Hark How All the Welkin Rings

First in a series on the gospel in Charles Wesley’s famous carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”

Luke 2:8-15; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Christmas CarolOne of the dilemmas that preachers run into during Advent is which hymns to plan for the congregation to sing during the season. Liturgically speaking, Christmas hymns should be reserved for Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, while Advent is all about preparation. There are a couple of problems with this approach, however. One is that there just aren’t many Advent hymns to begin with—in fact, we’re pretty much singing them all today on the first Sunday of Advent (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”). A good songwriter could make some money writing some more decent Advent hymns, but nobody seems to want to do that because, as we all know, Christmas music is what people actually want to sing, even if it’s still November or even October. After all, no other holiday gets the airplay that Christmas does. You don’t see, for example, radio stations dedicating their full program schedule to Easter or Thanksgiving music.

So, even those of us who are liturgical legalists have to give in a bit during this season, but I also like to think that the preponderance of Christmas music also gives us an opportunity to think about the message that music conveys. Some Christmas music is just for fun (Frosty and Jingle Bells, for example, which really have nothing to do with Christmas); some of it is very sentimental (White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas); and some of it is religious in tone, if not fact. Take “We Three Kings,” for example. That song, and not the Scripture, is why there are always three wise men (not kings) in every manger scene. I mean, biblically speaking, we don’t know how many magi there were, and they showed up two years later and in a different Gospel than the shepherds. When we have the kids put the figures in the manger scene each week during Advent, I always think they should put the wise men over in the closet and bring them out two months after Christmas. Then again, I’m a bit of a historical Grinch.

In fact, if you look closely at them, very few Christmas carols actually focus on the biblical and theological meaning of Christmas. We have a few in our hymnal, of course, but the familiarity of singing them over and over each year sometimes dulls the real dynamite of the message contained within them. When we look deeply at them and sing them with a different ear to the message, they can actually make our Advent even more a time of excitement and anticipation of the arrival of Christmas.

One of those carols that speaks most powerfully of the reality of Christmas—the fact of God coming to his people in human flesh—is Charles Wesley’s “Hymn for a Christmas Day,” or, as we know it, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We have three verses of that hymn in our hymnal, but Wesley actually wrote several more. Each of the verses touches on a major theme of the Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus, and so during this season I want to invite us look at each of these themes as a way of helping us move toward Christmas: The themes we’ll be looking at during this series are those that dominate the whole message about Jesus the coming king: peace, incarnation, resurrection, and renewal in the image of God. When we put these all together, we can begin to sing about the reality of Christmas, even during Advent.

Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

But first, a few words about the hymn itself. Charles Wesley was John Wesley’s older brother, and together they founded the Methodist movement in the early 18th century. John was the organizer and preacher, and while Charles preached as well, he is most famous for the more than 6,000 hymns he wrote, a fraction of which are in our hymnal. If John was the prose theologian, Charles expressed the depth of Christian faith and the Methodist tradition in poetry. In 1739, he published Hymns and Sacred Poems, which contained this famous hymn “Hymn for Christmas Day, which we now know as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

But that wasn’t the original first line. In Charles Wesley’s original, the hymn begins with, “Hark, how all the welkin rings.” Now, I know what you’re thinking: What’s a “welkin?” It’s actually an old English word that refers to the sky, the firmament, or the “vault of heaven” that contains the stars and all the heavens. In an ancient cosmology, the welkin was like a set of crystal spheres that would ring (as in “the music of the spheres,” which we also sing about in another hymn, “This is My Father’s World”). Charles Wesley’s opening line to the hymn thus read, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings.” The image is that the whole cosmos was ringing with the news of the birth of the world’s true and long-awaited king.

