A Hymn For Christmas-Day

Robert Wurtz II

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22 KJV)

“And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)

“Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them who had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.” (Romans 5:14)

Sometime prior to 1739 a roughly 30-year-old Charles Wesley sat down with pen in hand to compose what came to be one of our most beloved Christmas carols. It made its first appearance in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems and was entitled A Hymn for Christmas-Day or as the late great Church historian Philip Schaff simply called it, For Christmas-Day. In some modern hymnal’s it’s entitled, Jesus, the Light of the World. We know it as Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

Nativity Scene - Stained glass window

As with many hymns and choruses Hark the Herald Angels Sing has gone through a hand full of revisions. One such alteration (adaptation) was made by the Wesley brothers’ friend and fellow minister, George Whitfield (1714-1770) and published in 1754. The most significant changes were the first line and the omission of the second half of the last two verses. Charles opened the carol with “Hark! how all the welkin rings… Glory to the King of Kings.” Welkin is an archaic English word from the Middle English word welkne that meant the heavens or clouds (celestial sphere). George Whitfield changed this verse to read, “Hark! the Herald Angels sing… Glory to the new-born King!”
The Art of Summary

Over time Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol underwent (more or less) the same fate of many ancient writings. Long histories, especially multi-volume works, were generally abbreviated (summarized) by an epitomator. As the late Church historian, Martin Hengel commented, “Wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment.” The strategy? If a long work can be summarized it would be more economical to copy by hand — while providing the reader with more entertainment value. In modern times many textual critics operate under the assumption that texts were expanded (added to); while historians know that ancient writers tended to reduce their narrative far more often than they expanded it or elaborated it. They wanted their writings to survive — so brevity was key. Not much has changed in that regard. Several millennia later people (most of us) like to get to the point fast!

However, brevity isn’t always our friend. When it comes to Christian doctrine, vital revelation can find its way to the cutting room floor. As an exercise for this entry, I had a look around the internet for soft copies of the lyrics to Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Some provided only two verses, while the typical length was three verses. Missing is one of the great themes from John and Charles’ Wesley’s theology. Consider the original final two verses:

V. 4

Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in Us thy humble Home,
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.

Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.

V. 5

Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.

Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:
O! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.

What a magnificent summary of what Christ came to do… “Come, Desire of Nations, come… Fix in Us thy humble Home.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from the penalty and power of sin, but He also came to make a way for God to take up residence in man. Wesley them moves beyond vague generalities when he writes, “Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed, Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.” (emphasis added). This is an invitation to Christ to come into me and break the power of Sin and Satan.

He continues, “Now display thy saving Pow’r… Ruin’d Nature now restore.” He is asking God to demonstrate His great power by restoring back into me the image of God that was marred at the fall. “Now in Mystic Union join… Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.” This is an allusion to John 14:20 when Jesus spoke of life after we truly receive the Holy Spirit, “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.”

We come to verse 5, “Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface… Stamp thy Image in its Place.” What a prayer! Amen! “Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy Love.” Jesus Christ, the Last Adam and Second Man (1 Cor. 15:27,45), is the great baptizer in the Holy Spirit and Fire. When we experience this baptism in reality, the love of God will be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). As Jesus clearly stated it, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:23 KJV) Can we fathom that? That God would love us as He loved His Son Jesus?

He continues, “Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the Inner Man.” This is an allusion to Ephesians 3;16 and 1 Cor 15:22, 25, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22 KJV) “And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) “O! to All Thyself impart… Form’d in each Believing Heart.” Wesley speaks at last of the greatest of all possible gifts… unfathomable riches received freely by faith… “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27 KJV)

It is my prayer that all who read the words of this blog would know these blessings in reality. And for those who are afar off that this Christmas would mark a new beginning for you in Christ. Beyond the babe in the manger there is the King of Kings who Charles spoke of… calling us into the fullness of all that Christ’s advent, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension has provided for us.

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17 ESV)

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