Tag Archives: Christmas

Hymn #213: The First Noel

It’s simple, it’s short, and it’s impossibly beautiful. For a long, long time, this was my very favorite of the fourteen Christmas hymns in the LDS hymnal. (It was replaced a couple of years ago by “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” because, seriously, come on.) The soaring soprano part intertwines with the equally beautiful tenor part during the chorus of “Noel! Noel!”, bringing goosebumps to my flesh every single time I hear it.

The simplicity of the tune is wonderful, but the simplicity of the message is equally lovely. The King, the Lord of all, came to earth not in glory and splendor, but in a humble stable, laid to rest in a manger surrounded by animals. Here He was, the Savior of the world, the focus of ages past and ages to come, and His coming was relatively unheralded. I say relatively unheralded, but in honesty, His birth was heralded in a way very few other events are; His coming was literally announced by heralds. In keeping with the quiet nature of the event, though, the heralds didn’t appear to kings, rulers, or anyone of particular prominence. They appeared to “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay keeping their sheep.” These were ordinary men, tending to their flocks as they did every night when angels appeared to announce what was, without question, the greatest event in the history of the earth. I imagine they were terrified, not only because of the unexpected nature of the announcement (I’d be terrified of an angelic appearance), but also because they, meek and lowly men, had been appointed to witness this event.

They made their way to Bethlehem, and they bore witness to what they had seen. The King had come to His own. He had come to the poor, the humble, the lowly, and the ordinary. He had come to redeem them from their sins, and He had come to give them hope.

He came not only for those in Jerusalem, of course, but to the whole world. His star was seen by the wise men coming from the east, and it was seen by those in the Americas. The signs were there, made clear to anyone who cared to read them. His coming was not a secret, no more than His gospel is a secret today. It was freely available to anyone who listened.

The chorus of “Noel! Noel!” is beautiful in its simplicity. We sing the same word over and over, rising to a D in the soprano part and that towering E in the tenor part. The word means Christmas, but more specifically, it refers to a Christmas carol. We sing about his coming in the most simple and distilled way we can. We sing that one word, the word that tells us that He has come, He is here, and we sing it jubilantly, as directed. We sing full of joy, full of hope, and full at His coming.

Born is the King of Israel. He has come to His own, and He comes to His own still.

Hymn #207: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n's all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

My favorite part of the Christmas story as told in Luke 2 has always been the bit with the angels and shepherds. I love to imagine the shock that must have been on those poor shepherds’ faces, and bewildered conversation that must have occurred afterward. “Did you just…? Did that really…? An angel???”

But not just one angel: an entire multitude! It’s as if they could scarcely wait for the first angel to announce the “good tidings of great joy” before they suddenly burst of the scene, “praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14) The day had finally come! The Only Begotten of the Father had been born! What excitement there must have been on the other side of the veil!

And yet “the world in solemn stillness lay.” Yes, some noticed the signs of His birth: wise men in the East (see Matthew 2), Nephites in the Americas (see 3 Nephi 1), and I’m sure there were others about whom I hope to someday learn. On the whole, though, the Christ-child came into the world pretty simply and quietly.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The world continued on as it always had, and Jesus “grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). He was eventually rejected, accused, crucified by the people He was born to save. The Son of the Everlasting God lived and died and lived again, and so few even knew He existed at all. His name is known throughout the world, but the “babel sounds” of busyness, selfishness, pride, and fear frequently drown out His message of love, hope, faith, and forgiveness.

But the blessed angels sing on. They know who He is. They know what He has done. And they know what is to come.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Someday the entire world will know Him too. All will join the heavenly throng in singing glory to God. Joy and peace and love will abound. The “weary world” will be renewed and the “sad and lowly plains” will be exalted. Christ will be King.

Until then, we will add our humble hallelujahs to those of the heavenly host. Just like those angels who simply had to share the good news with someone, we know who He is. We know what He has done. And we know what is to come.

What a glorious song to sing.

new star

Hymn #208: O Little Town of Bethlehem

new star

Now that it’s getting to be the Christmas season, we turn our attention to the Christmas hymns in our hymnal. There are fourteen of them, and my decision to write short essays about each of them on my personal blog last year ended up inspiring this project.

This is far from the only hymn to be written about the events of Luke 2. It’s not the only hymn to mention Bethlehem, nor is it the only one to mention the time of night or the stillness of the scene. It is, however, so far as I can tell, the only one of the fourteen Christmas hymns to mention the word “years:”

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Jesus was born, depending on your calendar, anywhere between 6 B.C. and A.D. 1. Mankind had been around for at least four thousand years before that (and possibly as many as ten thousand, depending on how you define “mankind”), and all the while, they had been waiting for this moment. Prophets had long foretold the moment their Savior would come, and it’s not unrealistic to suppose that for each of those four to ten thousand years, someone was looking to this very moment.

The hopes are simple enough to understand; anyone looking to Jesus’ birth trusting that He would redeem them from their sins would certainly take hope from that thought. But what of the fears? Assuming they correctly understood the message, who would look to that day with fear?

Well, the Nephite people in the Book of Mormon, for one. Prophets in the Americas had also long foretold Jesus’ coming, but unlike in the Old World, those believers had a death threat hanging over their heads as a result of their belief. From 3 Nephi 1:

And it came to pass that [those who did not believe] did make a great uproar throughout the land; and the people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass.

But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain.

These were people of faith, but there was fear in their hearts. They had waited five years since a particularly notable prophecy in which the date of Jesus’ birth was foretold, and while they trusted that those words would be fulfilled, it’s easy to see why they would have been afraid. Yet despite that fear, they kept their eyes to the heavens, clutching their children a little tighter, watching for the star.
As the hymn says, “How silently the wondrous gift is giv’n.” The star didn’t appear in an explosion, but probably simply appeared in the sky for all to see, announcing the birth of that wondrous gift. And so too, He does not shout for our attention, but knocks softly, waiting for us to respond:
No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Image credit: Arnold Friberg, “Christ Appears Among the Nephites”.