During Advent and Christmas our churches seem to sing more heartily as hymns remind us of the promise and joy of the birth of Jesus. There is a wealth of wonderful texts and tunes for the season which bring “tidings of comfort and joy.”
The enthusiasm for Christmas carols and hymns can be explained by their familiarity and sometimes no doubt by nostalgia. We probably would all admit that the hymns we sing on Christmas Eve–with their references to a baby in the manger, shepherds on the hillside, angels announcing the good news and the loving Mary and Joseph–appeal to our sense of wonder and celebration.
A number of our Christmas hymns, however, also have messages of social justice and peace. We often overlook them in our comfortable celebration of Christmas. These hymns point to Jesus as a bringer of justice and peace, and they appeal to Christians to be agents of change for a world in need.
William Sears’ Christmas text (Baptist Hymnal, No. 93) “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 as a poem in the Christian Register. He wrote the poem specifically to call attention to issues of slavery and strife in the United States.
In the second stanza he eloquently contrasts the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth” with the strife in the world by speaking of the “woes of sin and strife,” and “Two thousand years of wrong.”
At the end of the stanza the hymn admonishes us: “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.”
The third stanza uses the image of “All ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low” for the slavery of his time.
While Sears’ hymn grew from a very different time, the messages of peace and justice are just as appropriate for 21st century Christians.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the text of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Baptist Hymnal, No. 98) as a poem for Sunday school children in Boston for Christmas Day in 1863.
The American Civil War was at its height, Longfellow’s son had been injured in the fighting, and it seemed that peace was elusive. The poem originally had several stanzas not sung today, which refer more overtly to the Civil War.
While the hymn speaks of a sense of despair because of war, the pealing bells ultimately remind us of the message that “God is not dead nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will to men.”
The hymn reminds us that God’s ultimate purpose for the world is peace.
Ruth Duck’s 1973 hymn “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (Baptist Hymnal, No. 83) draws from Isaiah prophecies of the Messiah as a bringer of justice to encourage the church to use the celebration of Advent as a time to renew commitment to help those in need.
She enumerates those in need a around us, including the prisoner, the poor, the sorrowful and the brokenhearted. This hymn is particularly good in encouraging us to meet the needs around us while we celebrate the coming of the Messiah.
In 1986 Thomas Troeger wrote a beautiful text about the care of children in the Christmas hymn “Our Savior’s Infant Cries Were Heard” (Baptist Hymnal, No. 116).
The humanity of Christ is emphasized as we ponder the crying baby Jesus whose needs were met by Mary and Joseph.
The hymn goes on to express the importance of care for children, not just the fortunate ones in loving, prosperous families, but also those who are abused, lost and poor.
The text then states that those who help to calm a child at night or guide a youth serve the one who was born in a stable. In a time when children of the world are too often forgotten, neglected or abused, this hymn takes us beyond the child in the manger to ministry to children everywhere.
These hymns, when used in the context of Advent and Christmas worship, can help our congregations focus on the needs of others as we worship the new-born Prince of Peace.
Richard C. Shadinger is associate dean of academic studies in Belmont University‘s School of Music.
This column appeared previously on EthicsDaily.com Nov. 22, 2004.
Richard C. Shadinger retired in May 2018 after 44 years serving as a professor in Belmont University‘s School of Music