Have you ever been singing a song in church and thought: ‘I have no idea what I just sang’? ‘What is an Ebenezer anyway? And why would Mr. Robert Robinson have me singing about raising one?’ I think the experience is pretty common to us all, even with some of the songs that are often most familiar to us ... Christmas Carols. So I thought, as a sort of stocking-stuffer gift, I would present you with my version of Christmas Carol Pocket Dictionary. So …
What about … "Nowell"? Okay, maybe you prefer to spell it Noel. But either way, what does Noel mean? And why were the angels the first ones to sing it? Well, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (via Wikipedia) Noel is an English version of a French word that comes from a Latin word that refers to birth. Got it? A little more simply, Noel is an old-fashioned way to refer to a baby being born. Through the ages, however, it has come to be used primarily to refer to the Baby being born. So the first Noel (the first announcement of the Savior’s birth) was made by angels to shepherds tending their sheep in the hillsides around Bethlehem. “The first Nowell the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.”
How about the line: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n”? Was it really all that silent that night? Wouldn’t there have been a great deal of kicking and screaming and crying inside that little stable? That’s the way it was like last time I was in a maternity ward! And that is surely what it was like that night. So how can Phillips Brooks (O Little Town of Bethlehem) say that the gift of Jesus was given "silently"? Good question. Answer? I am not sure that, by “silently”, Brooks is referring to the actual birth itself. Rather, I think he may be reminding us that Jesus was born in a little backwater town in a downtrodden country, on the backside of nowhere. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the King of kings’ birth was completely unnoticed. In the grand scheme of things, Jesus came into the world rather quietly. And so, often, does the individual’s salvation. Brooks goes on to say in the next line: “So (in the same way in which Jesus came) God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heav’n” … that is, silently. Most conversions to Christ do not happen with great pomp and circumstance. They are not written up in the papers. They do not usually come with all sorts of outward commotion. Quietly, humbly, unassumingly (in the same ways Jesus came to us), we come to Him.
“Silent night”? As we already said, it seems unlikely. But what Joseph Mohr is probably referring to is the calm after the storm of birth. As the shepherds walked into that stable, they probably saw an exhausted but happy woman, quietly holding her precious, sweet, sleeping little boy. I've seen this in the maternity ward, too! What a picture of the peace that God gives to us through Jesus!
One final noise-related line: “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” I think I have to agree with one of my seminary professors here – and say that I am not sure we can say this is true! As he pointed out in reference to this song, Jesus was in fact a real, live baby ... and so it would be fair to assume that He cried just like other real, live babies. Perhaps the anonymous author of Away in a Manger said “no crying He makes” because He thought that Jesus, as very God of very God, would not need to do such a thing. But let’s remember that Jesus was a real baby boy, too. So, though (as the sinless one) He surely never joined in the whining, demanding kind of crying that all other children begin assaulting their parents with at an early age … He probably did cry when He was hungry, or in pain, or cold. So maybe some poetic person out there can think of a better way to end the sentence, “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes…”. Any suggestions?
One more example to put on your Christmas crib sheet (pun intended): “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. This is simply the old Latin way to say “Glory to God in the highest” – Gloria (glory) in excelsis (in the highest) Deo (God). That is what the angels sang in Luke 2.14. Whether it was in Latin, there is some doubt! But I hope – whether in Latin, or in English – you find yourself singing, and saying, and feeling this truth over the next few days! “Glory to God in the highest.”
And merry Christmas!