By Hal Knight
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a favorite Christmas song and one of the best-known hymns written by Charles Wesley. While early Methodist preachers read John Wesley’s sermons, commentary and essays with care, the Methodist people sang his younger brother’s words. What might they have learned from singing this great Christmas hymn? I want to lift out three affirmations, one from each verse in The United Methodist Hymnal, that are literally life-changing.
The first verse contains these words: “peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” To be reconciled is to bring two parties into a harmonious relationship. We turned away from God our Creator to put our trust in other things, and it is in those things we try to find meaning for our lives. But in the end they leave our hearts empty. Christ came to heal that broken relationship.
This leads naturally to a phrase in the second verse that can only elicit awe and praise: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emanuel.” The word “Emanuel” means “God with us.” It is a major theme in all the gospels, but especially in Mathew, where Joseph is told by an angel that the child to be born would be called Emmanuel, (1:23) and at its end, right before the risen Jesus ascends, he promises to be with his disciples to the end of the age (28:20).
We are so used to speaking of Jesus as the Son of God that it is good to pause and recognize what a radical claim this is: The omnipotent Creator of the universe is somehow laying in a feeding trough as a helpless human infant—an “incarnate Deity.” This child will grow up as a human being, laugh and weep, be comforted and troubled, and in the end suffer and die. Charles Wesley insists God is not far away and uninvolved in our world. God actually became one of us, and knows directly what it is to live a human life. This God who knows us so well will never abandon us. The last words of John Wesley as he lay dying were “The best of all is, God is with us.”
Although he is “veiled in flesh” Jesus reveals to us the “God-head,” that is, not only the Son but the Father and Holy Spirit. What he reveals is that God is love. This leads us to the third verse, where it says “Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.” God loves us so much that God sets aside divine glory to enter our world as a human being, ultimately to die for us so that we can be forgiven of our sins and given a new life in Christ. This new life is at its heart a life of love, in which we begin to love God and others, mirroring that love for us that led God to come at Christmas.