Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Isaac Watts, 1718
God rest you merry, gentlemen. London carol, 18th century
There are many reasons why the aggressive secularism of the political and entertainment establishments is destined to pass unmourned, and among them is surely the fact that the aclu, narl, and the Abortion Rights League have no song to sing. It is certain that there is somewhere a hymn to the earth and a United Nations anthem, and it is equally certain that unless the evil day comes when we are massed in public squares to sing to the glorious leader or celebrate national carbon footprint decrease day, these will never be sung.
For this the principal reason is the incontrovertible fact that Dawkins and Hitchens do not tell us anything we want to know or give us anything to celebrate. We are all animals, and in common with squirrels and tigers must always be on the lookout for lunch, but our humanity lies in lifting up thought and imagination to ask why there is a tiger and why there is a hunt, and, most importantly, in rejoicing in life. Unless the root of wonder is killed in us, we want to know what it all means; where this speeding train that left the station at our birth is headed, whom we should thank for the ride.
It belongs to the vulgarity of much modern thought that it speaks more easily of the meaning of history as a process rather than as a person, in which case there is nobody to thank and nothing to sing about. Evolution is an unimaginative and cynical theory which in its insistence that survival is its own justification never explains why there is a theory, why it should be called evolution, or why survival is better than its alternative. It is a hard sell, because ordinary folk find it incredible that the beauty and order of the world are the result of something that does not know what it is doing. Secular millennialism is devoted to the illusion of a perfect secular order, alleged now to be for the comfort of the masses, in fact proposed and maintained to secure the godless power of a secular elite. These stories, told by the evolutionary devot and the secular millenarian, are indeed vicious, but worse, they are bores. Even the world historical figures in whom Hegel found the meaning of history were bores. What joy would there be in dinner with Frederick the Great or Napoleon, or, for that matter, with Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Neither ego nor planning makes good conversation.
But, low-minded as this insistence that the meaning of history is summed up by personifications of power may be, it is better than a purposeless process. Hegel was right that history means a person, but sadly wrong in his identification. For the writers of the New Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, saw that history means not only the coming of the Messianic Kingdom but the coming of the Messianic King in whom that kingdom is fulfilled. The great purpose of the fruition of nature in Glory, true and certain as it is, finds the highest term of its fulfillment in the person who is what history means. He was God. His life was a human life in its perfection, but that life was also the life of the world. One can see Paul determining that he will no more think of Jesus simply as a man, after the flesh, but will see Him as the Person in whom everything subsists:
By Him were all things created…ii Corinthians 5:16
He is before all things, and
By Him all things consist.
And He is the head of the body, the Church;
Who is the beginning,
The firstborn from the dead;
That in all things
He might have preeminence.
The Person who is the meaning of history was not developed or recruited or discovered, but was given to us when the Word, the meaning, the incarnate rationale of the cosmos, who is God, was born in the manger in Bethlehem. Unto us a child is born, not a leader or a commander but a child. He is the center and there is no further fulfillment. For Moslems history may mean an omnipotent will and finally a garden of delight. For secularists it means endless generations enjoying full employment, good medical services and fulfilling sex as successive cohorts march on into nothingness. For Christians it means a baby in a manger. It is enough for the author of i John to say that all we know of what the future holds is that when He appears, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as he is. “And at last our eyes shall see Him. Through His own redeeming love.”
His life was set to music. We are not told that upon the announcement of His coming the Blessed Virgin sang, but the Magnificat is poetry, and surely the author of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High, Sweetly Singing through the Night” were right that the multitude of the angels did not say but sang their Gloria. At the end of the story, after He had given us His Body and Blood, Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples (Matthew 26:30), His last act before the Garden and Golgotha. St. Paul said that the life of the Church should be characterized by hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). And we know that the life of the Age to Come is filled with music, “harpers harping with their harps,” many angels, the four great animals, the saints and the elders, every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea singing a new song: “Thou are worthy …worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:8-9, 13). And not much time passed before the Church had set the liturgy, which brings heaven before us, to music, first to the majesty of Gregorian plainchant, then to glories of polyphony; then to Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and Elgar.
And that brings us to the fact that only the Church has a song that sums up the meaning of things as it lifts up the heart. Many things could be said about the song Christ creates in us. He was in the Psalms, and the chant that has always accompanied the liturgy. He created hymns, and as a kind of happy crown to the year’s beginning, He created the music of Christmas. It is Jesus who is the song that makes the world sing: all this glory because “He came down from earth to heaven, who is Lord of all.”
These words are from a famous carol. The origin of the Christmas carol is not well known. The word has an etymology too rich to yield precision. It may be derived from the Greek word for chorus, and it is obviously related to the French carole and caroler. A carol is a hymn, and more specifically a hymn of joy. An 1889 reference associates it with wassailing, described as “the singing of Christmas carols at the doors of houses, a practice which is dying out.”
But not so fast. A century later carols are still sung, sometimes at the doors of houses. The genre has its models and its history. The most famous carol is perhaps “Silent Night,” the words of which were written in German by the young parish Priest of Amsdorf in the Austrian Tyrol in December 1818, who created this simple beauty in the penumbra of revolution and war. Performed originally on a guitar, “Silent Night, Holy Night” quickly captured hearts.
Not all famous carols were composed in such a straightforward way. “O Come All Ye Faithful” appears first among the supporters of James ii, exiled in France, and is assigned on calligraphic evidence to James Francis Wade (1711–1786). The Latin Adeste fidelis was translated into dearly loved English as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by Frederick Oakley of Oxford Movement fame in 1841. The impetus for the writing of the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the recollection of Phillips Brooks, later the famous Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, of Christmas eve night in Bethlehem in the fateful year 1865, which marked the end of another revolution and another war. By 1868 the words had been set to music by Louis H. Redener, in a hymn titled “St. Louis.”
The late-Gothic Kings College Chapel in Cambridge is among the great works of the human imagination and human hand. Since 1919, the year after the Great War that effectively ended Europe, the choir of Kings College has presented in the chapel the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Famously, the service opens with a processional: “Once in Royal David’s City,” a Christmas carol which was originally a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, and shortly afterward set to music by H. J. Gauntlett, and published in that year in Miss Celia Humphrey’s Hymns for Little Children. The memory of the single voice singing “Once in Royal David’s City” invests imagination with its beauty.
All of these, every Christmas carol, is a gift of Jesus Christ, who makes the whole world sing, and especially at Christmas, when there is happiness to sing.
“God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.”
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”