“Christmas, Christmas Carols and the Bells of Christmas”
The 14th Day of Advent
December 10, 2022
I’d like to take a slightly different tact today.
I have about a dozen hymnals on my bookshelf. (Does any remember what a hymnal is? I lament that the church in general has discarded hymnals along with the great hymns of the church gathering more dust as the years pass by.) In these hymnals, there are anywhere between 25-50 Christmas carols and songs in each hymnal.
These are the great Christmas songs of the church, but my guess is that you will hear only a handful in your church this year. You might sing 1-2 on any given Sunday which means you “might” sing only 4-8 throughout the 4 Sundays of Advent. Taking that a bit further, you will probably sing only half of the verses written to those songs. What about all the other Christmas carols, and what about all the other unsung stanzas of the songs you will never sing? These songs are so rich.
So here is a suggestion. Find a hymnal around your house (or borrow one from your church, or better yet, go to a bookstore and buy a good one or go to the internet) and invest time this Advent season singing through (to yourself, or your spouse or family) the carols of Christmas. Sing/read all the stanzas. Reflect on the rich truths these Christmas carols provide. Read through one or two a day. Use them as part of your Advent preparation. They are so very, very rich in content.
Dr. Charles Ryrie used to say this to us; “A Christian needs three books to grow well – (1) your Bible, (2) your checkbook, and (3) your hymnbook. All three should be used well to grow well and to glorify God.” Dr. Ryrie doesn’t need his checkbook in heaven, but I’d bet the Word and his praise of God are more alive than ever given his Christmases in heaven.
Take time to learn a bit about the history of the songs of Christmas. Who wrote the song? When? What were the circumstances?
Someone asked me if I had a favorite Christmas carol. While I like them all, perhaps my favorite is written by Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Brooks was rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. The words were birthed in his heart when he was in Bethlehem on Christmas eve in 1865. He shared them with his organist two years later, and his organist wrote the tune in 1868. It was first sung in his church December 27, 1868.
He pastored Holy Trinity Church during the civil war years and preached a magnificent sermon on the death of his friend and American President of Abraham Lincoln on April 23, 1865 (a sermon he was asked to repeat in Washington, DC., in May). Those war years and the death of Lincoln were difficult and challenging years that took a toll on him. Later that year he took a sabbatical pilgrimage for spiritual renewal to Israel and found himself at Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. God met him anew there in Bethlehem, and on that wonderful night he penned these words over the following months.
1. O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee to-night.
2. O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth! And praises sing to God the King, And peace to men on earth. For Christ is born of Mary And gathered all above, While mortals sleep the Angels keep Their watch of wondering love.
3. How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given; So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His Heaven. No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.
4. Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild; Where Charity stands watching And Faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.
5. O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray! Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us to-day. We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!
Another favorite of mine is the hymn of William Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells.” Longfellow points us to Jesus in clear and unmistakable ways. Note his reference to the Civil War in verses 4 and 5. They were hard times, but the bells still pealed. They continue to peal this message in just the same way in our broken world today. Listen.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Just a personal note, now. If you know me, you know I wear a bell around my neck the entire Advent season. I want to “ring” the good news about Jesus everywhere I go. That’s just another small reason I love Longfellow’s hymn.
Just like the ravages of the Civil War took a toll on Brooks’ life, perhaps this year with its political, social, and economic challenges has taken a toll in your life as well. Please “visit” Bethlehem and the stories of Christmas through the great Christmas hymns. Take time to renew your love for Jesus through the carols of Christmas during this special season.
Happy 14th day of Advent!