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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Scripture References

Further Reflections on Scripture References

Containing biblical phrases from Luke, John, and Paul, the text is a curious mixture of exclamation, exhortation, and theological reflection. The focus shifts rapidly from angels, to us, to nations. The text's strength may not lie so much in any orderly sequence of thought but in its use of Scripture to teach its theology. That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing "Glory to the newborn King!"

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Belgic Confession, Articles 18 and 19 proclaim that Christ is “truly our Emmanuel—God with us” and he, as a divine being, truly assumed a human nature by the power of the Holy Spirit so that the two natures are “inseparably united and joined together.” This profound truth, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, is proclaimed through Jesus’ many names in this song: “everlasting Lord,” “offspring of the virgin’s womb,” “incarnate Deity,” and the Godhead “veiled in flesh.”

Confession

1 God of love,
all year long we pursue power and money,
yet you come in weakness.
All season long we covet great material gifts,
when you alone offer what is lasting.
Through the work of this Lord Jesus,
who comes among us full of grace and truth,
forgive us,
heal us,
correct us.
Then open our lips,
that we may sing your praise with the angels,
and remake our lives,
that we may witness to your transforming love.
Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
[The Worship Sourcebook]
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Assurance

Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
People of God, through the coming of Jesus Christ,
whose birth we celebrate,
the Lord has comforted and redeemed us too!
In Christ we receive the salvation of our God.
Glory to God in the highest!
—based on Isaiah 52:9-10; Luke 2:14, NRSV
[The Worship Sourcebook]
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
In Christ, we are forgiven! Thanks be to God!
—based on 1 Timothy 1:15, NRSV
[The Worship Sourcebook]
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

As followers of Jesus Christ,
living in this world—
which some seek to control,
and others view with despair—
we declare with joy and trust:
Our world belongs to God!
Our world, fallen into sin,
has lost its first goodness,
but God has not abandoned the work of his hands:
our Maker preserves this world, sending seasons, sun, and rain,
upholding all creatures, renewing the earth,
promising a Savior, guiding all things to their purpose.
Remembering the promise to reconcile the world to himself,
God joined our humanity in Jesus Christ—
the eternal Word made flesh.
He is the long-awaited Messiah,
one with us and one with God,
fully human and fully divine,
conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
Being both divine and human,
Jesus is the only mediator.
He alone paid the debt of our sin;
there is no other Savior.
Jesus Christ rules over all.
To follow the Lord is
to serve him wherever we are,
without fitting in,
light in the darkness,
salt in a spoiling world.
—from Our World Belongs to God, st. 1, 4, 23, 26, 43
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

We confess that God fulfilled the promise
made to the early fathers and mothers
by the mouth of the holy prophets
when he sent the only and eternal Son of God
into the world at the time appointed.
The Son took the “form of a slave”
and was made in “human form,”
truly assuming a real human nature,
with all its weaknesses, except for sin;
being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
without male participation.
And Christ not only assumed human nature
as far as the body is concerned
but also a real human soul,
in order to be a real human being.
For since the soul had been lost as well as the body,
Christ had to assume them both to save them both together.
In this way Christ is truly our Immanuel—
that is: “God with us.”
—from Belgic Confession, Art. 18
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

How does the holy conception
and birth of Christ benefit you?
He is our mediator,
and, in God’s sight,
he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness
my sinfulness in which I was conceived.
—Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 36
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Blessing/Benediction

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,
training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions,
and in the present age to live lives
that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,
while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation
of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Live now in the power of Christ, to the praise of his name!
—based on Titus 2:11-13, NRSV
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Additional Prayers

O Immanuel,
O Wisdom from on high,
O Lord of might,
O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
O Key of David,
O Bright and Morning Star,
O King of nations,
We rejoice and are glad
on this bright Christmas morning,
for truly you have come,
full of grace and truth.
Even now, come into our hearts again.
Show us the path of knowledge.
Comfort us in our mourning.
Save us from our sin.
Open wide our way to heaven.
Turn our darkness into light.
End our sad divisions
and be our King of peace,
so that every creature in heaven and on earth
will join in a chorus of praise,
and shout with joy to you, our Lord. Amen.
[The Worship Sourcebook]
— Worship Sourcebook Edition Two

