The First Christmas Carol

Participating in our church’s annual shut-ins’ caroling earlier this week was an enjoyable experience that turned my thoughts to Christmas carols. Here I’ll share a few comments on the first Christmas carol and ask you to identify your favourite Christmas carol.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(Luke 2:8-20, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

Although it doesn’t appear in any collection of Christmas carols that I know of, the song which the angels sang (verse 14, highlighted above) is surely the first Christmas carol. The English Standard Version divides it into two clauses, “Glory to God in the highest” and “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” As the following chart shows, each clause refers to a blessing, the one(s) receiving the blessing, and where the blessing occurs.

Glory      God                                                        the highest (heaven)
peace     those with whom [God] is pleased     earth

The glory that the angels ascribed to God is honour, rather than the glory of verse 9. The glory of verse 9 is the shekinah glory, the visible manifestation of God’s presence within the universe, such as the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 13:21) and Jesus, “the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14). Here an angel had just announced the birth of the Saviour, and now a multitude of angels honoured God by praising Him for the salvation that He provides through that Saviour. Their action is a good example for us. As the great Reformer John Calvin put it, “As often as we hear tidings of our salvation, we must know that this is like a signal given to prompt our act of thanksgiving and God’s praises” (A Harmony of the Gospels in Calvin’s Commentaries, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972, volume I, page 77).

The peace that the angels ascribed to people is more than just the absence of conflict. Like shalom in the Old Testament, it also involves well-being and wholeness. The angels were referring to the salvation provided by God., After acknowledging the peace brought about by the Roman government, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed, “But can Caesar…give us security against love? He cannot. From sorrow? He cannot. From envy? He cannot” (The Discourses of Epictetus in Great Books of the Western World, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 188). However, because God’s salvation gives us peace with Him, it also results in the elusive inner peace that Epictetus was referring to.

Moreover, as Norval Geldenhuys points out in his commentary on Luke, “When the inner harmony is there because the human soul has peace with its Lord, peace also spontaneously comes about in mutual relations between human beings.” He continues, “It is the work of Christ to bring peace into all human relations—in man’s relation to God, to himself (his own feelings, desires, and the like), to his life’s circumstances (calamities and trials), and to his fellow-men. According as Christ is honoured and given admission to human lives, to that extent the peace on earth, which he came to bring, becomes a glorious actuality” (The Gospel of Luke in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951, pages 112-13).

I hope and pray that each of you will enjoy that peace during this Christmas season . Merry Christmas!

When introducing the above comments on the first Christmas carol, I said that I was going to ask you to identify your favourite Christmas carol. I’d appreciate your either doing that or, since most people have more than one favourite Christmas carol, listing your favourite Christmas carols in a comment on this post.

This article is adapted from one which appeared under the title “Peace on Earth” in the Christmas 1996 issue of “Hunter Family Holiday Newsletter.”


4 thoughts on “The First Christmas Carol

  1. Allison

    Some of my favorite Christmas carols are those which I learned to play on the piano as a child such as Away in a Manger and Silent Night. They’re also such quiet and familiar songs, it’s hard not for them to be favorites. Another carol I learned to play, when in my teens, is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. To this day, I appreciate its message of peace and its majestic sound.

    Other favorites come from childhood too. There’s the lively Go Tell It on the Mountain and the spiritual What Can I Give Him? I don’t hear those as often, but they’re meaningful songs.

    To answer your question I had to look up the definition of “carol”. Wikipedia defines it as having a religious meaning. This eliminates a Christmas song that’s been a favorite since the first time I left home: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

    Thank you for this trip down memory lane. As many new Christmas songs as there are, I still prefer to hear and sing the old ones. They’re what I grew up with and always make me feel sentimental, safe, and loved.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Thanks, Allison, both for identifying your favourite Christmas carols and saying why you like them and for the comment you made in your concluding paragraph. I also prefer to hear and sing the old ones.

  2. Andulamb

    My favorite Christmas carol is The Little Drummer Boy. I like the melancholy melody, and the sweet story of a boy who has nothing to give to the baby Jesus except his drumming.

    I just read the Wikipedia article about the song, and at the end it says that the story told by the song is similar to a 12th century legend about a juggler who performs for a statue of the Virgin Mary. This awakened a long forgotten memory of watching a TV movie called The Juggler of Notre Dame many years ago. So I Googled it and found it on Youtube. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was a touching story. Maybe I can get Allison to watch it with me this Christmas Eve.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Thanks, Andy, for identifying your favourite Christmas carol and telling why you like it. I also like “the Little Drummer Boy” and after reading your comment listened to a rendering of it on YouTube and read the Wikipedia article you referred to. I don’t remember seeing the movie but will try to get to see it sometime during the Christmas season.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s