Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: An Advent Meditation

Yes, I know this is technically not an Advent song. But I’m going to discuss it anyway!

art by Gayla Irwin, gaylairwin.com

Today’s Christmas song is, as the youth say, a banger (in stark contrast to the Coventry Carol last week). It’s the wonderful “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and again unlike the previous other two carols, it has a distinct writer, Charles Wesley. It also has a distinct best version, that on Amy Grant’s classic 1983 Christmas album, A Christmas Album. It’s on the Spotify playlist. And yes, fight me on that, I am willing to die on that Christmas carol hill. 

As it turns out, and as I did not know until this series, Charles Wesley is not the same person as John Wesley, founder of Methodism (clearly I am not a Methodist). They were brothers! And Charles Wesley wrote about 9000 hymns, some of which include our most beloved besides “Hark”: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” and many more. Hymn-writing was how Charles Wesley processed just about everything in his life, from the deaths of friends and family members, to holidays, to historical events like the Jacobite uprising. 

What cracks me up a little bit about this song is that Wesley originally wrote it to have a slow, solemn melody behind the lyrics. He really wanted that regal, majestic feel. But no one really liked that version, and eventually some folks instinctively put the wonderful lyrics to a far better tune by the great Austrian Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. 

Here it is, in all its glory. Listen to it, or sing if you’re able:

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King”
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled

Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of Earth
Born to give them second birth

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings

Christ, the highest heaven adore
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in us Thy humble home
Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in us Thy humble home.

The very best hymns have both good sound and sound doctrine. This is a robustly theological song. The three verses (there are more, but I chose to focus on these) each set us to think in a particular way about the Incarnation, much like the New Testament itself. The first verse places us in Bethlehem, in the historical moment. It is like the gospel of Luke, with its vivid account of the nativity. Listen to the angels singing to the shepherds. The second verse draws back a little, like the gospel of John, for the bigger picture. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, Emmanuel. In the third verse, we look forward to Christ’s eternal kingship, to the righting of the universe, to his dwelling in our hearts and his gift of abundant life, as in Paul’s letters and Revelation.

My favorite of these verses is the second. “Mild He lays His glory by / Born that man no more may die”: that first line brings into my mind a vivid picture. A great king strips off his heavy, glorious robes and gleaming crown, laying down his scepter and great seal, the trappings of total power, to reveal a fragile and very human body, what we all share. “Hark” holds the tensions of God’s great power and great humility, of Jesus’s lordship and manhood together. 

It reminds me of the famous fourth-century bishop and theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, who almost compulsively could not stop exploring that overwhelming tension of the Incarnation, and what it means for us as embodied creatures. His pseudo-biography, Confessions, depicts how as a young man, Augustine tried out religion after religion, philosophy after philosophy, seeking satisfaction and finding none. Though born to a Christian mother, Monica, he rejected her Christianity as provincial and embarrassing due to the bodily nature of the Incarnation and of miracles. The hip religions and philosophies of the day were more invested in transcending the crude limitations of the body in order to reach the purity of Spirit (this sounds an awful lot like some of the philosophies of our day too, not least the worship of technology). The incarnation, God becoming human, intentionally limiting himself, seemed positively stupid. In a world where things seem so wrong, where we need the power to right them, why would God make himself smaller?

Augustine narrates how he stumbled out of one religion into the next, as he tries to reach God through his own willpower and prodigious mind. He writes to God, later in his life:

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not until I embraced the mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever… for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy. Not yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach. Your word, the eternal Truth who towers above the higher spheres of your creation, raises up to himself those creatures who bow before him; but in these lower regions he has built himself a humble dwelling from our clay, and used it to cast down from their pretentious selves those who do not bow before him, and make a bridge to bring them to himself. He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even farther away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves down upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up. 

