For as long as I can remember, back to early elementary school, I have sung in some sort of choir during the Christmas season. I’m sure most of you also had Christmas programs in elementary school (back when we didn’t have to say “Holiday Program” or “Winter Vacation”) and wore angel wings or shepherds robes and sang Away in a Manger and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. (I couldn’t find a Christmas singing photo, but this beaut to the right is me in all my 10 year old glory as Harmony, the green singing songbook. Daughter of Psalty if you speak the language. I KILLED it, obvi.)
I ended up sticking with it and stayed in choirs and ensembles all through high school, college, and into adulthood. In those 30 odd Decembers, I’ve sung a lot of Christmas carols. I mean, a LOT a lot. I know the usual suspects and the also-rans. I have a soft spot for the often overlooked God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. I can rattle off all four verses of Hark the Herald for you RIGHT NOW. And that’s including the lesser known and very strange fourth verse, traditionally left out, that includes the phrases “woman’s conquering seed” and “the serpent’s head.” I KNOW, right? Weird.
But as with so many well-sung tunes that have to do with Jesus, I often realize that I’ve sung a lyric dozens of times and never actually LISTENED to what was coming out of my mouth. I’m not the only one, as I was reminded this week, when we were singing the aforementioned Hark! in the car and Sydney said “Who is the newborn King? Is that Jesus?” Um, YES, daughter. ?! Did we miss something in the Parenting Christian Kids 101 class? I mean, we HAVE the Fisher Price Little People nativity scene and EVERYTHING. Maybe we just need to give some semantics lessons on all the different ways these songs refer to Jesus.
This season, this month, is one of the only times that the world lets us sing out loud about God coming to earth as a human, and how He came so humbly. This literally world-changing event is the basis of our faith and, along with His death and resurrection, it is what sets our God apart from other gods. It’s rather a big deal. Normally we are told to pipe down, but in this little window of time, we are free to shout out the TRUTH if it has a pretty melody. Of course many would prefer a chippy version of Deck the Halls, but I’ve seen even the strongest atheists hum a little First Noel or melt a bit during Silent Night. I say “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” But while we’re at it, let’s be REALLY CRAZY and sing about the whole reason we have this holiday in the first place.
Can we take a moment to park on a few of these gems and let them sink in a little? I want to tell you about a few of my favorite lyrics over 3-4 posts between now and Christmas.
Let’s start with one you all know. It’s in the last verse of Joy to the World, and it goes like this:
He rules the world
With truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love, wonders of His love
Wonders, wonders of His love
One of the reasons I think we miss some great, powerful lyrics is because of musical phrasing, which is kind of unavoidable. For years I’ve just sung “Maaaaakes…. the naaaaaaations proooooove!” at the top of my lungs without really thinking about what we, the nations are proving. Like those four words were the end of the thought. “The nations” just means all of us on earth. Also, I believe that word “makes” is misleading. It does not mean he forces the nations to do something. He’s not pointing his finger and saying “PROVE IT!” It’s more like when you see an adorable baby and you say “She makes me want to kiss her face!” Or a snowy day “makes me want to sit inside and read a book.”
But when you take that entire verse as one, in the Jentompkins paraphrase, we are singing: “He is the King of truth and grace. His people are compelled to proclaim His righteousness and the many wonders of His love.” (I know it’s many because we repeat that word four times!)
That refrain sticks with me. The wonders of His love. The wonders of His love. I wanted to see if that phrase was used in Scripture, and it is, mostly in the book of Psalms. Psalm 17:7 says, “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.” Psalm 31: 21 says “Praise be to the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.”
But what stood out to me was another verse when the words are used a little out of order, in Psalm 136. Verse four says, “To him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.” But if you look at that entire chapter, what do you notice? Seriously, go take a peek. You’ll notice right away the repetition of one refrain: HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER. David sings that in EVERY verse for 26 verses, over and over again. He is not satisfied with generic praise, but rather gets really specific! The entire psalm is about giving thanks to God for who He is, and what He has done, but more than anything, it is a call to anyone who hears it to remember that God’s love is UNFAILING and EVERLASTING. Can I get an amen?!
When I take this newly discovered Biblical reference to the wonders of His love, and I add them onto my own personal experience of the way God loves me, the meaning deepens still. What is wondrous about His love? It is constant and powerful. It is not weak and frail and conditional, the way our own human love can be. The more I see the ugly truth about my ability to love on my own, the more I am humbled and grateful for a God who IS love. He continually pursues after us, even when we push him away, abuse His name or ignore Him altogether. Even when we mess up time after time, he forgives us yet again, promising to throw our guilt and shame away as far as the east is from the west. At times, he allows us to experience intense pain, but makes it clear that even in our darkest moments, He never leaves. His love ENDURES.
My life has been forever changed by the wondrous love of my Savior. I’m the proof. Right here. And I’ll repeat it 4 times, 26 times or for a lifetime.
I would love to know: what Christmas lyrics are especially meaningful to you?