I’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:
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.