Thursday, December 24, 2015

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Once again, Christmas is upon us, and with it a myriad of memories and thoughts.
The words to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" were written more than
150 years ago, but the message rings true today, perhaps
even more that when it was first written.
Each of us brings past remembrances into the holiday. For many, those memories are sweet. For others who have experienced loss of someone they love, they may be bittersweet. For still others, looking at current events and turmoil around the world (or close to home), the Christmas message of "peace on earth good will to men" seems like an unattainable dream.

Henry Longfellow wrote the poem "Christmas Bells" in the middle of the American Civil War. His oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father's blessing, or even his knowledge. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, only after Charles had left.

"I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer," Charles wrote. "I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good".[1]

Henry Longfellow's son, Charles, soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, a few short months after enlisting, he was severely wounded. [2] Coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who died as a result of an accidental fire, Henry Longfellow was inspired to write a poem, "Christmas Bells" on Christmas day, 1863. The words of the poem were adapted in 1872 for the carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." [3]

The lyrics let us look into the heart of a person who awakens on Christmas morning in utter grief and despair. He had just lost his wife in a tragic fire, and his son had been severely wounded in a battle on American soil. Although these words were written more than 150 years ago, they are probably even more relevant today than when they were originally written and many reading this can identify with that grief of heart.

As we look around us - near and far - we see much heartbreak, devastation, and turmoil, yet if we listen closely, we can hear something beautiful, albeit from a distance. It is the message of Christmas, an old, old message, yet one that is as true as the night it was first delivered by angels to a group of ragtag shepherds: "Unto you is born this night a SAVIOR who is Christ the Lord." This SAVIOR has come to set things right.

Why are things not right then, you ask? Let us remember that the story is still unfolding. The events of the end, while already written in the book, have yet to unfold.

Whether this Christmas finds you rejoicing or battling despair of the soul, let your eyes turn toward Jesus. It is in Him, and only Him that we find true peace.

The Lyrics

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!

I 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!

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.

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!

[1] Calhoun, Charles. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 223–224. ISBN 978-0-8070-7039-0
[2] Studwell, William. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, New York: The Haworth Press, 1995: 166. ISBN 1-56024-974-9
[3] Ibid.

photo credit: <a href="">christmas bells tockholes 2009</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming

Christ's coming to a cold and sinful world was as
miraculous as a rose blooming in the winter snow.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming." I find it next to impossible to sing this song without shedding a few tears.

The song is quite old. The lyrics were penned by an unknown author and first appeared in print in the late 16th century.

The song begins by talking of the beauty and tenderness of a blooming that came in the cold of a winter night.

As a rule, growing things do not live in the winter. The frost kills tender plants. Even hearty plants and trees lose their leaves or die back to ground level. The warmth and light of the sun revive them in the spring.

Along came a rose.

If I stepped into my yard this December (northern Minnesota) and noticed that one of my rose bushes had come into bloom, it would be startling. Completely unexpected. And altogether thrilling.
That is what the birth of Jesus was. It had been 400 years since the nation of Israel had heard from God.[1] It was a spiritual winter. Almost like the Narnia of C.S. Lewis, where it was always winter but never Christmas.

Into the drought, into the silence of 400 years, came the Christ - one born as a rose in winter. You would think a rose bursting into bloom in the cold of winter would be treasured and deemed precious. Hard as it may be to understand, this rose was not treasured. This rose was cut off and trampled on the frozen ground.

But the rose of this song isn't just any rose. It is a rose "e're blooming," with "e're" being a contraction of the word "ever." Most roses die when they are cut off. Not this rose. Although He was cut off, after three days, this rose sprang forth in greater glory.

The sweet lyrics.

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God's love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

I would write more, but I think these lovely words say it all, and say it best.

[1] There were four hundred years between the close of Malachi and the coming of John the Baptist. For more see:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Upon A Midnight Clear

The sheep these shepherds were watching weren't just any sheep. They
had a special significance and might help to explain why the message
was first delivered to these shepherds.
The old Christmas carol, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" is almost poetic in its rich imagery. We see angels bending down to earth, floating heavenly chords, cloven skies, and peaceful wings.

I can almost see star dust swirling and glinting as it falls down upon the snowy midnight ground.

It's about a song.

When we sing of "it" coming, we are not speaking of the Christ child. Rather we are singing of the song - the one the angels sang, heralding the arrival of that precious babe.

We don't know the exact time of the birth of Jesus. All we know is that it occurred "while they (Joseph and Mary) were there" in Bethlehem. However, we do know that the angels appeared to the shepherds that night - whether it was minutes or hours after the actual birth.

