By Hal Knight
It has been said that for all of John Wesley’s impact in his own day and ours, it is the words of his younger brother Charles that are more familiar to Christians throughout the world. This is because we sing so many of them in worship. Of the over 6,500 hymns he penned, one of the best-known is the great Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” written in 1739.
Charles Wesley did not write those familiar opening words, however. What he wrote was this: “Hark how all the welken rings, glory to the King of Kings.” “Welken,” a now obsolete word, means “heaven’s expanse.” Charles wanted to say that the entirety of heaven rang out in praise at the birth of Jesus.
It was George Whitefield, friend to the Wesley brothers (and sometimes theological adversary), who in 1753 wrote the words we sing today. Without Whitefield’s artful changing of the opening line this great hymn might have been lost to future generations.
We sing the hymn with joy, but do we give attention to the words? The first verse, the most familiar, proclaims the meaning of this birth: “God and sinners reconciled.” Through the birth of this child God is bringing about a salvation that we who had turned from God could not ourselves accomplish. Through Jesus our sins are forgiven and we are drawn back to a relationship with this God who loves us, even to the point of death on a cross for our salvation.
The second verse describes the manner in which God acts: Christ, the everlasting Lord, is the offspring of the virgin’s womb. In Jesus God has become human: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ incarnate deity.” In Jesus, God now is “pleased with us in flesh to dwell.” And coming to live among us, Jesus is truly “our Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
Why has the immortal God taken on mortal flesh? Why does God become open to feel what we feel, suffer what we suffer, know both human joy and human sorrow, and die on a cross? It was, said Charles in verse three, to bring “light and life to all.” God “lays his glory by” and is “born that we no more may die.” Indeed Christ is “born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”
Jesus was not only born in Bethlehem. Jesus can also be born in every person’s heart. The same love he showed in his life and death as he lived among us can also dwell in us as well, becoming the wellspring of our desire and the motivation of our actions. This is what it means to have a second birth: through the Holy Spirit the love of Christ enters our hearts and governs our lives. It is as we begin to embody God’s love in the world that the angelic promise of peace and goodwill on earth is increasingly and abundantly fulfilled.
Hal Knight is a Missouri Conference Elder and a professor
of Wesleyan Studies at Saint
Paul School of Theology.