“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley (TLH #94)

from “Lutheran Hymnody: Orthodoxy in Song”  by Pr. Chad L. Bird

Theologians have long extolled the benefits of clothing the best of theology in the dress of the finest poetry. St. John Chrysostom (c. 345-407) once stated:
 

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure, wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness, He mixed melody with prophecy so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom and to condemn all things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm. 4

St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379) echoed Chrysostom in these words:
 

Now the prophets teach certain things, the Historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorializes history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings. The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls. 5

What Saints Chrysostom and Basil note has been the consistent observation of the Christian church: that the word wedded to music is a beautiful and powerful means to give memorable expression to the most profound truths of theology. For example, Christians who are unacquainted with the technical theological language of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ (unio personalis), have sung the same truth in hymns such as this one:
 

Upon a manger filled with hay
In poverty content He lay
With milk was fed the Lord of all,
Who feeds the ravens when they call.
(TLH #104)Or if they have not sung that hymn, then certainly they have this one:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell;
Jesus our Immanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” (TLH #94)

 

The intent of such hymns is not to alter moods or create atmospheres, to massage the emotional state of a worshiper into a posture of spiritual openness, but to deliver the gifts of Christ. They bear the resemblance of a sermon shrunk in length, rhymed, and set to music. Many a hymn preaches more in four stanzas than a pastor struggles to say in six pages of a sermon text. And in the preaching of the hymn, the Spirit is at work through the Word to rebuke and console, pierce and heal through the law and Gospel.

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