Confessions VII.18, 24

Augustine plays with the idea of weakness in this passage. What if what he considered weak, babyish, embarrassing—his mother’s belief that God became a man and embraced the needy human body to share life with them—was actually the source of profound, communal strength? What if what he had always considered powerful—philosophical prowess, popularity, intellectual capability, rejection of the body’s limitations—was actually weak in its stubborn refusal of human need, Augustine’s own neediness for God’s humility? As Augustine recognizes that his own insistence on knowledge and power keeps him from truth, he also discovers that the ability to confess need and ask for help is at the root of all kinds of learning. A combination of desire and confession of need fuels spiritual transformation. To admit human need in the face of God’s humanity is, for Augustine, to paradoxically weaken and strengthen as you are lifted up by sharing the flesh with God. 

To return to the song: God’s act of “laying his glory by” is mild, gentle, humble, the opposite of wrath or irritation or frustration with how we’ve bungled things here. The brilliance of Wesley’s words, married to the equal preaching power of Mendelssohn’s melody, leads us to sing “Veiled in flesh!” and “Hail the Incarnate” loudly and triumphantly while “Godhead” and “deity” slide, surprisingly, into the quieter part of the verse. Augustine preaches to us what this second verse is all about.

Despite God’s infinite bigness, infinite power, infinite goodness and beauty, he did not force us through that power, through that hugeness, even through that goodness and beauty, to receive him, which is basically what hugeness does, even huge goodness. You can’t ignore it. You can’t sideline it because it dominates the entire skyline. Godzilla, each skyscraper in a downtown, even something massively beautiful, they all assault your eye with their immensity.

In the incarnation, God instead became smaller to meet us, as an adult stoops down to meet a child’s eyes instead of running them over or shouting over them. He hid himself to become findable. 

And yet we still implicitly believe that by making ourselves bigger, and others smaller, we can reach God, happiness, wealth, whatever it is that we want. Culturally, we inhale an overwhelming amount of messaging daily from advertisers, so-called Christian leaders, political figures, all of whom tell us that we are not enough. If we had more power, more strength, more money, more beauty, more whatever, we would be better, be able to handle it all, be able to fix things. But the immanent, infinite Word became weak, frail flesh. Augustine discovers that embracing his own weakness leads, paradoxically, to more fully comprehending God’s strength to heal in Jesus’s weak, mortal body. Jesus has healing in his wings, and shockingly he invites us into that healing process with all our weakness, if we can face it with him. 

If I have one message that I hammer home in nearly everything I write, annoyingly, over and over, it’s this one. Once I wrote on this very passage from Augustine in graduate school, and someone commented that they didn’t really like the word “weakness.” Couldn’t you use something else? It’s too vague. But that’s what I like about considering weakness. It can encompass so many things: my weak mortal body’s need for glorious tea in the morning; the humiliation of when I yell at my children because I’m tired; the sin of my pride, which is the weak rejection of my weakness; the divine gift of human weakness and need for others that impels me to seek out friendship, one of God’s greatest gifts. 

Stop for a minute to consider the radical nature of this idea. It was the part of Christianity that blew apart the classical ancient world. Other doctrines—virgin birth, even God transforming into a human, coming to save the world, all these were old hat. Aristotle writes that the most virtuous man has no weakness, that he saves his friends from giving their energy to himself. When he is in trouble, he is strong enough to stand alone. I also use “he” very purposely, because Aristotle figured a woman, or an enslaved person, could never fit that category. The Incarnate God shows us in contrast that true friendship, true fellowship comes to perfection in the sharing of intimate weakness.

I’m giving you a hard set of questions for your Advent practice this week. What does God’s weakness have to teach you? What does your weakness have to teach you? And don’t shirk the question by being overly general or by doing the “interview” answer (oh, I’m too nice to people, etc.). That may be true; but do the harder, sometimes agonizing work of looking into yourself to fully identify and embrace your weakness. Where are you most weak in your life—in your body, in your spiritual practice, in your relationships, mentally? What can that teach you about yourself, about Jesus’s embracing of weakness? Where is it a gift to you? Again, let’s listen together to this song about Christ’s strange intermingling of weakness and power.

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