- Rev. Mark Burkill
Christmas Carols, a Gospel opportunity
The enduring popularity of carol services in a secular and often hostile age is a remarkable phenomenon. This year when our carol services and Christmas programmes are able to exist at full throttle in a post-Covid world has made me reflect a bit on what this means for our ministry at Christmas.
The only way in which people can heartily sing carols at Christmas while being apathetic or hostile to the Christian message in the rest of the year must be because they ignore the meaning and significance of the words they sing. Behind this probably lies a tendency (which we all have) to create our own image of Jesus and his significance for us. We all therefore need to be warned about this in line with what the apostle says in 1 John 4:1-3.
Those verses remind us that our view of Jesus must come from our fellowship with the apostles – in other words from what we are told in the Bible. The majority of visitors to our churches for carol services probably do not recognise that views which go by the name of ‘Christian’ may actually be peddled by those whom John calls ‘false prophets’. Surely one aspect of carol services must be to point this out – the ‘driving away of all strange doctrines contrary to God’s word’ from ministerial ordination vows.
While not actually preaching from the text of carols we can surely use the words of common carols that are sung to illustrate the passages we do speak from. I have done a very cursory overview of some familiar carols and have put them into three different categories or tendencies:
There are carols which have a tendency mainly to describe the Christmas events and seek to bring them alive in our imagination. One might think of ‘See Him lying on a bed of straw’, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, ‘While shepherds watched their flocks’ and so on. They have an element which does point to the significance of the Christmas events but it is not prominent. Some of these carols nevertheless are windows also into the overall plan or purpose of God. We can note for instance the way ‘Once in royal David’s city’ points us in the concluding verses to the future Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ in all his glory.
Then there are carols which are more directly and consciously making theological statements. A classic among the well known carols would be ‘Hark the herald angels sing’. Lines such as ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ instantly make us think of John 1:1-18. The same is probably true of ‘God of God, Light of Light’ in ‘O come all ye faithful’. Perhaps such elements of these carols can be used to provoke a spirit of searching in our carol service congregations. The reference to Malachi 4:2 which lies behind ‘Hail the Sun of Righteousness’ hints at a depth of which most are entirely ignorant Perhaps some will recognise in such references that there is a great deal more to the Christian faith than they had bargained for.
Finally there are elements in some carols which call us to make a response to the Christmas events. There is the ‘come, let us adore him’ of ‘O come all ye faithful’. And then in ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ there is that explicit call to ‘worship Christ, the new-born King’. Perhaps here there is a challenge to stir some from their sentimental and imaginary Jesus.
Please do not think that my brief analysis of such familiar carols is at all consistent or comprehensive. My thought in this blog is simply that it is worth reflecting on what the familiar carols we sing are doing and how we can link them with the Christian gospel through our preaching or our individual witness this Christmas.