Tune Information

Name
MENDELSSOHN
Key
F Major or modal
Meter
7.7.7.7. D refrain 7.7

Recordings

Hymn Story/Background

Charles Wesley wrote this text in ten four-line stanzas and published it in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). Originally entitled "Hymn for Christmas Day," this most popular of Wesley's Christmas hymns began with the following words:
Hark, how all the welkin [heavens] rings
Glory to the King of Kings.
George Whitefield changed the first line to "Hark! The herald angels sing" and published the text with additional alterations in his Collection (1753). In 1782 the revised opening couplet became repeated as the refrain. The text was extensively changed and shortened by various other eighteenth-century editors as well. This version is essentially the same as the one published in John Kempthorne's Select Portions of Psalms… and Hymns (1810).
 
Containing biblical phrases from Luke, John, and Paul, the text is a curious mixture of exclamation, exhortation, and theological reflection. The focus shifts rapidly from angels, to us, to nations. The text's strength may not lie so much in any orderly sequence of thought but in its use of Scripture to teach its theology. That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing "Glory to the newborn King!"
 
The tune is from the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn's Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass; it was first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, a festival celebrating the anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn's tune is similar to another that appeared one hundred years earlier in “The Song of Mars” from the John Pepusch opera Venus and Adonis.
 
Mendelssohn once wrote of this music, "It will never do to sacred words." William H. Cummings may not have been aware of Mendelssohn’s opinion; he adapted the tune to Wesley's text in 1856. When they were placed together in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" became a very popular hymn.
 
Cummings had a lifelong love of Felix Mendelssohn, sparked when he sang at age sixteen in the first London performance of Elijah, which was directed by Mendelssohn himself. As a young boy, Cummings had been a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral and later sang in the choirs of the Temple Church, Westminster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal. Cummings became a famous tenor–he sang in oratorios and was especially known for his evangelist role in the Bach passions. He taught voice at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Normal College and School for the Blind in London and was also an accomplished organist. Cummings wrote books and articles on music history, wrote a biography of Henry Purcell and edited his music, and composed many choral pieces.
 
MENDELSSOHN is an excellent match for Wesley's text. It is a rousing tune, even martial in some of its phrases. Sing with lots of enthusiasm; do not drown out the stanzas with too much organ–save that extra stop for the refrain and the final stanza.
— Bert Polman

Author Information

Several members of the Wesley family are significant figures in the history of English hymnody, and none more so than Charles Wesley. Charles was the eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, who educated him when he was young. After attending Westminster School, he studied at Christ Church College, Oxford. It was there that he and George Whitefield formed the Oxford "Holy Club," which Wesley's brother John soon joined. Their purpose was to study the Bible in a disciplined manner, to improve Christian worship and the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and to help the needy. Because of their methods for observing the Christian life, they earned the name “Methodists.”
 
Charles Wesley was ordained a minister in the Church of England in 1735 but found spiritual conditions in the church deplorable. Charles and John served briefly as missionaries to the British colony in Georgia. Enroute they came upon a group of Moravian missionaries, whose spirituality impressed the Wesleys. They returned to England, and, strongly influenced by the ministry of the Moravians, both Charles and John had conversion experiences in 1738 (see more on this below). The brothers began preaching at revival meetings, often outdoors. These meetings were pivotal in the mid-eighteenth-century "Great Awakening" in England.
 
Though neither Charles nor John Wesley ever left the Church of England them­selves, they are the founders of Methodism. Charles wrote some sixty-five hundred hymns, which were published in sixty-four volumes during his lifetime; these include Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1741), Hymns on the Lord's Supper ( 1 745), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1753), and Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780). Charles's hymns are famous for their frequent quotations and allusions from the Bible, for their creedal orthodoxy and their subjective expression of Christian living, and for their use of some forty-five different meters, which inspired new hymn tunes in England. Numerous hymn texts by Wesley are standard entries in most modern hymnals; fifteen are included in Lift Up Your Hearts.
 
