Angels We Have Heard on High

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2015 24 Dec

Korean Nativity scene, Source

“Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:13-14 NKJV).

Historians call this a “French carol” to indicate its origins, but that’s about all we know for certain. It seems to have been published in English around 1860, but there are older versions. The original French title meant “Angels in our Countryside,” which seems perfectly suited to the scene recorded in Luke 2 where angels suddenly fill the skies.

No wonder the shepherds were afraid. Some questions come to mind at this point. If we had been there, would we have seen the angels? Could the people in Bethlehem see the angels? Could they be seen in Jerusalem—six miles away? Could the sound of their voices be heard in other places, or did the angels reveal themselves only to the shepherds? We cannot fully answer these questions, but this much is certain: The angels were really there, and the shepherds really did hear them.

It is impossible to miss the supernatural element in the birth of Jesus. Angels pop up all over the Christmas story. An angel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus. An angel tells Joseph to call his name Jesus. An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. An angel tells them when it’s safe to return to Israel. An angel announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds, and then the angelic choir serenades them.

Many miracles surround Christmas—the angels, the star, the dreams, the prophecies, and most of all, the virgin birth. But those miracles are just signs pointing to the greatest miracle of all: That someone from the “other world” has visited our world. Someone from the world of light came to the world of darkness. Someone from the eternal came to the temporary. Someone from heaven came to live with us on earth!

This carol calls us to make Christmas much more than a holiday. We must . . .

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord the newborn King.

Because of its obscure origins, it is not surprising there is some variation in the exact wording of the verses. Several years ago, while doing some research, I discovered this carol appears to be one of very few that mentions Joseph:

See Him in a manger laid
Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth!
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Savior's birth.

The refrain, with its soaring melody and antiphonal parts, calls each of us individually and all of us together to say, Glory to God in the highest!” An early church father named Saint Hilary said, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” Sometimes the world around us seems empty, and we may feel entirely alone, but now and then—Suddenly!—when we least expect it—when we’ve almost given up hope—when we’re tired or bored or fearful or disgruntled—God breaks through and the angels start to sing. They sang for some startled shepherds one night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. They still sing today for those who care to hear them.

Let’s listen to this beautiful a cappella version by Pentatonix.

Our Father, on this happy Christmas Eve, open our hearts so we will believe and never doubt that Christ has come! Amen.

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