Christmas Carol Theology

I just really love Christmas carols. 

Not the new ones.  I don’t listen to any new ones, unless they are covers of old ones, as a matter of general principle.  So when I say “Christmas carols” I mean the ones with lines like these:

Gloria in excelsis deo.

Or this one:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail th’ incarnate Deity!

Pleased as man with man to dwell,

Jesus our Immanuel.

Or this one:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found

If you ever heard these songs as a child, even seeing the words now has tripped your mind into the melody.  I’m sure that part of my affection for Christmas carols is simple nostalgia. I remember singing them in my home church alongside my mother and with all the church people I loved.  At the time, I belted out Angels We Have Heard On High like it was my job, primarily because the Latin sounded magical to me.

But the older I get, the more I hearken back to these carols for reasons beyond nostalgia.  These songs are so theologically rich.  These songs are bringing to you, in singable form, the deep complexity of Scriptural truth. 

Incarnate Deity!  The Godhead ‘veiled in flesh’!  References to the curse and God’s redemptive work over all creation!  The deep, melancholic, longing richness of O Come O Come Immanuel!

I have always loved saying the Apostle’s Creed because it is so simple and short, but encompasses the vital truths of the faith.  The carols are like this, to a degree I was never able to fully appreciate as a child.  Yes, they focus on the birth of Christ, but they fold out to the greater story: the curse on mankind, the promised Redeemer, the triune God and the Incarnation. 

I have been in an aural phase lately, listening to podcasts, listening to devotionals, listening to Scripture read aloud.  And it has made me think a lot about the ways we approach Scripture and worship and faith, and how we’ve been conditioned to do so.  In a modern world where many of us have the entire searchable Bible at our fingertips any time we want, we’re no longer required to internalize the Word because it is available to us externally however we want it. Christian music no longer has to shoulder the burden of conveying theologically necessary truths.   

And so the carols feel out of time, rich in depth, insistent on conveying the cosmic significance of what we know is true.  It is impossible to listen to them and come away with only the manger.  They challenge us to confront what it meant for God to take on flesh, to consider the ramifications of the child in the manger on the curse humans have borne since our first sin, to see in the singularity of Christmas God’s redemptive purpose for all of captive, longing creation.

Sometimes I think that one of the greatest curses of our modern world is our ability to partition everything.  We can chop the universe into digestible pieces with the Internet.  An entire football game becomes three highlights and a sound bite.  A concert becomes the next day’s coverage, a 30-second snippet, and a meme.  A Bible verse floats on Twitter in a charming font, divorced of all Scriptural context.  We slice and dice. 

Our modern world says, ‘Unto us a child is born!’

The carols say, ‘Unto us a child is born, and here are four verses explaining the cosmic significance of that birth and the astonishing, hopeful future it offers to wretched mankind.’

The world grows ever darker, my friends.  We are living in strange, conflicted, and challenging times.  It is tempting to lean into that fracture: to spend time getting riled up, pontificating, analyzing, to spend all our time interpreting and condemning motives, asking pointed questions.

And in these times I find that the Gospel grows simpler and simpler.  The story becomes more and more important.  God loved you, loved me, loved us, in spite of our sin and our curse, in spite of our not-lovingness, and so he came to meet us as a man and he died for that love and rose again for that love and destroyed every obstacle that might stand in the way of that love and said, “Repent, return, join me, and then you begin to love, to really love, as I’ve taught you to do.”

That’s it and that’s all.  The carols point us back to that.  Advent points us back to that.  Here, then, is the truth of all the world.  Here, then, is what is real.  Here, then, is how we orient ourselves to the world, to our lives, to every ordinary day:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

If you have a favorite, share in the comments.  I’d love to know what and why.


2 thoughts on “Christmas Carol Theology

  1. Amen! The old carols and hymns will never be old, for the truth they tell will never be old. As God will never be old. Being the same yesterday, today, and forever in His youthful Wisdom, but never old. A delightful piece of writing. Thank you!


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