Posted by: rcottrill | December 9, 2013

There’s a Song in the Air

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Josiah Gilbert Holland (b. July 24, 1819; d. Oct. 12, 1881)
Music: Christmas Song, by Karl Pomeroy Harrington (b. June 13, 1861; d. Nov. 14, 1953)

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Though the poem was written a couple of years before, Holland’s words first appeared in print as a Christmas hymn in 1874. There were several musical settings of it, until Harrington wrote Christmas Song in 1904. That has become the traditional tune.

Now there were in the same country [near Bethlehem] shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger….Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (Lk. 2:8-16, 20)

Skillful writers, using sanctified imagination, have sometimes caught the atmosphere of these scenes in ways that help us to feel what it was like. One of these is Josiah Holland. Dr. Holland trained as a physician, and practised medicine for awhile. But he soon moved on to what was to be the calling best suiting his abilities. He became an author and editor. Gilbert Holland wrote a humorous newspaper column, as well as novels, and poetry. It is one of his poems, written in 1874 for a Sunday School journal, that captures something of the wonder of the first Christmas.

Thirty years later, Karl Harrington, read Holland’s poem in an idle moment while vacationing at his summer cottage. He was moved by the simple yet descriptive words. And Harrington wrote the fine tune we now use to sing the beautiful carol.

CH-1) There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky!
There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a Baby’s low cry!
And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!

What of that night in the fields of Bethlehem, when an angel appeared to some shepherds tending their sheep? Have you ever seen an angel, and had “the glory of the Lord [shine] around [you]”? We are told the men were “greatly afraid,” and likely we would be too! And what was in their minds and hearts when they found the angelic announcement to be true, when they shared the good news with others, praising God for what had happened (vs. 17, 20)?

CH-2) There’s a tumult of joy o’er the wonderful birth,
For the virgin’s sweet Boy is the Lord of the earth.
Ay! the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!

The author describes the result in the hearts of those who welcomed the birth of Jesus as a “tumult of joy.” And the dictionary tells us that the word “tumult” describes both an emotional disturbance and a noisy commotion. An inward and outward agitation. No wonder. Something amazing and unprecedented had happened.

¤ Though it was known to only a few at the time, the Lord Jesus was virgin-born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:21-23). The incarnation was a unique supernatural work of the Spirit of God (Lk. 1:35).

¤ Also, both the Old Testament and the New assure us that this One was born to be King, born to rule (Isa. 9:6-7; Matt. 2:1-2; Lk. 1:31-33; I Tim. 6:14-15).

¤ To the latter point must be added the fact that Christ was not born with the luxurious surroundings and pageantry usually accompanying a royal birth. His cradle was a humble manger (Lk. 2:7; cf. II Cor. 8:9).

¤ The mission of Christ was spelled out before His birth. He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Lord Himself reiterated that, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

“The Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world” (I Jn. 4:14). No wonder His birth was accompanied by an angelic announcement and exclamations of praise from the heavenly host (called “the beautiful” and “the heavenly throng” in the carol). Josiah Holland follows the traditional belief that the angels sang their praises. That is quite possible, though the Bible doesn’t make it clear.

Of the third stanza, Carlton Young writes in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (p. 648):

“Stanza 3 reflects the optimism of early social gospel hymns that heralded the emerging twentieth century as the Christian century and the fulfilment of Jesus’ great commission.”

If that is what Holland had in mind, it certainly has not turned out that way. We’ve had a century of almost continual conflict, and “evil men and imposters [or deceivers] grow worse and worse” (II Tim. 3:13). Nevertheless, God is still on the throne, and the work of proclaiming the gospel of grace continues to bear fruit “in the homes of the nations.”

CH- 3) In the light of that star lie the ages impearled;
And that song from afar has swept over the world.
Every hearth is aflame, and the beautiful sing
In the homes of the nations that Jesus is King!

1) The Christmas season certainly brings a “tumult” of carnal revelry. But what can we do to encourage a tumult of joy over the birth of Christ, in our homes and in our churches?

2) What in your view are the most joyous of our Christmas carols?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. What does it mean? 3rd stanza: “In the light of that star lie the ages impearled.” I don’t understand what Holland is trying to say with the word, ‘impearled.’

    • H-m-m… Poetic, isn’t it? But occasionally hymn writers get so fancy the truth they’re trying to convey is hidden in a fog of words! “Empearled” just means looking like pearls–beautiful, in other words. What Mr. Holland seems to be saying is that the star that led the wise men to Jesus in Bethlehem’s manger, will brighten all the ages to come, beautifying them, as it points others to Christ. That’s my best guess anyway. 🙂


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