EVEN if you have never been to California, you are probably familiar with the incredible forest of redwood trees, which have stood inconceivably high and unimaginably strong for many, many centuries.
In terms of the faith, the redwoods of our songs are the Christmas carols.
The great carols explain the gospel in some of the most winsome yet biblically complete ways. They do not just take us through the Gospel story, but also offer us a compelling incarnational, and yet equally eternal, perspective. “Once in royal David’s city”, a hymn written to explain to children what Christmas means, is a pristine example of this divinely mysterious balance:
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
When we engage with the great carols of the faith to understand them, we move towards understanding the gospel, eternity, and how the story of the Christ who has come, yet will also come again, is the very fulcrum on which the entire universe hinges. The gospel stops becoming a mere theory of self-improvement, and instead becomes a daily source of glorious transformation, as our hearts are reminded that there is One higher, stronger, and able to save in ways that we never could. One who:
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
But the redwoods are more than just strong: they are also breathtaking marvels of beauty that captivate the soul. And so are the carols. After all, these are the timeless melodies of Holst, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, masterfully coupled with the incomparable lyrics of Rossetti, Wesley, and Watts. The reason that these last through the years is that they are brilliant. And yet so many churches today choose predominantly to sing songs written by their own modern songwriters (I am one of them; so I’m criticising myself here).
Christmas also reminds us that, for God’s people, singing together is something that should begin in the home. When I think of all the temporal things that will be shared in homes this Christmas — the materialism, the lies, the selfishness — I am reminded that we should intentionally fill our homes with the songs of the Lord. Just imagine the spiritual implications of change and legacy that would be possible if our children were to walk around our homes singing verses such as Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak midwinter”:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him —
Give my heart.
WHEN we sing the Bible, we are singing to one another. Sacred singing is a group activity. This is why it is so tragic when churches and people do not recognise the inherently biblical and community-enriching opportunity to sing together.
Christmas is a chance for everyone, despite our “worship wars” or struggles with singing as a congregation (Features, 7 December), to come together to sing to one another. It forges and strengthens the bond of faith among the church family of both young and old, especially in light of the modern church practice of foregoing a multi-generational family worship experience, choosing instead to split services into traditional and contemporary.
The New Testament and Psalms both lean into the idea of remembering what God has done for previous generations, which then leads us to take note of the ways in which God is equally active in our present generation. There is a humility to this way of approaching singing. The carols remind each generation that we are part of a bigger story that goes way, way back. Not only are these hymns outstanding and beautiful — treasures and masterpieces of the Church — but, when we sing them, we are joining ourselves with those who have gone on before us.
O, come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
There is room in my heart for Thee.
Every time I sing these words, by Emily E. Elliott, I am reminded of times when my emotions were aggressive and confusing, but when the expression of these truths expressed led me to divine resolution; as wonderful ministry to my soul. There is an importance of repetition and rhythm in life, and coming back to this story and these truths at this time of the year elevates this importance.
JUST like redwoods, which will be here long after we are gone, the carols offer us a vision of the immense future ahead of us, because they are firmly about the gospel — about peace, hope, joy, and love. They are about eternity, and the first advent pointing to the second advent of Christ’s return.
Every carol and almost every great hymn brings us to eternity, something that we often miss in modern worship. They ultimately remind us that hope for this world is not within ourselves, or even in finding our truest selves, but, rather, it is found outside ourselves. Like the redwoods, our hope is higher and stronger — but even better, because it is also eternal.
Keith Getty is a singer and songwriter whose hymns include “In Christ Alone” (written with Stuart Townend).