Tag Archives: Christmas carols

Have they heard the Truth?

Many times, when I read or hear people expressing their disdain for the Christian faith—particularly those who claim to have left it—I wonder if they have ever really known the faith.  To me, the Christian faith is Jesus.  Not what Jesus has done for me.  Not the doctrines about Jesus.  Not the things I do for Jesus.  The Christian faith is Jesus.  In Him, in relationship with Him, I live.  He is my life, my all. 

And I doubt that those who have walked away from the faith have understood that.  I am confident that those who deny the faith from the outside have never heard or understood that gospel. Then I wonder—would they have denied the real gospel?

Of course, some will reject and some may even deny.  But they should at least be exposed to the truth!  As long as the Christian faith is presented as a set of doctrines or life standards or rituals, people will experience the frustration and despair that Lewis wrote about.  As long as it is something I have to do, the success of which depends on me, I am in trouble.

Bottom line: The gospel is the story of the love of God revealed in the Person and work of Jesus.  The Christian faith is a walk with a Friend.  Christian doctrine is about who our Lord is and what He has done.  Christian standards are the natural result of a life centered on Jesus.    

Thoughts?

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

You might recognize the name “Phillips Brooks.”  He was one of the most famous preachers in the history of our nation, greatly respected by common people and leaders alike.  His was one of the first mega-churches, over 1000 children attended Sunday School at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, and back in Civil War times, that was saying a lot. 

But in the months before Christmas of 1865, Dr. Brooks was becoming discouraged and tired.  He was a preacher who sincerely loved his people.  He wanted to give them good news, something that would lift their hearts.  But it was a discouraging time for our country.  Because of the war, every Sunday more women came to church wearing black because of the loss of a husband or a son.  Each Sunday he came to the pulpit and he could feel their need for encouragement, but each Sunday brought more news of death and destruction and pain.

Finally, the war was over and Brooks thought maybe life could return to normal.  He began to feel hope again and he saw hope in the eyes of his people.  But then came that awful day when President Abraham Lincoln was killed.  Hearts sank again as everyone understood that the war might be ended but the hatred remained. 

But the burden was even greater for Phillips Brooks.  Even though Lincoln did not attend his church, Brooks was asked to preside over the funeral for the President.  He felt ill-equipped to lead such a service and it cost him a great deal to find the words and courage to share a message of appreciation and love.  Afterward, he was left almost empty.

But Brooks didn’t want to be empty.  He knew that there was hope and peace and joy in Christ.  So he traveled to the Holy Land seeking the touch of the Lord.  Israel of 1865 was much like it must have been during the time of Jesus.  Brooks walked the streets of Jerusalem and the darkness began to leave his soul.

At one point, he left Jerusalem and rented a horse to ride to Bethlehem.  There his heart was touched in a special way.  He wrote:

Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star.  It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds… somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.  As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.

Then he added,

I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Saviour’s birth. 

Even though he returned home inspired and encouraged, it took some time before he could put into words the thoughts that touched his heart that day.  In 1868, Brooks gave his organist, a famous musician named Lewis Redner, a poem.  Redner struggled to write music to fit the poem and finally, on Christmas Eve, he simply gave up.  He just couldn’t compose something that fit the words he had been given.  But that night, the Lord seemed to give him what was needed.  He woke up and realized that a tune was already running through his head, the tune we now enjoy. 

The song was sung on Christmas morning, 1868, for the first time.  Then it was printed and circulated around the city of Philadelphia.  The words and music touched many hearts and it quickly became one of the most popular Christmas carols of our time.

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

If you have ever studied the hymnbook, you have seen the name of Charles Wesley.  He was the youngest brother of John Wesley, the great preacher, the youngest of eighteen children born in the family.  Charles Wesley grew up in a musical home and lived to write more than 3000 hymns, many of which we know today.  “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”—these are just a few of the songs in our hymnbook by Wesley. 

Charles Wesley tried to minister in the United States, like his brother, but returned to England after just a short time to take a church in London.  But his ministry was still quite different from other pastors of his day.  He cared about the regular people.  He held services outdoors, visited prisons, and believed in energetic and relevant church music. 

