Christmas carols are among the oldest songs on earth. Perhaps no other musical genre is more ancient and focused than those festive songs you’ll hear this month in (some) shopping centres, church services, and televised open-air sing-alongs such as Carols in the Domain.
At the heart of your typical carol is a single idea: God became a man. The “incarnation” (Latin for “in flesh”) is the unrivalled theological punch line of Christmas. It’s everywhere in the carols. Charles Wesley’s 18th-century classic “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sums it up well:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.”
But this is not an early modern hymn-writing phenomenon. It goes back to the beginning. The hymns with the longest continuous history are probably those of Ambrose of Milan from the 4th century, the Veni Redemptor Gentium (O Come, Redeemer of the Earth) and the Te Deum Laudamus (You, God, We Praise). They are both about the in-fleshness-of-God in Jesus Christ. The latter song is still said or sung in traditional Anglican churches every week around the world:
Thou art the King of Glory
Thou art the everlasting Son
—of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man
—thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
Nor is the 4th century the starting point for such songs. Occasionally, you will still hear that tale about Emperor Constantine elevating Jesus from human to divine status at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) in an effort to unify the Empire around a common deity. It is nonsense.
The literary and inscriptional evidence is overwhelming: Christians were worshipping Jesus as God in the flesh well before Constantine. And some of the most interesting evidence reveals that believers weren’t just talking about the incarnation as a daring theological innovation; they were singing about it at the top of their lungs as a central theme of public worship.
The earliest reference to a church service comes not from a Christian pen, but from Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia in AD 110. He writes to Emperor Trajan to ask whether he should maintain the policy of executing Christians. Pliny is confused about the nature of their crimes, and notes:
“The sum total of their guilt or error was no more than the following. They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally [in alternate groups] a hymn to Christ as to a god … “
Pliny thought of Jesus as “a kind of anti-god to the Roman state gods,” write Professors Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz of Heidelberg University. But he also knows “that the one worshipped in the cult was a man,” since he uses the Latin expression quasi deo, “as a god.” In other words, he “sees Christ only as a quasi-god, precisely because he was a man.”
Perhaps most interesting—for the history of theology and the history of song—is that two of these “hymns to Christ as to a god” are preserved in New Testament documents dating to the middle of the 1st century. On two occasions the apostle Paul interrupts the Greek prose of his letters and literally breaks into what modern scholars regard as early Christian songs (whether composed by Paul or someone else). Both focus on the deity and incarnation of Jesus:
The Son is the image
of the invisible God,
over all creation.
For in him
all things were created.
For God was pleased
to have all his fullness dwell in him
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness
A straight line can be drawn from these 1st-century hymns about the incarnation to Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It is a profound and enduring idea, one well worth pondering, discussing, arguing over, and, of course, singing about. If true, it means that the Almighty is not distant but close. He has got his hands dirty—and, ultimately, bloody—with us and for us. Why wouldn’t this be the most ancient and enduring of all our tuneful longings!