Garry spoke to us tonight about Christmas carols – rather aptly, since this was a carol service! The first recorded carols were sung about 129 A.D.; a Roman bishop wrote a song called ‘Angels’ Hymn’ which was sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Carols fell out of favour for some years (they were all in Latin, which lost its importance with the decline of Rome), but in 1223, St Francis of Assisi started Nativity plays to tell the Christmas story, complete with songs.
In the UK, the Puritans banned Christmas and disapproved of singing carols, so it was not really until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England, that Christmas carols became really popular.
The carols sung at our carol service have much to teach us about God’s Great Rescue Plan. ‘Angels From The Realms of Glory’ (written by Scottish poet James Montgomery) was first printed in the Sheffield Iris in 1816 and tells of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, telling the story of the shepherds, wise men, saints, sinners and finally all creation worshipping God’s Messiah. Some versions of the carol remind us we’re doomed (‘aye, we’re doomed’, as Private Frazer was wont to say) and desperately need God’s salvation.
‘Joy To The World’ was first published in 1719 by Isaac Watts, with the additional chorus written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash and Matt Gilder. In that carol, we read the line that Jesus came to make His blessings flow ‘far as the curse is found’. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ answers the question as to what the curse is, reminding us that Jesus Christ was born ‘to save our souls from Satan’s pow’r/ When we were gone astray.’ All creation was under sin’s curse and therefore our souls need saving – we have to send an SOS message to God!
‘Once In Royal David’s City’, originally written as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander and published in 1848 and set to music by the English organist Henry John Gauntlett, is always the first carol sung at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge and tells of the effect of His rescue of us: ‘And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love.’ Our SOS call receives an answer, for God has the remedy for our plight.
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was written by Phillips Brooks in 1868 and talks of our rescue being effected by the ‘holy child’ who casts out sin and is then ‘born in us.’ ‘Our Lord Emmanuel’ is God with us and lays down His life for us. ‘Our eyes at last shall see Him’ testifies to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus and reminds us we no longer need to be doomed; we can experience His mercy and grace.
Our last two carols, ‘Glory In The Highest’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, are centuries apart historically (the former was written in 2006 by Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves and Matt Redman, whilst the latter was originally a Latin carol made popular in the 17th century), but both call us to worship God for all He has done for us. We are called to adore Him and sing ‘glory in the highest’ because of all Jesus has done for us in delivering us from sin and giving us eternal life. We truly have a Rescuer to praise and a gospel of good news to share! (‘Rescuer’, Rend Collective)