George Whitefield, 1714-1770

George Whitefield, 1714-1770

That’s quite different than the version we sing now, which is actually the result of an unauthorized edit to Charles Wesley’s original work by his friend George Whitefield. Whitefield had been there at the beginning of the Methodist movement, joining with John and Charles Wesley in the “Holy Club” at Oxford, but Whitefield departed from the movement because he was more Calvinist in his theological leanings. He became a preacher in his own right and, in fact, was the most famous preacher in England and America in the mid-18th century. We might think of George Whitefield as Billy Graham and Joel Osteen rolled together—he was immensely popular, his sermons theatrical, and his ability to reach an audience unparalleled. He drew huge crowds in both the colonies and in England and was so compelling that even religious skeptics like Benjamin Franklin went out to hear him. Franklin once went to hear Whitefield preach and, as was customary at the time, after the sermon there was to be a collection. Franklin wrote that as he listened he was “silently resolved [Whitefield] should get nothing from me. I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars, and five Pistoles [Spanish coins] in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the Silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I emptied my Pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all.” Franklin and Whitefield would become great friends throughout the rest of their lives.

Whitefield thought that Charles Wesley’s verse about the “welkin” wasn’t going to cut it for a popular audience (the word was only ever used by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare, for goodness sake), and since his own popularity was drawing large crowds he changed the opening lines to lyrics he though more sing-able and understandable, “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” and published the change in his own 1753 collection of hymns—copyright laws being less stringent in those days than today

The change made Charles Wesley furious, not only because it was done without permission, but because it made the hymn a little less biblically powerful. Wesley noted that the angels in Luke 2 don’t “sing,” they “say” (the Greek word is more akin to speaking than singing). And the glory given by the angels is to “God in the highest heaven.” Yes, the newborn king is God in the flesh and worthy of praise, but Wesley wanted to express the message of the angels as a sign that the whole cosmos, both heaven and earth, gave glory to God at Jesus’ birth, which is really the thrust of the biblical narrative (see, he was a bit of a historical Grinch, too).

Abraham, the first shepherd to whom God revealed his rescue plan for the world.

Abraham, the first shepherd to whom God revealed his rescue plan for the world.

For Charles Wesley, and indeed for Luke, the birth of Jesus is a sign of heaven and earth coming together, which brings peace and reconciliation between God and humanity. It’s an announcement that the story of God’s rescue plan for the world—a story that began in Genesis, when God revealed his plan to bless his broken world to another shepherd named Abraham—was becoming a reality. Abraham would shepherd a family that became a nation, whose mission had been to be a light to the other nations, bringing them back to God.

But when we look at the whole story of Scripture, we see that that nation, Israel, delivered by God from slavery and given a promised land, struggled with that mission (indeed, that’s what the word “Israel” means in Hebrew—striving or wrestling with God). Israel sinned by following after other gods and a series of corrupt kings, which led to their exile away from the land God had promised them. Some of the exiles returned from Babylon, but for the next 500 years, many of the people still believed that Israel was in exile, still under foreign domination.

roman_augustus2

Caesar Augustus, Roman emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth. Note the small statue of Cupid riding a dolphin at the base of the statue, which signifies Augustus’ connection to the goddess Venus through his adopted father, Julius Caesar.

Luke tells at the beginning of chapter 2 that the current dominating power was Rome, led by Caesar Augustus. Augustus considered himself a “son of god” and a “prince of peace.” But his divinity was self-imposed and his idea of peace involved eliminating all of Rome’s enemies. In fact, that was the way of every emperor. When a new emperor came to the throne, it was heralded by messengers around the Roman world as “good news.” But it was good news only for those in power, whose peace was maintained at the point of the sword. For Israel, the real good news would only come when God’s true king, the Messiah, would come on the scene, being a faithful Israelite, and paving the way for God to come and save them from these tyrants.

And then, in the fullness of time, an angel came and announced to another group of shepherds that the fulfillment of this ancient plan. God’s promised return, was happening, but in a way that no one expected. God was not returning as a conquering hero, a glorious cloud-surfing warrior coming back to destroy Israel’s enemies. No, the “sign” given to these shepherds was a leaky, burpy, dirt poor little baby, born in a barn in a nowhere town called Bethlehem. And yet, this is why the whole welkin was ringing—a glimpse of heaven and earth coming together, as God had intended from the beginning. God was coming to dwell with his people to redeem and save them. The long awaited Messiah, the true king, was the Lord himself, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of a tiny baby–fully human and fully divine.

