Another well-loved Christmas custom is singing Christmas carols. According to the dictionary a ‘carol’ is a ‘joyous song, especially a Christmas hymn’. ‘Christmas’ refers to a celebration (‘mass’) of Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Putting all of that together, Christmas carols are joyous songs celebrating Jesus Christ. [We are leaving aside here those carols that have nothing to do with Jesus, and focusing on those that are specifically Christ-centred.]
When we sing Christmas carols we are joining a long history of praise:
When the world was created ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’ [Job 38:7].
When God brought them across the Red Sea Moses and the Israelites sang to the Lord [Exodus 15:1].
Deborah and Barak sang when God gave them victory over the Canaanites [Judges 5:1].
The Psalms speak repeatedly of singing in praise to the Lord; indeed they command us to do so.
Isaiah also commands us to sing to the Lord; in particular, he commands us to sing immediately after he has described the coming of the suffering Servant of the Lord [42:10; 49:13; 54:1].
Even the natural world bursts out in joyous response to God’s salvation [Psalm 98:7-9; Isaiah 55:12].
Mary sang in response to the angel’s visit announcing that she would give birth to the Christ [Luke 1:46-55], and Zachariah sang at the birth of John the Baptist, who would serve as herald of the Christ [Luke 1:68-79].
The angelic choir sang in exaltation at the birth of Christ [Luke 2:13,14].
And in heaven, around the throne, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing a new song to the Lamb, joined by innumerable angels, joined by every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them [Revelation 5:9-13].
And then, there is also in heaven, the song of the redeemed … of those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb – a great multitude that no one can count from every nation, tribe, people and language. Their music and their singing is overpowering. [Revelation 7:9-17; 14:1-5; 15:1-4].
What is the focus of this eternal praise? It is the wonder of God and of what God does. What is it that creates the joy that reverberates through the heavens as we sing Christmas carols? It is the sheer wonder of Christ, the beloved Son sent by the Father to redeem us.
It is the wonder of his incarnation:
God – the eternal, the infinite, the spiritual, became human – mortal, finite, physical. The Creator became a creature. The independent became dependent. Spirit took on flesh. The omnipotent became a helpless baby. As Paul wrote to Timothy: ‘the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body …’ [1Timothy 3:16].
It is this incarnation, this God taking on human flesh, that we celebrate when we sing Christmas carols.
But this incarnation is not an arbitrary act. It is not without purpose. We who know Jesus Christ and what he did cannot sing of his incarnation without also singing of the purpose of that incarnation, a purpose planned by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time.
It is the wonder of his sin-bearing, substitutionary death:
Jesus Christ was born to die. There is a deep sadness inside the Christmas story: the deep sadness of our human sin that made the incarnation necessary; the deep pain of God as he grieves over our rebellion; the deep cost that God in his love was willing to endure to secure our redemption; the deep suffering of the Son of God as he himself bore the full load of condemnation and punishment that is due to us.
The sadness, however, is not the final word. Beyond the sadness is joy:
Jesus looked beyond the suffering to the joy that would follow [Hebrews 12:2].
Those who believe in him ‘are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy [1Peter 1:8].
God himself sings for joy over those whom he has saved [Zephaniah 3:17].
It is this joy that we express as we sing our carols in his praise.
And when we sing those Christmas carols focused on Jesus Christ we are not alone. Nor are we locked into this particular year and this particular physical space. We are one with all the praise offered to God throughout all generations. We are one with heaven and all the heavenly hosts. We are one with eternity. We are one with God.
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013