Carols were originally used in northern Europe, including England, to tell news throughout the community. In an age when few could read, carols also served to set Bible stories in a form that ordinary folks could memorize. This Sunday we will wrap up the Christmas season in a classic carol: ‘the First Noël’— also spelled, ‘Nowell’ :
The first Nowell the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay a-keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell !
Born is the King of Israel !
This first verse emphasizes that the angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Savior first to homeless agricultural workers rather than to fancy people living in comfort— a story told in Luke 2.
But from this point onward, the carol turns to the story of the star and the magi (or ‘wise men’) who came to visit the baby Jesus—
The old carols usually had many, many verses, but our songbooks rarely print more than five or six— even in cases where the poets and troubadours of old sang a dozen or more. Our Worship and Service Hymnal prints a verse to ‘the First Noël’ which I had never encountered in other hymnbooks over the years:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heav’nly Lord,
That hath made heav’n and earth of naught,
And with His blood mankind hath bought.
As a response to the Christmas story, this verse neatly ties together three themes which the secular world prefers to avoid in its observance of Christmastime:
1. Christians’ response to the Christmas miracle must be to praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— because the baby Jesus is not just some cute baby, but our “heav’nly Lord” born in human flesh.
2. As John’s gospel (1:3) points out about Jesus
Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh,
“All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.”
When Christians reflect on the birth of Jesus, we recognize it as the moment when The Creator of the Universe came down to share our humanity.
3. The baby Jesus in the manger is the same person who went on to live— getting baptized, teaching, healing, serving, suffering— and then to die on the cross. It is a sad fact, that many people who consider themselves Christians neglect to worship regularly with the Body of Christ, neglect to study the Scriptures in the company of sisters and brothers in the faith, and fail to do their part in the daily work of being Jesus Christ’s Body for the world. Their Christianity is once or twice a year like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, not day in, day out, week in, week out like a disciple. While we cannot earn resurrection from death, it is nevertheless true that we must die with Christ before we can be raised like Christ.
You might wonder why, around Christmastime, I sometimes ask the congregation to sing songs in Worship other than the ones we normally think of as “Christmas-y” ?
This question challenges me to pose two questions in reply:
† Have you been listening to the words of the “Christmas-y” songs ? Often, they raise all kinds of issues which go ‘way beyond the Christmas story. Open up your hymnal to that section and pray! “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay…”
† Have you noticed that just about any Christian song deals with the true message of Christmas: that God entered into our humanity by being born to Mary long ago ? Open up your hymnal to any song and look for Christmas in it !
A voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
(Mark 1:11) with you I am well pleased.”