to now be at work within us by dwelling in us. We pray to him, “Come, Desire of nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home,” as we long for his indwelling presence with us. We pray for promise of Genesis 3:15 to be made real in our lives, when we sing: “Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed, bruise in us the serpent’s head.” We pray that Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:24 would also be made real in our lives, when we sing: “Now display Thy saving power, ruined nature now restore.” The grace of the Son’s incarnation restores our human nature. Finally, we pray to Jesus that we would know the reality of our union with him and enjoy communion with him: “Now in mystic union join, Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.”
Invocation: Change Us!
The fifth and final stanza is another prayer to Jesus that he would change us by his continuing work in us to sanctify us and cause us to grow in holiness. We pray, “Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface, stamp Thine image in its place.” Here is an echo of Paul’s amazing teaching in 1 Corinthians 15. Again, Wesley invokes that chapter, saying, “Second Adam from above, reinstate us in Thy love.” And because of his love for us we pray, “Let us Thee, though lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the inner man.” Finally, we pray to our incarnate Lord, “O, to all Thyself impart, formed in each believing heart.”
Why is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing my all-time favorite Christmas carol? It is not only because it powerfully proclaims the truth of the doctrine of the incarnation, but because it personally expresses the benefits of Christ in Christian experience. The One who was born on Christmas causes us to be born again as Christians.