OK, it probably needs to be said if you haven’t picked up on it by now: I love Christmas music. Every year around December, you’ve probably noticed the blogs and podcasts and things I share on social media (if you follow me on places like Facebook or Instagram). Inevitably, there are going to be some Christmas tunes being shared. I’d start even earlier (say November or even mid-October), but I know that might make me look borderline crazy. I get it.
And I get that some people are either all-in with Christmas music or have little or no desire to listen. For that latter audience, stick around. I promise there’s good stuff here!
I think for most of us, whether in love with the music or not, can hear the heart behind what these songs are saying. For me, this year was the opportunity to finally get some of these songs recorded and released out into the wild. A 6 song EP titled GLORIA! released in November and it was a fun project I got to complete this past summer/fall. Today’s blog turns us towards some of these songs to highlight their message and the overall theme of this album.
Somewhat accidental but certainly providential, the songs of GLORIA! all seem to resonate with the story of the angels appearing to shepherds tending their flocks by night. We know the story as we read it each year from Luke 2:8-16:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
As I went back over the songs included on this album, I saw an instance of this angelic encounter in every song. Nowhere is this more evident than with the first song, Angels We Have Heard On High from which the title (GLORIA!) is lifted. Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains. And the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains. In 2023, I released this song as single and did a podcast entitled “Hymns That I Love - Christmas Edition” which expounded more upon the origin of it. Interestingly enough, it goes way back to the hills of southern France, in which medieval shepherds had a Christmas Eve custom of calling to one another, singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” each from their own hillside. Perhaps this was their own mimicking of the angels, something that harkened back to the original angelic visitation and Nativity. A remarkable thought!
From there, song #2 is a personal favorite because it’s a bit “out of the box” in terms of typical Christmas carols. Go, Tell It On The Mountain to me always has a bit of that Gospel-infused style with a strong evangelistic bend. Again, the story of the Luke 2 encounter shows up: While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night, behold through the heavens there shone a holy light. What a sight to behold (and the glory of the Lord shone around them vs. 9), and after encountering the newborn King, there’s no wonder the shepherds were compelled to “go and tell.”
The First Noel once again pulls in some French origins as the word “Noel” has derivatives meaning Christmas and is also tied to a Latin word “natalis” meaning birth (and “die natalis” literally “birthday”). Essentially it is about the birth of Christ and although my recording is just 3 verses, it has as many as 6 (from liturgical sources such as The New English Hymnal). In those 6 verses, many major Christmas themes are brought in, from the star, to the angels, to shepherds, wise men, and so on. But I love the ending verse which brings home the idea of a united Bride singing praises to the Bridegroom who shed His blood: Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord, that hath made Heaven and earth of nought and with His blood mankind has bought. You cannot convince me to believe the power of the Gospel is not alive and well within these old hymns!
Pulling in one of the songs that I often imagine a children’s choir singing (like Away In A Manger or Silent Night), O Little Town Of Bethlehem has such distinct imagery. We can almost glimpse the town’s “deep and dreamless sleep” on this night and the light of the Savior coming against a backdrop of the town’s “dark streets.” The angelic strains of GLORIA! appear again in this tune (written in 1868 by Philipps Brooks) as they bring “great glad tidings.” But it is perhaps the first verse’s declaration that grips me mostly dearly: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Did little sleepy Bethlehem even realize what had taken place in their midst that night? A thought to ponder!
The song I had to spend the most time learning (and could do an entire blog alone on) is It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. This wasn’t perhaps a song in my top 3-5 Christmas hymns…until I studied it closer. The lyrics are deep and so eloquently written (I’d encourage you to Google them when you have time). There’s a consideration of what is going on in the heavenly realms that is contrasted with the earthly existence. Consider this synopsis from Hymnary.org: “One theme of this hymn is the contrast between the message ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ proclaimed by the host of angels at Christ's birth (Luke 2:14) and the war and oppression that dominate the earth. As this hymn is sung, think about the coming time when God will make all things new and bring His peace.” Indeed, in the third verse those who are toiling and “bending low” under “life’s crushing load” do well to stop and consider the angels as they sing. You and I do well to stop and listen once again to the angels and consider their “good news of great joy!”
For this initial offering of Christmas tunes, I couldn’t think of a better song to end with than Silent Night. For many, it is a tradition to close out our Christmas Eve services with our candles lit and this song leading us out. I’ve blogged and podcasted about Silent Night before (Silent Night - Songs Of The Season blog and podcast. Again, it was no accident that the tune made it onto the album, considering that the idea of GLORIA! is there once again:
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born!
Friends, I hope that even beyond some well-known and perhaps at times well-worn Christmas carols, we can see the truth that lies therein. That Jesus came into this world…was born, lived a perfect sinless life, was betrayed, crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead and ascended into Heaven. Is all of that within the tunes of an album like this? I’d like to think so. And I’d like to think that even in my picking and choosing of songs to land on, God in His foreknowledge knew that this theme (of angels proclaiming Christ’s birth) would be the one we’d need to hear again in 2023, going into 2024.
I hope you can truly stop and listen for the angels’ voices in the midst of this busy time. I hope these songs can be a refreshing backdrop to help you do that and even a chance to worship as you ponder this message again. Most importantly, I hope you know the hope, joy, and peace of having trusted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. If that’s not a peace you have, I’d love to talk further with you. Don’t wait to find it. Run to Him, even now.
I love you guys and I love walking the journey with you. For my blog readers, I’ll see you on the other side in 2024. For my podcast listeners, I’ve got a couple more episodes in store so keep listening and we’ll land the plane here in 2023 real soon.
Links for streaming GLORIA!:
Link to buy from my website: https://derekcharlesjohnson.com/album/2639278/gloria
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Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Ephesians 5:15-17