Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Singing the Creed. . .
It has led me to discover how much the great hymns of the faith have successfully accomplished the same purpose -- singing them is like singing the Creed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the wonderful and beloved carols of Christmastide. Luther ends the versification of the Lukan story with the Gloria, the culmination of both the recounting of the events and the church's prayer in observing them (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). This is not atypical but has become the standard for carols which tell of all or even small portions of the traditional Christmas Gospel from St. Luke.
O Come, All Ye Faithful is much more direct, borrowing actual phrases from Nicea in order to shape the song of the faithful. Highest, most holy, Light of Light eternal, born of a virgin, a mortal He comes... In the original Latin the phrases show their unmistakable source in the creed. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing puts it a bit more obliquely by leading us to sing: Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell...
Of the Father's Love Begotten preserves, perhaps, a language even earlier than the Nicene Creed as the church sings of Christ "whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord." Once in Royal David's City speaks of the condescension of the Son of God "who is God and Lord of all." In the final stanza the carol directs us to Him whom we shall see, not in the manger against, but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high."
These carols weave together the rich language of the creed while framing the incarnation into the larger story of the saving purpose of that birth -- His self-offering for our sin and into our death upon the cross. The most successful and popular of these carols do not merely speak of our feelings and joy but the doctrinal truth of Christ and His incarnation within the unfolding plan and saving purpose of the Father.
Far from isolating the singing to the season at hand, the carols of Christmas insist upon confronting us with the full revelation of Christ. The paradox of Christmas is not on the fringes of the carols but form their center: the baby born in such lowly manner at Bethlehem is at the same time truly divine, the Word made flesh. Christina Rossetti's familiar carol expresses this paradox like this: “In the bleak midwinter a stable-place sufficed/the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” The carols of Christmas not only anticipated the suffering and death of Jesus. They also look backward, all the way to Eden. Back to creation and the fall, we sing of serpents and death, of bruised heels and crushed heads.
Finally, we cannot miss the fact that these carols call us to come and worship, to kneel and bow down, to believe and see, and to rejoice. From the words that pray our hearts to be fitting mangers for the Christ to the calls to be cheered, led, and comforted by the presence of the Emmanuel, keeping in our hearts Christ who is our true treasure. We adore Him who comes not because of a sweet story but became this is the story of our redemption, of the end of the dark night of the soul, and the dawn of creations new and eternal Light.