Sunday 25 December 2022 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is an English Christmas carol that first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems. The carol, based on Luke 2:14, tells of an angelic chorus singing praises to God.
As it is known in the modern era, it features lyrical contributions from Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, two of the founding ministers of Methodism, with music by Felix Mendelssohn. Wesley, who had written the original version as “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” had requested and received slow and solemn music for his lyrics, which has since largely been discarded. Moreover, Wesley’s original opening couplet is “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings” has also been set aside.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King: peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of the skies; with th’angelic hosts proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King”
2 Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord, late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb: veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.
3 Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
St Luke 2: 8 – 14
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!’
We have almost had insurrection in the congregation when using a hymn that had been updated or altered. When we get to Christmas alteration seems to become an affront not just to seasoned singers of carols but also to annual or spontaneous visitors. The message seems to be “Don’t mess with the words of our carols” because if you do you will spoil Christmas!
What is it about the familiarity of the words of the carols and, for some of us, a particular version of Biblical texts that seems to be so important and significant? Why does ‘glad tidings’ sound more Christmassy than ‘good news’ when good news is the heart of the Gospel? Is it only nostalgia for a more predictable and comfortable Christmas that we imagine we recall from the past?
We update words and translations because the Church has changed since those words were written. We are happy, indeed we are urged, to use inclusive and understandable language whenever possible. So Wesley’s outdated words are replaced and to retain that all encompassing flavour of the original. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell” and “born to raise us from the earth” are more inclusive than the older version.
Maybe when we sing these new words and hear the story anew we can all be reminded that the Church evolves and develops and, hopefully, becomes more faithful as time goes on. We can also be reminded that this happens against the background of God’s unchanging love as exemplified in that humble birth announced by angels to sheepherders. That transformed the whole idea of kingship and glory. God came to birth in an unexpected way and still challenges us to find ways to live out the Gospel at Christmas and beyond ‘in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.’
Let us sing out loud and clear – Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King”. And a very Happy Christmas to all our readers!
Living God, help us to celebrate today whatever our circumstances and wherever we might be – so that we truly reflect your love and peace this Christmas to all people. In the name of the babe of Bethlehem, the man of Galilee, the crucified, risen and ascended One world without end. Amen.
The Rev’d Carole Elphick is a retired minister worshipping at Muswell Hill