In 1737, Wesley wrote the words to a song, “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings.”  The song was well accepted in his church and in other churches.  “Welkin” was a reference to the firmament of heaven, the sky and stars, where the glory of the Lord is proclaimed.  No one uses that word today, but the song wasn’t changed just recently.

Wesley had a friend with whom he differed on many things of doctrine and style.  He and George Whitefield had attended college together.  Whitefield was a former bartender who had become a Calvinist preacher.  His words and style were revolutionary.  Because his message often got him into trouble in the more subdued churches of his day, Whitefield was banned from most of them and spent his time preaching outdoors.  He appealed to the common people and, when he came to the United States, became one of the most popular preachers of his day.  Benjamin Franklin often marveled at hearing Whitefield preach.

George Whitefield was not as well educated as Charles Wesley.  When Whitefield got ahold of the song Wesley had made popular for Christmas, he promptly changed the words.  Instead of “how the welkin rings,” Whitefield wrote, “the herald angels sing.”  Wesley was furious when he heard of the change.

I don’t know if he was more angry at the idea that Whitefield had the audacity to change the words to the song or at the fact that Whitefield made the song say something that wasn’t true.  There is no reference in the Bible to the angels singing at the birth of Jesus, in spite of the fact that almost everyone will tell you that’s what they are doing in Luke 2:13.  It appears that the interpretation of the verse comes from the popularity of the song. 

As long as he lived, Charles Wesley would not sing the popular version of his song established by Whitefield.  The church soon forgot the exact words Wesley had written. 

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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“Angels We Have Heard on High”

There is some question as to which of the songs in our hymnbook is the oldest.  Many  of our songs come from German composers and some are attributed to early church fathers.  In general, the hymnbook of a modern church is a testimony to the singing tradition of the church throughout the centuries.

Our next Christmas song is somewhat of a puzzle to those who try to track authorship.  It appeared for the first time in France in the early 1800’s, but it may well have come from a source much older.  In fact, some scholars suggest that this song could have been sung by those who knew the apostles.

In AD 130, just a hundred years after the resurrection, Pope Telesphorus decreed a special mass to celebrate the day of the Lord’s birth—a Christ mass.  He further decreed that the words, “Gloria in excelsis deo” would be sung on that day.  It is one of the few Latin phrases still heard in evangelical churches.  It means, simply, “Glory to God in the highest,” reflecting the words of the angels in Luke.  By the 3rd century, celebrating Christmas with these words was already standard practice. 

Musicians believe that the music of this song probably came from an old chant, much like those sung by the monks of the Catholic church over the centuries.  In spite of the movement of the music, not many notes are used.

So it may be that a Catholic monk from France wrote down this song that was used in his tradition for so long, thereby blessing us with another great Christmas carol. 

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Several years ago I met a young man who was called by God to a dangerous and unusual ministry.  He worked with pastors in closed countries, taking them Bibles and study materials.  He would travel to open countries, like Germany, and then slip across the border to places like Romania with money for bribes and suitcases of Bibles to give to those brave pastors who continued to spread the gospel even though they lived under threat of severe punishment for doing so.  At the time I met him, this man’s primary work was in Romania.

I don’t know if you remember, or if you would ever have known, but the ruler of Romania in the 1980’s was a particularly cruel and anti-Christian man named Nicolae Ceausescu.  100 million people lived under his absolute control.  He was so set against the church that even television antennas in the shape of crosses were banned.  Churches in the country sat empty.

I asked my friend how we could pray for the work he was doing in Romania and he had a simple answer.  He said, “Pray for the death of Ceausescu.”  We did this and God was not long in answering.  On December 21, 1989, the dictator stood before his people to address them as usual.  This time he saw the anger and hatred in their eyes.  They began to shout against him, in spite of the dangers they knew they faced.  Ceausescu and his wife were angry and afraid.  The next day they fled the palace.

