It Came Upon A Midnight Clear And Other Christmas Carol “Facts”

The_Shepherds011I’m a big believer in hymnody. I learned a lot of doctrine in church without realizing it because we sang hymns with substance. Not every hymn is theologically sound, however, and not every Christmas carol adheres to the facts Scripture reveals about that first Christmas. More than one relies on imagination or “poetic license.”

“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” is an interesting example. Scripture doesn’t say that the night was clear, though it’s a fair assumption since the shepherds seemed to have an unimpeded view of the angels. But why midnight? Why not 6:35 or 8:20? That time is speculation, which is fine as long as we all understand that it is.

Then there are the angels. I don’t recall any human encounter with angels that includes a description of wings. Granted, the ark of the covenant and the Holy of Holies in the temple included angels with wings, but when humans saw angels, they didn’t mention the wings. In fact some angels looked just like humans and were mistaken for men. One passage of Scripture says we might actually from time to time entertain angels, not realizing that the people we’re extending kindness and the love of Christ to, are actually heavenly beings. I doubt if that would happen if angels all had wings! Or had wings all the time.

All that to say, the description in “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” of the first angel and then the accompanying host includes a bit of speculation. Then there is the erroneous idea that the angels sang their praise to God. Scripture, as jarring as it is to our Evangelical culture, never says the angels sang.

The good thing about this particular carol is that in the final stanza it ties Christ’s first coming with His impending return:

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

Minus the singing part, those lines are pretty awesome. The angels announced the coming of Messiah and praised God for it; one day He’ll come again and the whole world will praise Him for it.

One of my favorites, “We Three Kings,” suffers from the same imagination/speculation issue when it comes to the particulars of the visitation by the wisemen. First off, nowhere in Scripture are the visitors identified as kings. The word we translate as wisemen is magi. The footnote in the New American Standard Bible defines the term as “a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science.”

In addition, the idea that there were three comes from the fact that they brought three gifts, but in reality, five could have given gold, two, myrrh, and four frankincense. It’s unlikely that the three came alone, too, especially bearing such expensive gifts and traveling so far. They likely had a caravan of servants and perhaps other travelers, but that’s my speculation. 😉 Scripture simply doesn’t say how many were in their company.

The other thing that’s problematic is the idea that they followed the star. They did for a short distance, but not all the way from their home. I mean, did you ever wonder, if they were following the star, why did they end up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem? Scripture says they saw in the east the star belonging to the King of the Jews, and went to worship Him. When they didn’t find Him in the capital city, Jerusalem, the place you’d expect to find a newborn who would be king, then the star “went before them” and stopped over the place where the Child was.

One more thing about the star. Nowhere does Scripture tell us it was particularly bright. I used to wonder what was wrong with everyone else for not following the star too. Well, the truth is, it didn’t have to be bright for these men who studied the stars to recognize it. Their field of knowledge surpassed ours. They knew something supernatural from examining the physical. I mean, they came to worship the King. Not the king of their own country (which may have deified their kings), and not to give tribute to a young prince. They wanted to worship, the rightful response to God alone.

With the faults of “We Three Kings,” it still delivers a powerful message, tying the types of gifts the magi gave to the Christ Child with the various truths about Him: that He was King (gold), and God (frankincense), and Suffering Savior (myrrh).

Many of the Christmas songs are like this—there may be some factual errors or pure speculation, but at the heart of the carol is the truth about Jesus. “Silent Night,” for instance, is much more than a sweet Christmas lullaby. The heart of the song includes these lines:

Alleluia.
Christ the Saviour is born,
Christ the Saviour is born.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from
Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Yes, the “radiant beams” are imagination at work, but the redeeming grace dawning with Jesus at His birth is not. Nor is the pronouncement that Christ the Savior was born.

The carols are great, and some of the newer Christmas music is too. “Mary, Did You Know?” is Scriptural and reveals who Jesus is. Keith and Kristyn Getty have a Christmas album which includes some great songs. One of note is “For To Us A Child Is Born” and another “Joy Has Dawned.” The Biblical lyrics faithfully point to why Jesus came.

I guess the real point of all this comes down to something I’ve been reminding myself: to keep my mind engaged even when I’m singing or listening to familiar Christmas songs. What we humans write, needs to be filtered through God’s Holy Word.

Then, too, the “old, old story” should never be taken for granted. God’s great love is new every morning. I should never stop giving praise and thanks to my Savior for rescuing me from the kingdom of darkness. As the lyrics of another Getty song, “Holy Child,” says,

May the gift of God amaze us still
The triumph of all time

How great to have such an array of Christmas music to further our worship.

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Published in: on December 15, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (12)  
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12 Comments

  1. Shall we add to the mix the common nativity scene which always includes the Wise men when in fact theyactually were not present for the birth of Jesus? 🙂

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    • Yeah, I was going to mention that, but there wasn’t a good place. Not sure how those false ideas came into our culture, but it’s time we sweep them away, I think.

