In my mind, the earliest ‘Christmas carols’ appear in the opening chapters of the Gospel attributed to Luke. In these chapters, various characters sing songs to celebrate the birth of John, the baptiser, and then the birth of Jesus, of Nazareth.
First Mary, the teenage girl awaiting the arrival of her somewhat unexpected baby (Jesus), sings about how God has looked on her with favour:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud … he has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly … he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:49–55).
Then Zechariah, the elderly priest, sings with joy after the birth of his entirely unexpected son (John):
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, TO GUIDE OUR FEET INTO THE WAY OF PEACE” (1:68–79).
Another ‘carol’ is offered by another elderly man—the faithful prophet Simeon, who rejoices in the fact that, when he sees the infant Jesus, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples – a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:29-32).
The shortest ‘carol’ is the one sung by the angels, to shepherds in the fields: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, AND ON EARTH PEACE …” (2:14). We know this one very well. It repeats the desire that Zechariah expressed: may there be peace! And it affirms that God will act, to bring that peace into the world. It is Jesus who will be the chosen means for offering the hope of universal peace to all.
It is probably no accident that it is the ‘carol’ of the angels which appears most often and most clearly in the ‘Christmas carols’ which we sing each year.
In O little town of Bethlehem, we sing:
O morning stars, together / proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King / AND PEACE TO ALL ON EARTH.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night ends by repeating the words of the angels:
All glory be to God on high, / AND TO THE WORLD BE PEACE;
goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth / begin and never cease.
Charles Wesley invites us to sing:
Hark! the herald angels sing / glory to the new-born King,
PEACE ON EARTH, and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled.
Later, in verse 3, we are encouraged to look to Jesus and
Hail the heaven-born PRINCE OF PEACE!
And John Bell, a British composer from the Iona Community in Scotland, has written a quirky new Christmas carol that has a refrain that goes:.
To God in the highest, be glory which never ends,
AND ON EARTH BE PEACE and good-will to all God’s friends.
So the carol of peace, sung by the angels, has echoed down through the centuries and reverberates in our own time. May it become more of a reality in the coming year.