Last week, I questioned what people who don’t observe Christ’s birth are celebrating at Christmas. It’s no secret that we live in a largely secular culture. Here in Maine, we have among the lowest church attendance in the nation, with a mere 20 percent of folks plonking down on a pew each Sunday. So it stands to reason that some 80 percent of you might be wondering what exactly Christians are celebrating this time of year.
I thought it’d be fun to consult the writers of our best-loved Christmas carols. No, not John Lennon, who hoped we’d have fun and forget our fears, but those early bastions of faith who penned lyrics based on Scripture. So this is Christmas:
Joy to the world, the Lord has come, wrote the British theologian Isaac Watts. While the day of Jesus’ birth is unknown, folks have celebrated it on December 25th since the fourth century. One millennium earlier, God told the prophet Ezekiel that since the religious leaders had failed to guide and protect his people, “I am taking over. I will search for my sheep and look for them myself. Just as a shepherd looks after his flock… so I will look after my sheep,” (Ezekiel 34:11-13 CJB).
What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping? asked the English hymn writer William Chatterton Dix. That was the big question echoing through the hills of Galilee. Who was this child who grew up to heal the sick, feed the hungry and forgive people of their sins? “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said (John 10:11 NLT), which listeners would have understood as a reference to Ezekiel. Then Jesus explained, “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”
Silent night! Holy Night! Son of God, love’s pure light, Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest, described the wonder of the incarnation. In Scripture, the phrase ‘Son of God’ sometimes pointed to the Messiah, the One who would rescue Israel. In John 10:36, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God. And his disciple John wrote, “God showed us how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him,” (I John 4:9).
Hark! The herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn King!” proclaimed the British preacher Charles Wesley. Why? Because through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, people could now be forgiven of their sins and reconciled to God. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people,” the angels told the shepherds. “The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today,” (Luke 2:10-11).
Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, beckoned John Francis Wade, who penned the Latin version of this carol in the mid-1700s. Come! Celebrate! Rejoice! That’s what we do each year, in the dark days leading up to Christmas. We celebrate God’s presence with us, revealed through the birth of the Messiah. You can come too! Oh, come, let us adore him. Oh, come, let us adore Him. Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning adoption memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now.