Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Confession time…I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Maybe that’s because I get tired of hearing the same tunes every year. Maybe it’s just because “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “dreaming of a white Christmas” don’t evoke the same nostalgia for me as they do for others. These songs don’t resonate with my experience growing up in Africa. Or maybe it’s because the quaint sentimentality of many Christmas songs feel out of touch with my life and the concerns of a broken world. Call me a ‘Scrooge’ but I don’t plan on voluntarily listening to much Christmas music this year.

That being said, when I get past my personal music tastes and really pay attention to the lyrics of many traditional Christmas carols, I find them to have a deeply rich theology. One such song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This carol was written by Edmund Sears in 1849 during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and popularized during the Civil War. The lyrics draw out the disconnect between the announcement of peace from heaven at Christ’s birth and continuing war and suffering on earth.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

This opening stanza references the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). The carol doesn’t treat this pronouncement as something only given one time in the distant past, but envisions how this message is continually proclaimed. This happens despite the discord and division among humans, referenced by an allusion to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). 

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The next stanza is often omitted in contemporary hymnals, but it is my favorite. Unlike many sentimental Christmas songs, this carol is not unaware of the suffering and brokenness still experienced in this world. Even two thousand years after Christ’s coming, sin and death still reign in our world. Even still, the lyrics call us to hush the messages that lead us to strife and focus on the message of the Promised King.

 But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The beauty of Christmas is not found in sanitized and picturesque images of an ideal nativity scene, but rather in God’s entrance into the broken messiness of human life as a real baby to save us. He is the one “who redeems your life from the pit” (Psalm 103:4). This song names those messy experiences of pain and suffering we have, and it invites us to look to Christ in the midst of it.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This carol captures the profound tension of the Advent season. We are caught in the already-not-yet, looking back to Jesus’ first coming with joy, and also looking forward in faith to his second coming, when he will make all things right. Unlike out of touch Christmas tunes, this carol connects with that enduring and timeless struggle.

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Listen to the recording of this beautiful carol performed by our campus worship pastors. As the music washes over you, may you experience God in the midst of pain, disappointment, and brokenness. He doesn’t ignore the pain you are in, but instead sees you there and enters into the mess to redeem it. 

The Song that Saved COVID Christmas Eve

The Song that Saved COVID Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve 2020. It had been a tough year. The world had started to reopen a little but vaccines were still in the future. Nothing felt “normal” yet. So when I arrived to lead Christmas Eve services that December 24, it was with a sense of excitement, but also a sense of exhaustion. 

I was in the church office area behind the platform reviewing my notes when I heard it — a voice singing O Holy Night. I did an auditory double-take. Who is that singing? The band for that evening was small (because, well, COVID) and I knew everyone who was singing that night. I thought. Whose voice is that? I walked out the office and into the worship center. It was Mike Johnson, a congregant new to Christ Community.

 Mike played bass in the band a few times, but I didn’t know he could sing like that! 

 He wasn’t in the band that night, but was one of the Scripture readers. As the band was rehearsing, Mike asked if he could sing one of the verses. 

“Sure,” replied Taylor, who was leading the Christmas Eve band.

Mike sang one verse in rehearsal, and we all knew this was going to be something special. 

“You’re going to sing the whole song. Solo.” Taylor decided.  

Mike did and it saved COVID Christmas Eve. 

In every one one of the three services that evening O Holy Night became the highlight. The room was transformed as people basked in the beauty of the music, the beauty of the voice, and the beauty of the lyrics: A thrill of hope the weary [COVID] world rejoices. Even now, nearly two years later, people still tell me how that song moved them so deeply and is a moment they will always remember. 

Music has that kind of power. 


Origin of O Holy Night

The lyrics of
O Holy Night began their life as a poem titled “Minuit, Chrétiens.” French wine merchant Placide Cappeau composed the poem in 1843 to celebrate the restoration of a church in the village of Roquemaure. Later, it was set to music by the composer Adolphe Adam, and quickly grew in popularity. It was translated into English in 1885 and became a favorite of those in the abolitionist movement because of the line: Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother / And in his name all oppression shall cease

But not everyone was a fan. One Roman Catholic music journal wrote in 1864:

Adolphe Adam’s [“Minuit, Chrétiens”] has been performed at many churches during Midnight Masses….it might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy. It is sung in the streets, social gatherings, and at bars with live entertainment. It becomes debased and degenerated. The best would be to let it go its own way, far from houses of religion, which can do very well without it.*

Thankfully, the journal’s authors didn’t get their wish, and today O Holy Night is still sung in the streets, at social gatherings, and in churches. You might even still hear it at a bar or two if they happen to play one of the many recordings of it made by artists as diverse as Patti Labelle, Sufjan Stevens, and Martina McBride.