And so, as Charles Wesley put it, “hark how all the welkin rings” with this news. “Peace on earth and mercy mild,” he writes, echoing the message of the angels. This is a very different kind of peace than that of the likes of Augustus, or any other earthly power then or now. This is a peace that isn’t just offered to some, but to “all whom God favors”—to all of humanity created in his image. God’s grace, offered to Israel, is now offered to everyone who will repent and turn to God by following his own son and messiah, the perfect image of humanity and the perfect image of God. Broken humanity can be restored because God has come among his people to save them from their sins, to renew creation, and restore the peace of God’s good world. God’s rescue mission was becoming a reality in a manger in Bethlehem. As Charles Wesley puts it, the birth of Jesus is the sign of “God and sinners reconciled.”

Wesley is echoing the words of the apostle Paul in our New Testament lesson from 2 Corinthians. For the last week or so, I’ve been wading into N.T. Wright’s new 1,600+ page book on Paul, where Wright says that the major theme of of all of Paul’s letters is the reconciliation of God and humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And because of this reconciling work of God, Paul then pleads with the people in his churches to be reconciled to one another. “From now on,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, “we regard no one with a human point of view.” We don’t see them as the world sees them—as reflections of our sinful selves to be used, abused, or manipulated for selfish gain. Instead, because of Jesus, Christians see people through the lens of Christ—as people who carry within them the image of God and who have the potential to regain that image by turning to Christ. And when people are “in Christ” (one of Paul’s favorite phrases), then that promised new creation, the one hoped for since the days of Abraham, becomes a reality! The old life passes away, and new life, new creation, springs forth. All of this, says Paul, is a gift from God, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ… In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (1 Cor. 5:18-19). For Paul the arrival of Jesus, the world’s true king, brought the long-awaited peace, life, and new creation promised to a shepherd long ago. Because of Jesus heaven and earth can be at peace with one another. That’s good news enough to make all the welkin ring.

Indeed, Paul says, it’s good news enough that it needs to be shared often. We are “ambassadors for Christ,” offering the “ministry of reconciliation.” This is the Christian mission, proclaiming God’s peace, God’s grace, and God’s new creation made possible in Christ to the whole world. “For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). That’ll preach—but even better, it will sing!

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847

It’s interesting that when Charles Wesley wrote this hymn, he believed that a slow, solemn tune would be best for singing it. The tune we now use is actually from a century later; written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 for an anniversary celebration of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn valued the tune, called “Festgesang,” but he also thought it to be the kind of music that was inappropriate for use in sacred worship. He wrote, “I am sure that piece will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do to sacred words. There must be a national and merry subject found out, something to which the soldier-like and buxom motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do.”

Bet you never thought of this carol as “Soldier-like” and “buxom!” Mendelssohn, who converted to Christianity from Judaism, wanted the tune to be used for some kind of national celebration. When English organist William H. Cummings married Mendelssohn’s tune with Wesley’s words in 1855 to give us the carol we now sing, it seems that Mendelssohn got his wish—“Joyful, all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies. With angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”

Technically, according the liturgical calendar, we should only sing this hymn on or after Christmas day. It’s a song that was altered unscrupulously, put to the wrong tune, and sung at the wrong time. It’s inappropriate, illegal, and in the wrong season. And yet, it’s a song that we should be happy to sing every day, Christmas or not. Here is the gospel—Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”

As we wait for Christmas, and we wait for Jesus’ second Advent to come, this song offers us an invitation much like Paul’s: “Be reconciled to God!” How does that happen? Through faith, trusting that, through Jesus, God’s rescue plan for the world includes sinners like you and me. Whatever old life we’ve struggled with, whatever sin hounds us, wherever peace of heart, mind, body, and soul eludes us, the good news is that the peace of Christ can overcome them. God has stepped toward us in Jesus. Will you step toward him? Will you be reconciled to God?

That’s an offer of grace that even Grinches can’t refuse…

Sources:

Roberts, Mark. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing: The Carol That Shouldn’t Exist.

Sowin, Josh. “Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield.”

 

One Comment on "Hark How All the Welkin Rings"

  1. Darren Zwolinski says:

    Thank you, Bob.

    Jesus was born without traditional family, glory or fanfare. His disciples gave all to proclaim his glory & message, to the point of ridicule, prison, death. That being said, can the somewhat modified lyrics capture a greater audience (don’t want to say, borderline believers?) to bring people to church even a couple times a year? Hopefully, everyday, not just Sunday…

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