How symbolic that the song of the angels came in the night - when the light was gone and darkness rolled over the Judean hills like a thick blanket.

Imagine the shepherds, quietly gazing into their campfire, or walking around the edge of the flock, vigilant, keeping an eye on the shadows, wary of any predators that might be approaching. The night is quiet and dark.

Scripture tells us that suddenly, "the angel of the Lord came upon them" (Luke 2:9 KJV) and the radiance of God's glory surrounded them.

The angel's message.

"I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:10b-14 NLT)

The song of the angels struck a deep chord within the hearts of the shepherds who wasted no time in traveling to Bethlehem to see the baby for themselves, even if it meant leaving their flock untended.

Who were these shepherds?

Well, according to Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish convert to Christianity, as well as a pastor and biblical scholar known for his book "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," it wasn't only the shepherds who were significant. It was also the sheep that they watched.

Edersheim says that traditional Jewish belief was that the Messiah would be revealed from the Migdal Eder ("the tower of the flock"). The tower was close to Bethlehem, and located along the road to Jerusalem. The sheep that pastured there were very special sheep. They were the ones used for sacrifice.

God's message to the shepherds, delivered by the angels was likely significant for many reasons, but especially so because of the very sheep they were protecting. These shepherds were the first to hear about the birth of the ultimate Lamb who would take away the sins of the the whole world through His death and resurrection.

"It Came Upon The Midnight Clear" ends with a verse on the end of the age - the age of the ages when Christ will rule and peace will prevail over all the earth.

Even so, come Lord Jesus. (Revelations 22:20c KJV)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The First Noel

The angels announced the birth of the Savior to a bunch of ragtag shepherds.
Christians have been singing
"The First Noel" for almost 200 years. The tune and the words were composed in the early 1800's. The word "Noel" originates with a late 14th century French word for the "feast of Christmas" or "the Christmas season." It is a variant of the Latin natalis "birth (day) and in church Latin, was used to refer to the birthday of Christ. [1]

When we sing the First Noel, we are singing about a very special day - the day Christ was born. 

The coming of Christ, the Messiah, was foretold by Old Testament prophets and the expectation of a Messiah by the Jewish people is clearly expressed in the gospels. Simeon and Anna (Luke 2) both recognized the significance of the birth of Jesus. Later in the gospels, John the Baptist speaks about the Messiah (John 1:20). The apostle, Andrew, called his brother Peter, telling him that "we have found the Messiah" (John 1:41). The Samaritan woman at the well was also aware that a Messiah was coming (John 4:25).

The first prophecy that Jesus would come to save mankind was given way back in Genesis, right after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. I find it particularly striking that God did not wait long to tell them that a rescue would be coming. Right after He dealt with Adam and Eve about their sin, He told the serpent "And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." (Genesis 3:15) Jesus was the promised offspring of the woman, who would "strike the head" of the serpent.

Fast forward about 4,000 years [2] to the town of Bethlehem. The rescue mission had begun! A baby was born. That baby was God, incarnate, the Son of God, the promised Messiah.

All of heaven rejoiced at this next step in God's big plan. 

In Luke 2 we read:

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." (Luke 2: 8-15 KJV)

The Lord came first to humble people. 

I find it particularly appealing that God sent His messengers to poor humble people, rather than to wealthy or powerful people.

The first noel was to certain poor shepherds, in fields as they lay. Shepherds were very lowly people in Bible days - not the ones you would expect God to honor with the first news of His Son's birth. We always picture the angels in the clouds, but a careful reading of the scriptures does not say that they hovered in the air. It does say that "the angel of the Lord came upon them." How utterly glorious it must have been! "The glory of the Lord shone round about them." What a picture of the Light of the World, coming into the darkness of a sinful world!

I love that the angels made the announcement of His birth to a group of ragtag shepherds. That means that His love is for all, not just those respected and esteemed by the world. That means that He loves you and me. As I write this, I weep for joy! To know that God came, in the flesh, to redeem me, to redeem you, is beyond comprehension.

Born is the King of Israel!

[1]noel. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 05, 2015 from website

[2]Kitchen, Kenneth A. and J.D. Douglas, eds. (1982), The New Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale), second edition.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Child is This?

The message of Christmas is so big that its impact is felt around the world. At the same time, it is so small that it was contained in the body of a tiny infant - the baby Jesus.

When I think of the fact that the Creator of all things humbled Himself, leaving the glory and majesty of heaven and taking the form of a baby, I am awestruck. There is nothing in all the world that we can compare such an event to. It is simply without parallel.

The Christmas carol, "What Child is This" paints a picture of the baby in the manger and what the future held for the tender infant.