Three lines in the song resonate with me every time I sing it or hear it sung.


A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.
Regardless of generation or circumstance, we all feel the weariness of the world — a world longing for the One who says “Come to me all who are weary and I will give rest.”


In all our trials born to be our friend

I love the line:
In all our trials born to be our friend. The God who made us does not stand far off from us. He has come near in Jesus. He knows our need, and sympathizes with our weakness. He is one of us. And yet he did not fail where we fail. And so Jesus, the God-man can be the rescuer we need: He knows our need / To our weakness no stranger!

Thus, the pastor who wrote Hebrews can proclaim: 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. 


Hebrews 4:14–16 Christian Standard Bible


Jesus, who is the true and better high priest, is also the true and better king. He is the king who will do away with injustice and oppression.


All oppression shall cease and Psalm 72

This is what we find in the third verse of
O Holy Night

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease,

Our Scripture passage for this week is Psalm 72. It describes the ideal king who will bring justice:


For he will rescue the poor who cry out and the afflicted who have no helper.
He will have pity on the poor and helpless and save the lives of the poor.
He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious in his sight.

Psalm 72:12–14 Christian Standard Bible


At Jesus’ Second Advent, his Second Coming, he will be the king who once and for all sets things right. While we wait, we anticipate and point to this coming by working to bring about what Stephen Garbar calls “proximate justice.” Not perfect justice, because only Jesus can and will bring that when he comes. But a justice for now that adorns, that is part of, the proclamation of a hope that thrills a weary world.


Fall on your knees. Kneel before him; hear the angel voices and add yours to the never ceasing chorus of praise to our coming king.

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Tomorrow marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we anticipate the coming of Jesus, our promised king. In Luke 1:32-33, the angelic messenger tells Mary that the son she will bear “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”


The Promised King

The hope for the coming of this promised king goes back to the Old Testament, where it is foretold, among other places, in the Psalms. We’re calling our Advent sermon series The Promised King, and we’ll explore how the Psalms point to King Jesus. 

Additionally, we’ve designed theFormed.life to function as an Advent devotional, in which you will meditate on a particular psalm during the week before the sermon on Sunday morning. As part of this Advent devotional, we’re also encouraging you to meditate on the lyrics of a Christmas hymn each Saturday. 


Joy to the World

Today’s Christmas hymn is Joy to the World written in 1719 by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts. Some have said that Joy to the World isn’t actually a Christmas hymn because Watts wrote it with Christ’s second coming in mind, not his first. The lyrics Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king refers to Jesus’ return when he ultimately and finally ushers in his coming kingdom.

When Jesus returns, the curse of Genesis 3 will be no more, which is acknowledged in the third stanza of Joy to the World

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found. 

While the curse in Genesis 3 brought “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), Watts points out that Jesus’ coming has an altogether different effect on creation: 

And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing
Fields and floods
Rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy


Creation Sings!

The idea of creation crying out to God in praise is deeply biblical. It comes from places like Isaiah 55:12  the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands; Luke 19:40. I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out; and Psalm 148, which is an entire song dedicated to the idea of creation voicing praise to its creator. No longer held back by the curse of Genesis 3, all creation bursts into glorious praise. 

But if Joy to the World is about Christ’s second coming, why sing it at Christmas? We sing it because Christmas is as much about Christ’s second coming as it is about his first coming. During the Christmas season, we look back at what God has done through Christ’s first coming, and at the same time look forward in anticipation to his second coming. We remember that what he accomplished at his first coming serves as a guarantee of what is yet to come when he returns.


Advent is about Anticipation

The anticipation of Advent isn’t about Christmas parties, delicious Christmas dinners, and piles of Christmas presents. It is the anticipation of the second arrival of our Promised King who, when he comes again, will complete the work that he started two millennia ago as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem. In the meantime, we proclaim now a song that all of creation will sing then:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love.