As we journey towards Christmas in this Advent season, I thought this would be a good opportunity to spend the next few weeks reflecting on some Christmas carols. While “Joy to the World” might be the most popular Christmas song, I won’t focus on it since it is really a song about the second coming of Christ and is derived from Psalm 98 (for more on “Joy to the World,” see my message on Psalm 98 from a few years back or read this good article re-examining it). I want to focus more on older songs, so I won’t look at the more recent “Mary, Did You Know?” (but if interested in that one, see this post). I obviously won’t be able to cover every Christmas carol in a few weeks, so I chose a few (maybe I’ll look at more next year and will start taking requests). As I considered which one to start with, the song “The First Noel” came to mind both because of its name (First!) and because “Noel” is a word that has often confused me (and others!).
To understand the meaning of the song and the word “Noel,” you have to go back to its European origins. The version we are likely familiar with comes from the 19th century, but it has much older origins from England and France in the 16th and 17th centuries and potentially as far back to the 13th century. The word “Noel” comes from the Middle English word “Nowell,” which appears to be a transliteration of a French word “nouvelle.” That word means “new” but also came to be used in the Christmas season as “Joyeux Noel” is how to say Merry Christmas in French. The term seems to have come from the Latin word “natalis,” which means birth — hence the connection to the Christmas season that marks the birth of Jesus. The background of the word and the hymn should remind us that this celebration did not start recently but has been celebrated for a long time. When we sing this song, we are joining our voices not just with those we are gathered with, but with believers throughout the centuries. And it is not just with people in different times, but also in different places. The odd, confusing word “Noel” not only celebrates the reality of Jesus’s birth and the impact he has made in terms of calling people from all nations of the earth, but also that he continues to work and move in light of all the challenges of this age.
The Words Themselves
Since I have often been confused and distracted by the word “Noel,” I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking through the other words of the song which seem to combine together the accounts of Jesus’s birth found in Luke and Matthew. As with many hymns, there are a number of verses, not all of which are all sung in traditional settings. I’ll look at six verses I felt I have heard sung at various points and times.
The first verse focuses on the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds. A traditional form highlights that these shepherds were “poor.” While I believe people at times have overstated the social status of shepherds to make them appear even lower in society than they likely were, it is a good reminder that the announcement came not to the elite, but rather to the regular, everyday people. The first verse also mentions how these shepherds were tending their sheep on a cold winter night. There is much debate on whether the fact the shepherds were with their sheep would actually make it less likely that Jesus’s birth occurred in the winter (see this post about whether December 25 was the day of Jesus’s birth). Even if it was December 25, those of us in the midwestern part of the United States probably know that winters in Israel are not quite like our winters. It was also at night,so likely it would be chillier than during the day, but I don’t think the shepherds were freezing, and the biblical text does not emphasize the cold of the night when the announcement came.
The second verse in some ways is a transition from the story of the angelic announcement to the shepherds to the story of the Magi coming from the East to see the newborn king Jesus: “They looked up and saw a star / Shining in the east, beyond them far / And to the earth it gave great light / And so it continued both day and night.” While the presence of a star mentioned in Matthew’s account of the Magi coming would indicate that there was such a star, I don’t find a mention of the shepherds seeing that star.
Verses three through five then follow the journey of the Magi found in Matthew. The words reflect the traditional belief that there were three wisemen who came – based upon the number of gifts mentioned. It chronicles them journeying to Bethlehem. One thing not mentioned in the song, is that they did not go straight to Bethlehem but first went to Jerusalem. This prompted Herod to hear about it and then plot a way to kill this newborn king – the “King of Israel” as the song declares in its refrain. While a song does not need to include every single detail of the story, the fact that they journeyed to Jerusalem first is a reminder that the journey of the Magi started when the angelic announcement to the shepherds appeared, but continued for a long time – most likely years. While the Magi are often connected to the Christmas story, the traditional Christmas holiday that celebrates their arrival to see Jesus is Epiphany, which is January 6. There is nothing wrong with including them as part of the Christmas story, as they play an important role in showing that Jesus is the hope of all nations, but I like to make sure we realize that the shepherds and the Magi were not there together at Jesus’s birth since the Magi came much later.
The sixth verse moves from telling the story to calling us to worship in light of who this baby is and what he would do: “Then let us all with one accord / Sing praises to our heavenly Lord / That hath made heaven and earth of nought / And with his blood mankind hath bought.” What a great reminder that the one in the cradle is the one who also goes to the cross – that the one born is the one who made the heavens and the earth. We celebrate Jesus’s birthday not because every birth is a cause for celebration, but because it is the God of the universe coming to save all of us from our sins – people who are rich and poor, people of Israel and people from all parts of the world.
My love of details and passion for precision can cause me to be overly critical when I analyze things, including Christmas songs. My goal in pointing out places where a song that seeks to tell the Christmas story goes beyond the text is not to cause us to dislike or stop singing a song, but to make sure that our focus and eyes remain on the details and purposes of the story as told by the divinely inspired author. And this song does draw us back to the glorious truth that Jesus is the King of Israel who was born on that night around 2,000 years ago. That is something we should celebrate and praise – even with odd words like “Noel” that remind us that we celebrate with people in other places now and as we look forward to the day we will sing praises to the King with people from all nations and the saints throughout all ages.
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