Most Christian churches have been singing Christmas carols throughout the month of December in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Since it is still technically Christmastide through January 5th, I thought it might be in order to discuss the origins of the Christmas carols that we sing each season.
In fact, last week in church, the service was dedicated to various famous carols and their origins. Interestingly, some of them are rather modern, written in the last 70 or so years while others were written in the 1500’s. It is clear that we have come to know and love these songs that speak to the imminent arrival of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
However, technically, most of these hymns are Advent songs announcing the coming of the Lord and not necessarily addressing the fact that He had been born. I really don’t think that it is necessary to parse this so carefully, but I was interested in learning about what the oldest Christmas carol is.
And I have to say that there is a deep divide here. There seems to be evidence that a particular person doesn’t get credit for the first song sung announcing the birth of Christ. Rather, that honor goes to the angels who announced His birth to the shepherds in the fields as they tended their sheep that night more than 2000 years ago.
The book of Luke is quite clear that angels were present and announced the birth of our Savior. However, there happens to be some disagreement as to whether they announced the event by speaking – or by singing. Depending on which version of the Bible you use, both sides can trace their positions to different translations of the Scripture.
For sure, the NIV, NASB and even the King James Bible from 1611 take the position that the angels glorified God with words – using terms like praise in their descriptions. However, there are other translations, most notably the Good News Bible and the Message (a loose translation – really more of an accurate summary of the narrative), indicate that the angels were singing.
We know from other parts of the Bible, especially in Revelation, that angels do sing as a part of their ministry – glorifying God and singing praises to Him. But the Bible is silent on definitive evidence supporting the position that the angels also “sang” when they announced the birth of Jesus.
So…it is up to you as to what you believe. Personally, I love the idea that the angels were the first to glorify the Son of God in song – literally the first Christmas carol. But I have to allow that other translations don’t 100% support this premise. We end this evening with the verses from several different translations – the Message and the Good News Bible where Dr. Luke tells us about the announcement of the arrival of baby Jesus. They tell us, in Luke 2:13-14, that the angels sang. Here are the verses in both translations that I mentioned:
Luke 2:13-14, “Suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared with the angel, singing praises to God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased!” (Good News Bible)
Luke 2:13-14, “At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him. (Message)
However, we are told in the King James Bible, in the same verses, Luke 2:13-14, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
This side of heaven, we may never know if the angels were the first to sing about the birth of Jesus or whether that honor goes to some songwriter centuries later when hymns and carols became more popular. In any event, my encouragement tonight is that heaven and earth praise God when people turn to Him for their eternal salvation and at various times throughout the Bible, people are so moved that they break into song.
Think of Mary’s Magnificat or Miriam’s song, or several of the others that are mentioned throughout the Bible. My prayer is that regardless of what you sing, or come to believe is the first Christmas carol, you will SING. It is one of the purest forms of worship that we can have. And the birth of Jesus is certainly worthy of song! Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace.