What Four Popular Christmas Hymns Tell Us About Jesus

As a college student, I encountered the study of Christology for the first time. Christology is the study of Christ — who he is, and what it means to say that God became flesh. I fell in love with it, and was fascinated by the significance of nuanced language when describing who God was.

Then, the first Christmas after taking a Christology class I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it was all there, in the Christmas carols that I had been singing my whole life.

Why Christology Matters

Christology doesn’t just matter for theologians. It matters for all of us. What we say about who Christ is makes a difference. It makes a difference whether or not God took on human nature (doctrine) or united himself to one good man (heresy). It makes a difference whether or not we say that the Word (the Son of God) was eternally begotten (doctrine) or was created (heresy).

So, even if you aren’t a theologian, you still need to know Christology, because the truths of Christology matter for your life and your relationship with Christ.

 

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at four popular Christmas hymns and what Christological truths they teach us.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

This carol is one of my favorites, because the theology here is so rich. Here’s the second verse:

God of God, Light of Light,
Lo, he comes forth from the Virgin’s womb.
Truly God, begotten not created,
O Come, let us adore him…

Later in the song, there is this line:

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. 

The thrust of this song is reflecting on how the babe in the major is, really and truly, God. You probably recognize that first phrase from the Nicene Creed, “God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” There have been various heresies that have tried to propose that the Son was somehow inferior to the Father. But that simply isn’t true. The Son is totally equal to the Father, begotten, not a creature. He is the Word of God, taking on flesh. Why does this distinction matter?

If Christ were a mere creature, or if he were less than the Father, than the Incarnation packs less of a punch. What would be consoling or powerful about God sending a mere messenger to suffer and die for him? What kind of love would the Father have for us, if he sent some lesser diety to do his dirty work?

Rather, the Son of God, consubstantial (literally, of the exact same substance of the Father), willingly takes on human nature. He is really and truly God, and yet he chooses to come in the form of our very flesh. This is why we adore him, a God so great who made himself so incredibly little, for our sake.

What Child is This

This carol is particularly powerful, because it draws the connection between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. We cannot see the manger without simultaneously looking to the cross. The manger doesn’t make sense without the cross. Here is the second verse of this hymn:

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here,
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you,
Hail, Hail, the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

There is so much to love in this one. The verse starts out acknowledging the total kenosis of Christ.

When theologians refer to Christ’s kenosis, they are talking about how he, who is God almighty, “empties” himself and becomes small and poor. This vivid picture of baby Jesus laying in the same trough that animals fed from, shows how great his kenosis was. (Theologians have reflected on the manger as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. Christ, who is to feed us with his very flesh, is laid in the place where animals feed.)

The phrase, “the silent Word,” is particularly clever. When we think of words, we think of sound and noise and speaking. But the loudest message ever given by the Word of God was given in silence, when he said, through the Incarnation, “Do you see how much I love you?”

Then, the second part of this verse makes the connection between this child in the manger and what he is destined for. Christ was born to die. We are invited to adore this “Word made flesh,” knowing what he is going to willingly suffer for us.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Again, this carol explains who it is who is laying in the manger. There is this verse:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity!
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

This carol emphasizes God entering into time, through the Incarnation. Christ is the foretold by the prophets. The “late in time” doesn’t mean that God was late in fulfilling his promise, but rather that God enters into time after the prophesies have been completed. He is “late in time” because he comes at the end of and in fulfillment of the prophesies. He is also “late in time” in the eschatological sense. Since the coming of Christ, we are living in the end times (i.e. in the times awaiting the second coming of Christ and the re-creating of the world into a new heavens and a new earth).

This carol also reaffirms belief in the true divinity of Christ. The baby in the manger is the “incarnate Diety”, although he is “veiled in flesh.”

Finally, that last line explains that God willingly chose to become incarnate. It “pleased” him to take on human nature and dwell among us.

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

This is one of my new favorites, and it’s a lesser known by beautiful Christmas carol. The verse we’ll look at here reflects on greatness of the Word who has become flesh:

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are,
That have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

It’s easy to see the baby in the manager, and be lulled into a sort of comfort. We’re all used to seeing nativity scenes, and such images probably evoke a sense of warmth, as we remember Christmases past.

But the baby in the manager should evoke more than fond memories. He should evoke a sense of awe.

I have three living children, and I was shocked by how tiny each one was when she was born. None of them were preemies, just normal sized newborns. But newborns are tiny, and extremely helpless. They literally can’t do anything. And although I think mine were extremely adorable, there are always some awkward looking days for newborns.

It is shocking that when you look in the manger (and probably, more often, in Mary’s arms, because his mother’s arms are a baby’s favorite place after birth), and see that little, tiny thing…it’s God. You’re looking at the one who is Alpha and Omega, the source of all that has ever been and ever will be.

This is the wonder of Christmas, the wonder reflected in the carols that we all know and love. God, who is greater than we can ever comprehend, became little and weak for our sakes.

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to three little girls and one little one in heaven. She received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of a number of books, including Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething, as well as an assortment of Catholic children's books. In addition to writing, she also homeschools her daughters, and is the social media manager for the Office of Natural Family Planning in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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