      Becky

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      • You may have a point. I mean, right in the vestibule of my own church, as conservative as you can get…full of pride in how Biblically accurate we are…is the Nativity scene. Ironic really. My own dear Mother in Law(who I love dearly!) will rail against the painting. “The Last Supper” because they are sitting around a table, but walk in the front door and comment about what a nice nativity Scene that is. Go figure LOL.

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        • And the Last Supper doesn’t say in Scripture that they weren’t sitting at a table. We know the cultural meal habits from history, not from the Bible. But the wisemen and the shepherds, gathered together at the manger? Uh, not according to the Bible! It’s a nice summary of the birth narrative, an all-encompassing snapshot, but not factual. LOL

          Becky

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  2. Ha! I had to go look up your word “hymnody.” Yes, I think I quite agree with you. Before we had bibles, scripture was often sung while walking. Today we know that powerful things happen to our brains when we are singing, involving memory and emotion. There’s a window of time when this phenomenon is extremely powerful, right around 13 or 14, but it goes with us all our lives. Some of our best teachers have learned how to use singing and rhythm to teach kids math because it opens up those pathways. Often things that cannot be learned with our rational mind, can be learned through song.

    That said however, in a church the other day I heard the best rendition of jingle bells on an electric guitar. Wow, it was impressive. A secular song perhaps, but done so well, it has us all focusing on God. Really sweet too, he was a young guy, once addicted to drugs, alcohol, who found Christ. He couldn’t play guitar, had no musical ability at all but the day he was saved he started teaching himself. I’m telling you, by the time he was finished, everyone knew that jingle bells was Divinely inspired 😉

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    • I didn’t know that about music and our brains, though I have heard stories, one about a stroke victim who couldn’t speak but who could sing.

      Cool story about the young man in your church! God is so gracious, generous, and kind.

      And I had to look up hymnody, too. Hahah! Seriously! I used a different “word” and went to the dictionary to see if it really was a word and if so was it the word I meant. No, I’d made it up, but hymnody was precisely what I wanted. So, I learn when I write! 😀

      Becky

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  3. It’s worth noting that the very verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” that you point out as particularly valuable was, until altered by some discerning hymnal editor, significantly less theologically sound: the original reads

    For lo! the days are hastening on,
    by prophet bards foretold,
    when with the ever-circling years
    comes round the age of gold;
    when peace shall over all the earth
    its ancient splendors fling,
    and the whole world send back the song
    which now the angels sing.

    which is a clear allusion to the classical myth or philosophical idea that there was once a time when all people lived in perfect peace, and that history moves in an inexorably circular fashion.

    Personally, I’m avoiding choosing any specifically Christmas hymns, when it’s my turn to choose in our family devotions, until the Christmas season as such begins on Christmas Day. There aren’t as many really good Advent hymns as there are really good Christmas songs, but even the five or six specifically Advent-themed hymns that I can think of are well worth repeating for the entire season.

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    • Wow, Jonathan, I didn’t know that. Really interesting, and actually fits more specifically with the idea that we need to “keep our thinking caps on” when we sing familiar carols. (By the way, do they give out thinking caps to kids these days? LOL) Thanks for adding this to the discussion!

      Becky

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  4. […] A Christian World Fiction […]

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  5. Hi,
    I appreciate what you do on this blog. I nominate you again for the sunshine blogger award. https://femininematerz.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/sunshine-blogger-award-seasons-greetings/

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  6. Love it. Sometimes tradition is tradition and you better not ruin it. I love Mary, Did You Know? And I’m often surprised at how some of the most secular people can sing the carols like no one’s business.

    One of my favorite carols is O Holy Night but I love the version sang by David Phelps who I just discovered last year. Oh my gosh! That man can blow! Especially when he hits that note! I was at work trying to work and was bawling my eyes out. I got a story idea from that YouTube video.

    But we should engage our minds when we listen to music. I was listening to a very popular urban gospel song which has it’s roots in the Word of Faith movement, which I instantly picked up on, and one of the lyrics says, “Don’t tell God about your mountain (struggle, problem, etc.) Tell your mountain about your God.” And the soloist is ad-libbing and I’m like, “What?” And mind you, I like an upbeat tempo like anyone else but I tend to turn that song off when i hear it because it’s not scripturally sound. First of all, you making it look like God is our bouncer at the club. “I’m going to get God on you!” That’s how it came off to me. Ugh.

    There’s another song, and again, I like the beat, but the guy goes, “Let’s get back to Eden, live on top of the world.” Again, more than likely based in the WofF movement but I THINK that guy’s more charismatic, not sure. Anyway, I’m listening and they’re focused on material wealth in this world. Like Eden was about material things when in fact, Eden (before the Fall) was about the unbroken relationship we had with the Lord. And I’m thinking, that’s not what Eden’s about. But forgive a sister, because I do like the beat to the song and I don’t turn that one off. (I know, I know. Hypocrite! 😉

    Great post. I tend to ramble as you know. I started following this wonderful pastor and been blowing up his blog with my rambling. Thankfully he hasn’t kicked me out yet! hahaha.

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