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Hark the Herald Angels Sing – Part 3

Previously in the first two verses we marveled (!) at how Wesley and Whitfield were able to paint such a cornucopia of theological goodness in so few words. We considered the barrage of triggers that were thrown at the singer by phrases such as ‘joyful all ye nations rise’ and ‘pleased as man with man to dwell’. Unsurprisingly verse three doesn’t disappoint as another volley of Christology is planted in the consciousness, setting free the ‘white horses of imagination’ to kick up their heels and gallop joyously. Such is the power of the poetry and biblical allusion.

Hail the Heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Striking at the heart of the incarnation once again, we are called to cry ‘Hail’ to the Christ born of righteousness and Prince of Peace. This Christ is himself the source of Life and of light. Surely Wesley and Whitfield are harking back to John 1 where of Christ it is written:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Joining of Light and Life

candle in a dark room

The joining of light and life is profound for our instruction. Light a tiny flame in a darkened room – and though it is small and flickering, it overcomes the darkness. You cannot do the reverse and suck light out by ’empowering the darkness’ (1) …The same is true of life; true life, such as found only in the Prince of Righteousness, will always overcome death. Just as light will banish darkness, so life will cause death to flee. So Wesley and Whitfield remind us that Jesus brings Light and Life to all, again taking our gaze out of the wonders of the moment of birth, towards the continued unveiling as the uncontainable bursts forth. ‘Light and life to all he brings’. This is the story.

I like the all. I am a fan of the word all. Surely, the use of this little word all, and previous references to the nations, are evocative of the shear expanse of the grace that was, and is, and will be made available. Seems to me that God is not exclusive.(2) But to what are they referring to with the word risen?

Naturally enough for Christians, our minds go straight to the resurrection, when life overcame death. But there is something else going on here. It is also true to say that as the baby grew in the womb of the blessed virgin, so healing was coming forth – rising into fulfillment. Oh this beautiful healing – yes for sure it includes our physical healing in the here and now – but more wonderfully still it include the restoration of our initial calling as imagers of the Divine Glory. Again we have references to a new age which is now come and another new age that is yet to come.

The Great Emptying

Once again our heroes give us something to chew on regarding the incarnation. Philippians talks about how this Jesus laid his glory by as he became human, what might be thought of as an ’emptying out’. (3) Wesley and Whitfield want the singer to consider the mystery of this – he who lived eternally, in unspeakable glory, lays this to one side, and enters into the fray to battle against that very decay that floors us all. And he does this mildly. What more picture of mild is there than that Green Room baby, post feed, warm in a onesie going off to sleep? (2)

Wesley and Whitfield go out with a marvelous bit of alliteration.

Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

As ever this is packed full of biblical imagery – we were created in Eden from the earth, we are given a second birth and that the death that Eden led to is wiped away. It is evocative writing.


So, I have tried to get across the shear brilliance of great theology there is this carol. Wesley and Whitfield were pulling on a number of threads form the Old and New testament, and that they have summed up the gospel message (as they understood it) in a wonderful, rousing hymn. The timeless nature of this writing, and the power of Mendelssohn’s rousing tune combine to create a wonderfully evocative aid to worship and wonder that leads me, for one, into a deep sense being ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ to quote another great hymn.

A final thought. This carol spoke to me as child, before I had much understanding of these things (that’s assuming that I have understanding of them now!) Isn’t this the power of the God-breathed word? It works in people as they sing it, without their even knowing it. I suspect that many people who wouldn’t not class themselves as disciples have some kind of ‘encounter’ experience when singing this carol.

Inclusivity trumps exclusivity…

References and thoughts

  1. Well, not yet anyway. It might be argued if you wanted to split hairs that a ‘mini black hole’ could achieve this effect…
  2. It is much easier to write things that God is not, that it is to write ‘what God is’. I have resisted the urge to write ‘God is inclusive’ and to continue the apophatic tradition (of writing what he is not) so ‘God is not exclusive’.
  3. Theologians refer to the emptying out, the voluntary laying aside of power, as ‘Kenosis’ after the Greek word that Paul uses for it in Philippians 2:7-9.
  4. Read about the Green Room baby, first glimpsed in Hark The Herald part 2.

About maxelcat

Moderately into just about everything I live in North London where I am run a tutoring physics/science business and drink a lot of coffee.
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