Some things you might like to know about the Music of Christmas: Advent 3

Music has long been a part of worship and there is no more obvious time than at Christmas. The stores start to play Christmas songs soon after Halloween, if not even before. For some the music is a joy and comfort and for others it is an annoyance.

Such too has been the history of carols and songs through the ages.

The word Carole is a description used for religious songs that speak of the coming or the birth of Jesus. At first they were festive and often combined with circle dances. They first appeared in the 13th century under the influence of Francis of Assisi.

In England, under the Cromwell government, the singing of Christmas carols was prohibited as pagan and sinful. The Protestant Puritans had parliament both ban the singing of carols and the celebration of Christmas in 1647. This lasted only 20 years as people could not help but celebrate with singing and recognizing the birth of Jesus.

Today I want to look at some of the background of some carols of Advent and Christmas

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

In this Advent carol we have a picture of Christ presented based on Old Testament scriptures.

O come, O come Emmanuel is the cry of ancient Israel for a SAVIOUR. It is the desire of a nation to be saved. Israel is remembered as being in captivity. Only the Messiah can come and save and rescue them.

Emmanuel means God with us and refers to Matthew‘s reference to the birth of Jesus…Behold a virgin

will conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

O come thou Rod of Jesse that trust your mighty power to save.

This is a reference to the fact that the Messiah will come from the line of King David. Jesse was David’s father. David was thought to be a mighty King and proved that with God he could do great things.

The chorus….Rejoice, rejoice is meant as a response to the earnest cry for the Messiah. It is another voice proclaiming the Good News that Emmanuel will indeed come to rescue Israel.

And so for the short season of Advent we as Christians put ourselves in the position of ancient Israel, waiting and preparing for the birth of Christ, the promised Savior.


Video: Come thou Long Expected Jesus

Charles Wesley was the 18th child of Samuel and Suzanna Wesley. He was born Dec 17, 1707 in England.

Longing to become a minister at an early age, he took his training and soon after went to the United States as an evangelist. His time there was as a miserable failure. He returned to Britain trying to figure out his future and his relationship with God.

It was while he was in this wilderness time that he contracted pleurisy, was bedridden for several months and came close to death. During this time he reconnected with God and as he writes, “I now found myself at peace with God and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ. It was somewhat later that he wrote the Hymn or Carol….Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.

Charles Wesley wanted to write something that would express the views of ANCIENT Israel as well as acknowledge that the long awaited one had indeed come and was prepared to change the world. This particular song is not limited to the Advent or Christmas season for is speaks of the present reality of the birth of Jesus as well as the future hope of eternity.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Dr Phillip Brooks, an American Bishop wrote the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem in the late 1800’s. As a young man Phillip Brooks visited the Holy Land and rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Desiring to record what became a lasting impression he wrote this Carol, especially for children.

The first verse is a description of Bethlehem as a small sleepy town in which something exciting will happen. Bethlehem is 6 miles from Jerusalem and seems unimportant but in fact was the city of David and was told about in ancient scriptures. It seems as though nothing is happening but GOD is working God’s purposes out. The contrast between the dark streets and the light of Christ is also significant.

Verse 2 expresses the Christmas event. Jesus is born while few notice except nature itself. Credit is given to Mary and this is central to the Christmas story. But the hymn writer wants to say that the spiritual world is very active even if the human world is unaware.

Verse 3 speaks of the way in which God comes to us….not in thunder and lightning but silently and quietly and reverently. It is mysterious how God acts. Contrast all this with the excitement surround the pregnancy of Will and Kate. God could have chosen such fanfare but did not.

Verse 4 is a prayer. The prayer is that we will accept the Christ child and that Jesus will abide with us always. This hymn begins with Christmas in Bethlehem and ends with Christmas in the heart. Christ is born of Mary but must be born in us also. But spiritual birth only happens when sin is cast out. There can be no room for darkness and light at the same time. There can be no room for hate and love at the same time.

So we sing this hymn knowing that it is a proclamation of Christ’s birth but also a call to acceptance in our lives of Jesus birth

Sing O LITTLE TOWN OF Bethlehem #64

VIDEO….one Octave

Introduction…Joy to the World

Isaac Watts wrote the hymn Joy to the World in the early 1700’s. It was never intended to be a Christmas carol but has become the most sung carol in North America in the 20th century. It really is based on Psalm 98 . Watts found the worship service boring, especially the Psalms and so set many of them to music.

It is of interest that Watts had a most difficult life and yet wrote many both joyful and enduring hymns that express the love of Jesus. Because of religious beliefs, Watts ‘s father was imprisoned for most of Watt’s childhood. Perhaps because of this, Watts himself was sickly most of his life and spent much of his life in bed. However he both preached and wrote hymns.

The verses are self-explanatory. Jesus has come and it is up to us to receive him.

The phrase, “far as the curse is found” refers simply to the sin in the world. Wherever there is sin, Jesus has come to bless.

It is interesting in an age where Puritans reigned and try to kill the joy in faith that Watts found the proper theology. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world so much as to reveal truth and bring grace. The key word is not vengeance but Love…far as his love is found.

And so ends some thoughts on the music of the season as far as Christianity is concerned. Many times we get singing seasonal music and do not really take to heart the words. Sometimes we are unable to distinguish between a rousing secular Christmas song such as the 12 days of Christmas and the religious ones that are intended to bring us closer to the true meaning of this season.

As you hear the songs and sing them may they too have meaning in your life.

Sing 59 Joy to the world

Rev. Doug Powell is the minister at the Banff United Church, Rundle Memorial United. Learn more about our current activities, our Thrift Shop, and how to get married in Banff.