The first verse asks who this is, lying in the manger, sleeping on Mary's lap, and accompanied by both angels and shepherds. The second verse asks why this baby is being subjected to such a lowly setting and goes on speak of the reason Jesus came - the salvation of sinners. It also talks of the nails and the cross that Jesus will face as an adult.

So many things about this carol touch the heart. But the one that strikes me first is the humility of Christ to come in such a manner. Although He was one hundred percent God, He was also one hundred percent human, and as such, he was so vulnerable, so small, and so very tender. Think of the soft baby skin, the downy head, and the ten small toes and fingers.

It is impossible for us to imagine the journey from heaven to earth, but imagine just for a few moments what it would be like for you and I to simply roll back the clock and go back to being a baby. Hypothetically, if I were asked to undergo such a transformation to help someone else out, it would be a phenomenally tough decision. I would no longer be able to speak, to walk, to perform the smallest of daily personal activities. I would be totally and completely dependent on someone else.

What Christ gave up to come here was so much more! He was not just rolling back time, He was also leaving the courts of heaven and all that is connected with royal position. On top of that, the shadow of the cross was always over Him, even at His birth. The third verse of "What Child is This" tells us to bring Him incense, gold, and myrhh. These are the very gifts that the wise men brought to the child. While their significance is not explained directly in scripture, traditional thought says that each gift has a deeper meaning.

Gold is the precious metal that covered the ark of the covenant. This gift is thought to be symbolic of His divinity. Frankincense was used in worship and is thought to be symbolic of His willingness to become a sacrifice, wholly giving Himself up, analogous to a burnt offering. Myrrh is a spice that has been used in embalming, symbolizing bitterness, suffering and affliction. Not the typical gifts given to a baby.

But Jesus was not just any baby. What child is this? This child was God in the flesh, born to be Savior of the world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Author Ace Collins explains
the history and meaning of  the beloved carol
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is one of the oldest Christmas carols, dating back to the 16th century or even earlier. In his book, "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," author Ace Collins provides a fascinating
perspective on the history of the song.
"Like so many early Christmas songs, this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the 15th Century Church. During this period, the songs of organized religion were usually written in Latin and their melodies were somber and dark, offering singers and listeners little inspiration or joy. In fact, though few admitted it in public, most church members secretly disliked the accepted religious songs of the day. Yet the laymen of the time had no power over the way they worshipped and had to accept things as they were. So, while they continued to go to worship, they created their own church music outside the walls of the cathedrals and chapels. In this way, the peasant class led a quiet rebellion against the tone of religious music by writing religious folks songs that were light, lively and penned in common language. Their Christmas folk songs became the foundation of what are now known as Christmas carols.
'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' was the most famous and most loved of all the early carols. Written with an upbeat melody and speaking of the birth of Jesus in joyful terms, the song may have shocked early church leaders, but it charmed their flocks. Not only did they sing to this carol, they danced to it.
'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' lyrics reveal that the song’s unknown writer knew the story of Jesus’ birth well. He included the high points of the gospel throughout the carol’s verses. The writer also fully understood the power of Christ and what His arrival meant to all who embraced it. In the case of this writer, comprehending the full and personal meaning of the birth of the Son of God brought forth enthusiasm and joy simply not found in any other church songs of the period. Though it might have been rejected by the church leaders, 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' better presented the message of the first Christmas and the life of Jesus than did many of the songs used in formal worship of the day.
'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' was sung for hundreds of years before it was finally published in the nineteenth century. By that time—thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s love of carols—the song found favor in the Anglican Church. Soon even the protestant English clergy of the Victorian era were enthusiastically teaching “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to their parishioners. Crossing the ocean to both Europe and America, the carol became a favorite throughout the Christian world and it is still sung in much the same way as it was five hundred years ago. The only problem is that few of today’s singers fully understand the beginning of each of the carol’s many verses. This is a result of the evolution of the English language.
When modern people say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means happy. When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.
So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means you, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world and a lost punctuation mark.
The word rest in 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' simply means keep or make. Yet to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” Therefore, in modern English, the first line of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' should read 'God make you mighty, gentlemen.' Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, 'Merry Christmas.'
You might wonder why, when most didn’t fully understand the real meaning of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,' the old carol remained popular. The world’s love for this song is probably due to its upbeat musical piece paired with the telling of the most upbeat story the world has ever known. Those who sing it naturally get caught up in the celebratory mood of the message and embrace the same kind of emotions that those first to visit the baby Jesus must have felt. As the angel told the shepherds, 'I bring you news of great joy.' That joy and the power of faith can be felt and experienced in every note and word of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.' You just have to know how to translate the words into the language of the day to have a very Mighty Christmas!" [From "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" by Ace Collins.]  

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