One of the reasons my wife and I love First Pres so much is because of the singing. We both studied music at the collegiate level—Sarah actually is a classical piano major and I…well, I tried but then I switched to theology (another story for another time perhaps)! So, being the music lovers that we are, one of the first things we noticed and loved about worship at First Pres is the congregational singing and the hymnody. The rich selection of hymns that we get to sing together as a congregation week in and week out—well, suffice to say that my worship and my Christian devotion is all the better because of it.
I am thankful for the Christmas season at our congregation for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the hymnody and season of congregational singing that always accompanies the month of December. Besides the fact that the Christmas hymns and carols are among the most beautiful, sing-able, and familiar, they are also among the most richly doctrinal and creedal. In fact, I was having a conversation with some of our ministers recently where we agreed that we could think of no other time of the year where so many Evangelical and Protestant congregations (from all sections of the worship-style spectrum) are singing and meditating on such explicitly creedal confessions of the church and Scripture with such frequency and regularity.
Perhaps it’s discouraging that this is not the case more often in more churches, but I think it is worth celebrating the fact that such singing is happening and that our Christian worship is the more blessed and enriched because of it.
So, if you will indulge me, I’d like to point out some of the rich confessional theology found in the hymns of the Incarnation. If you will allow me a few examples and comparisons, I think you will see why such creedal hymnody excites and encourages me and makes me all the more thankful for our congregational worship here.
Consider the first line of the Nicene Creed (which we recite and study from time to time):
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man….
Now consider stanza 2 of Charles Wesley’s famous “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:
Christ by highest heav'n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!;
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin's womb;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity….
Or stanza 2 of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (perhaps the most explicit example):
God of God, Light of Light Eternal,
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created;
And later in stanza 4:
Jesus to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing
Or stanza 2 of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
Or stanzas 2 and 3 of “Of The Father’s Love Begotten”:
O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!
This is He Whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!
Or stanza 1 of “All Praise to Thee, Eternal Lord”:
All praise to thee, eternal Lord, clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
choosing a manger for thy throne, while worlds on worlds are thine alone
Do you see the obvious borrowing these hymns take from the creed? I am sure there a great many more examples that have escaped my notice. I encourage you to be on the lookout for such language as you worship and sing this season.
It’s interesting that, although these kind of theological details are often mocked today as being overly-picky or “splitting hairs”, these doctrinal confessions are the stuff that split empires and spilt the blood of martyrs. There’s even a delightful old legend that tells of Saint Nicholas (yes, the Saint Nicholas) at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, having grown positively infuriated after listening to Arius deny that Jesus was divine and equal to God the Father but was merely the highest creature, strode across the room and punched Arias in the face! Who knew that the phrase “Very God of Very God” could spark imperial turmoil, the death of faithful disciples, and even provoke Santa Claus to slap the face of old Egyptian heretic!
Friends, part of the gospel message is the fact that Christ came and took on humanity in order to redeem it. That man is created in the imago Dei and that there is good news of a God-Man Savior only serves to underscore the preciousness and beauty of our humanity which Christ shares.
Therefore, if, as Christians, our humanity is both blessed and in various degrees redeemed by the coming of a Savior who took on our humanity, then by all means, hymnody that extols such beautiful truths is worth singing and celebrating! Not only that, but the injection of such rich biblical, confessional language into our worship will only serve to benefit the church as well as instill a sense of connection and identity with the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of which we profess to belong!
Might we pause and appreciate afresh the gift we have in the hymns of Christmas—as vehicles of such expressive beauty—and realize how much we are enriched and biblical edified because of them?My friends, I submit to you the creedal hymnody of Christmas: singing which extols Christ’s humanity, all the while enhancing ours.