Posted by: rcottrill | May 18, 2012

The First Noel

Words: Author Unknown (the earliest known printing date is 1823, in Some Ancient Christmas Carols, by Davies Gilbert)
Music: Composer Unknown (the tune appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, 1833, compiled by William Sandys (pronounced Sands).

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber

Note: The word Noel, alternately spelled Nowell, means Birthday! As the troubadours of the Middle Ages traveled from town to town, they would carry the news from other places. We can picture one of them standing in the town square crying out, “Birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday!” (as the fourfold “Noel” in the refrain indicates) to announce some notable birth. Then he might share a song to give the details. This is possibly the origin of the carol. The commonly used stanzas are: CH-1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8. Regarding the tune, it may actually be a descant borrowed from a tune composed earlier by Jeremiah Clark

There is both good and not-so-good about this song. There are some dubious details included that don’t square with the biblical account. But we need to realize that if the carol is, as some suppose, at least three centuries old, and if it was created as a troubadour song, the writer may not have been learned in the details of what the Bible tells us of the birth of Christ.

CH-1) The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

CH-2) They lookèd up and saw a star
Shining in the east, beyond them far;
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

The “they” of the second stanza seems to relate back to the shepherds in the first. But there is no record in God’s Word that the shepherds saw the star, nor any certainty that it shone in the daytime–though it’s an interesting idea!

One hymn editor has tried to cover the dubious connection of the shepherds with the star by amending the line in CH-2 to “For all to see there was a star.” However, that is no better. We don’t know that all saw the star. It seems best to see the heavenly manifestation as a miracle–perhaps only visible to the wise men, and even to them just at certain times (since they first went to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem).

There is another possible inaccuracy. Stanzas CH-3 and 6 speak of three wise men, but we are not actually told how many there  were. The three gifts could have come from two or ten men. Apart from that, the description of the visit of the magi is fine.

In my view, the unknown author redeems himself with CH-8 which has much to recommend it. Most hymnals and carol books use it as the concluding stanza, ignoring the inferior quality of CH-9. Consider all that is packed into this single stanza.

1) We are called to sing with “one accord.” This is a phrase meaning with one mind, with united passion. It is a description of unity used a number of times just before Pentecost, and of the very early days of the church (Acts 1:14; 2:1, 46; 4:24; 5:12).

2) Our praise is directed to our heavenly Lord, and it’s from heaven we expect His soon return (cf. Rom. 8:34; Phil. 3:20; I Thess. 4:16).

3) He is identified as the Creator God–which Christ definitely is (Jn. 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-16).

4) The Lord, in His omnipotence, called the material realm into being ex nihilo–out of nothing (Ps. 33:6; Heb. 11:3).

5) From our perspective, an even greater wonder is that He paid the price for our sins on the cross of Calvary with His own life’s blood (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 1:18-19).

That is truly wonderful!

CH-8) Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with His blood mankind hath bought.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

1) In your view, what is the most significant emphasis missing in our celebration of Christmas year by year?

2) What do you think is the writer’s purpose in linking the Lord’s creative power with His redemptive work (CH-8)?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber


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