Charles's elder brother John also studied at Christ Church College, Oxford, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1728. A tutor at Lincoln College in Oxford from 1729 to 1735, Wesley became the leader of the Oxford "Holy Club" mentioned above. After his contact with the Moravian missionaries, Wesley began translating Moravian hymns from German and published his first hymnal, Collection of Psalms and Hymns, in Charleston, South Carolina (1737); this hymnal was the first English hymnal ever published for use in worship. Upon his return to England in 1738 Wesley "felt his heart strangely warmed" at a meeting on Aldersgate Street, London, when Peter Bohler, a Moravian, read from Martin Luther's preface to his commentary on the epistle to the Romans. It was at that meeting that John received the assurance that Christ had truly taken away his sins. That conversion experience (followed a few days later by a similar experience by his brother Charles) led to his becoming the great itinerant evangelist and administrator of the Methodist "societies," which would eventually become the Methodist Church. An Anglican all his life, John Wesley wished to reform the Church of England and regretted the need to found a new denomina­tion. Most of the hymnals he prepared with his brother Charles were intended for Christians in all denominations; their Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780) is one of the few specifically so designated. John was not only a great preacher and organizer, he was also a prolific author, editor, and translator. He translat­ed many classic texts, wrote grammars and dictionaries, and edited the works of John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. In hymnody he is best known for his translation of selec­tions from the German hymnals of Johann Cruger ('Jesus, thy boundless love to me"), Freylinghausen, and von Zinzendorf ('Jesus, thy blood and righteousness"), and for his famous "Directions for Singing," which are still printed in Methodist hymnals. Most significant, however, is his well-known strong hand in editing and often strengthening his brother Charles's hymn texts before they copublished them in their numerous hymnals.
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (b. Hamburg, Germany, 1809; d. Leipzig, Germany, 1847) was the son of banker Abraham Mendelssohn and the grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His Jewish family became Christian and took the Bartholdy name (name of the estate of Mendelssohn's uncle) when baptized into the Lutheran church. The children all received an excellent musical education. Mendelssohn had his first public performance at the age of nine and by the age of sixteen had written several symphonies. Profoundly influenced by J. S. Bach's music, he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 (at age 20!) – the first performance since Bach's death, thus reintroducing Bach to the world. Mendelssohn organized the Domchor in Berlin and founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in 1843. Traveling widely, he not only became familiar with various styles of music but also became well known himself in countries other than Germany, especially in England. He left a rich treasury of music: organ and piano works, overtures and incidental music, oratorios (including St. Paul or  Elijah and choral works, and symphonies. He harmonized a number of hymn tunes himself, but hymnbook editors also arranged some of his other tunes into hymn tunes.
 
William H. Cummings (b. Sidbury, Devonshire, England, 1831; d. Dulwich, London, England, 1915) had a lifelong love of Felix Mendelssohn, sparked when he sang at age sixteen in the first London performance of Elijah, which was directed by Mendelssohn himself. As a young boy, Cummings had been a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral and later sang in the choirs of the Temple Church, Westminster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal. Cummings became a famous tenor–he sang in oratorios and was especially known for his evangelist role in the Bach passions. He taught voice at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Normal College and School for the Blind in London and was also an accomplished organist. Cummings wrote books and articles on music history, wrote a biography of Henry Purcell and edited his music, and composed many choral pieces.
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

This hymn by Charles Wesley was written within a year of Wesley’s conversion. Thus, as Albert Bailey writes, “the inspiration of his newly-made contact with God was still fresh” (The Gospel in Hymns, 100). Rather than simply tell the nativity story, Wesley pours theological truths into this text. The first verse tells the story of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, and the second and third verse go on to make it very clear why the angels sang. Simply by describing Christ, Wesley tells us the entire Gospel story. We are told of Christ’s nature, his birth and incarnation, his ministry, and his salvific purpose. Bert Polman described the hymn like this: “A curious mixture of exclamation, exhortation, and theological reflection. The focus shifts rapidly from angels, to us, to nations. The text’s strength may not lie so much in any orderly sequence of thought but in its use of Scripture to teach its theology. That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!’”
— Laura de Jong
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