The army finally turned against this evil man and he and his wife were captured.  On December 25th, 1989, Christmas Day, Ceausescu and his wife were tried for the murder of 60,000 Romanians.  They were quickly found guilty and were executed by a firing squad the same day.  On that day, for the first time in many years, the church bells began to ring around Romania, proclaiming the death of the one the believers called, the Antichrist, and celebrating the birth of the one who was their true Savior and Lord. 

And, ever since, this great song has had new meaning…

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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“O Come All Ye Faithful”

Tommy and Fritz had been friends for a long time.  They traveled to each other’s homes and learned each other’s languages.  They shared many traditions and holidays.  But in the years before 1914, the British, whom the Germans called “Tommy,” and the Germans, whom the British called “Fritz,” became enemies.  That is, their leaders became enemies because of the political unrest of the day.

But it has almost always been the case in times of war, that the men in the trenches have a less developed sense of bitterness toward the opposing soldiers.  As one man put it, “We hated them when they killed one of our friends, but mostly we just joked about them and I suppose they joked about us.”  Regular men, sent far away from their homes, to fight for politicians and leaders who knew little about mud and blood: these were the soldiers of World War One. 

So it really shouldn’t surprise us to hear that something very special happened in Belgium on December 24, 1914.  The troops on both sides knew that it was Christmas.  They missed their familes.  They longed to sit around the fire, joking and laughing, eating the traditional foods of the season.  Some of them even worked to have a sort of Christmas where they were.  In fact, the British soldiers were puzzled to see strange lights popping up along the German lines.  After some careful investigation, they realized that they were seeing Christmas trees.  It wasn’t long before they heard singing.

The carols of Christmas are recognizable, no matter where you are and who is singing them.  According to one of the men who was there that evening, one of the Germans shouted out for the British to sing with them.  A Tommy shouted back, “We’d rather die than sing in German!”  At that a Fritz responded, “It would kill us to hear you!”  Pretty soon there was an exchange of shouted Christmas greetings.

Eventually, both sides realized what was happening.  No one wanted to be there.  They were under orders, but those orders could be set aside to remember something far more important.  One soldier remembered it this way:

They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang ‘The first Noël’, and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, ‘O Tannenbaum’. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fidéles’. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

The Germans and the English, joining their voices together in Latin to sing the familiar song that meant so much to both of them.  The rest of that night was spent without bloodshed as soldiers jumped out of the trenches on both sides to bless the others.  They exchanged food and gifts, tobacco and best wishes.  The fighting would resume soon enough and both sides would be reprimanded by their superiors, but the Christmas truce really happened and, in Christ’s name, enemies came together as friends.

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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“Away in the Manger”

Children love to sing and it is a special blessing to have songs even the youngest can enjoy in the church.  “Jesus Loves Me” comes to mind quickly as a song we love to hear the little ones sing.  But at Christmas time, there is nothing better than “Away in the Manger.”  In 1887, James R. Murray included this in a book of songs he published and called it “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”  Murray had been an Army musician in the Civil War and went on afterward to work for a publishing company.  We don’t know if he heard the story somewhere or what, but the song became known as the song Martin Luther sang to his children as he tucked them in at night. 

The only problem with the story is that when the German people came to the United States, they had never heard the song.  There is no real evidence that it was ever associated with Martin Luther in any way.  In fact, no one had heard of it before Murray included it in his songbook. 

The music for the version we are most used to was attributed to a man named Carl Mueller in a songbook called “Word and Song” during World War One.  But again, there is a mystery.  There is no evidence that Carl Mueller even existed.  Like the words, the music simply showed up. 

Today, the credit is given to James Murray himself, although most scholars doubt that he wrote it.  He was apparently the kind of man who would have enjoyed having people know that he wrote the words and music for the song.  He certainly had no trouble taking credit for other music he wrote.  The best guess is that he found the little song somewhere and had no idea to whom he should give credit.  He did the best he could, but it appears that this song was simply a gift to the children from the Lord who loved them. 

(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here.  These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend.  Some of the stories are from my research.  The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)

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