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.”