How Christmas Reveals Our Problem with Worship

One of the wonders of Christmas is the music. Many of us look forward to the songs we don’t get to sing at any other time of the year. Even instruments which are shunned from January to November are not only tolerated but actively welcomed at Christmas time. Christmas has its own songs, its own music, its own style. And we all know where the carols of Christmas belong. They sound fantastic at our Carols by Candlelight services. They sound sublime sung by the boy choristers on Christmas Eve in Carols from Kings.

But then, so many seem to find them so awkward on a Sunday morning in a typical Pentecostal or evangelical service. We quickly get rid of them by the second day of Christmas – if not before! You see, I’ve witnessed a few pastors saying that they don’t want carols – they want worship – on Christmas morning at the Breaking of Bread. So, what’s the difference then between carols and ‘worship’? Is there one at all? And does our problem with carols say anything about today’s evangelical church?

Now, there are dud carols. But many of the carols we sing at Christmas are among the most biblical songs we sing all year, and are the richest in their theology and teaching. In churches where the Creed isn’t said all year, suddenly congregations break out heartily in song with the words:
God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s Womb.
Very God, begotten not created;
O Come let us adore Him!
In places where the songs are full of exclamations of praise to God, but rarely recount the wondrous works of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, suddenly voices proclaim:
Nail, spear shall pierce Him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you,
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.
In congregations where Scripture is never sung, once a year we gladly sing the paraphrase of Luke 2:8-15 (that’s While Shepherd’s Watched Their Flocks, by the way).

In places where often we speak of Christ’s birth and Incarnation but once a year, suddenly the room resounds with its vital importance:
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.
In churches where the focus for most of the year is on the might and power of God, suddenly voices break out in wonder at Christ’s humility in the Incarnation:
Emptied of His majesty,
Of His dazzling glories shorn,
Our being’s Source begins to be,
And God Himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of Man,
Now dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom Heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, look at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies
Low humbled to the dust He is,
And in a manger lies!
(Now, if the aversion to carols comes from a month of singing nothing but Silent Night and Away in A Manger, then so be it. But the solution isn’t to abandon the singing of Christmas carols, but to sing some of these ones which are so rich in biblical truth instead.)

Now, these great Christmas hymns, and many others like them, give glory, praise and thanks to the Triune God for who He is and what He has done for us and for our salvation. So they definitely fit into the model we have in the psalms and songs of Scripture for singing to God in worship. So why then do we have such a problem with them in worship today?

I think our problem is perhaps best illustrated by some of the ways we try to get round it. Other than simply abandoning carols in favour of ‘worship’, there are a few other ways people tackle this problem. One trusty method is simply to mix a few carols with a few worship songs, but that’s not the only way. I imagine if you grew up in a British Pentecostal church in the closing decades of the 20th Century, you’ll know immediately that the last chorus of O Come All Ye Faithful naturally morphs into a chorus of the same tune: ‘We’ll give Him all the Glory … For He alone is worthy…’. (Now, to that I, of course, have no objection, although it does illustrate our strange idea that the chorus of a hymn is somehow more ‘worshipful’. As a friend from church expressed it to me recently: ‘When we sing hymns, why does everyone lift up their hands for the chorus when the best words are usually in the verse?!’)

More recently I’ve heard a similar treatment given to Hark the Herald Angels Sing. But while the old additional choruses to O Come All Ye Faithful were at least in the spirit of the original song, the new chorus for Hark the Herald very much isn’t. In fact, I think that in one added chorus it reveals the whole problem between Christmas carols and contemporary notions of worship.

It goes like this:
King of heaven come down
King of heaven come now
Let Your glory reign
Shining like the day
King of heaven come
King of heaven rise up
Who can stand against us
You are strong to save
In Your mighty name
King of heaven come
Well, what could be wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, in a different context (it does, after all, sound a bit like a Psalm – although I’ll look at what this coming down and rising up language actually means in the Psalms in a subsequent post). But a lot when it’s added to Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Why? Because it turns our attention away from the Incarnation of Christ! It sends us to look for a God other than the One who has come in the flesh.

You see, Hark the Herald Angels Sing tells us of the King of Heaven who has already come down. He has come down ‘late in time’ as the ‘Offspring of a Virgin’s Womb’. He has come down ‘born in Bethlehem’ as ‘the Incarnate Deity’. And He has come down for a purpose: ‘that man no more may die.’ According to the song, He has already come down, and that coming down is in His Incarnation.

In fact, according to the hymn, He has already risen up as well. He is ‘risen with healing in His wings’ to bring ‘light and life to all’. This is an Incarnate rising up. It is His resurrection from the grave, conquering sin, death, hell and the devil. So, according to Hark the Herald, the ‘Heaven-born Prince of Peace’ who has come down and who has risen up, is the Incarnate Lord, and it is only in His Incarnation that He comes down and rises up ‘strong to save.’

But the chorus is looking away from the Incarnation to a spiritual coming down and rising up. And, you see, that’s the sort of language that, alas, so many of our worship songs are full of. That’s the sort of language that we’re so familiar with. So when we combine it with the language of incarnation that we rarely sing, and so are much less familiar with, it takes away the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the Incarnation. The Incarnation gets swallowed up by a mere spiritual coming down and rising up of God. God’s decisive action in the world through the Incarnation of Christ gets pushed into the background by a calling upon God to act outside of the Incarnation here and now.

That’s the problem of our worship. So much of our contemporary notion of worship is allergic to the Incarnation.  That’s why we can’t cope with Christmas carols on a Sunday morning, unless they’re interspersed with plenty of choruses. For worship has too often become about how we feel in the here and now, rather than about what God has done for us in Christ two thousand years ago in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Calvary.

(And this isn't a particularly new thing. As Pete Ward pointed out in his book Selling Worship, already back in Songs of Fellowship 1 'there is little or no reference to the Incarnation of Christ ... One quite remarkable song seems to suggest that the historical Christ is something of a distraction from spiritual experience in the present ... The humanity and life of Christ is thus bypassed.' p.136.)

This also explains the increasing awkwardness among many people when it comes to the place of the Lord’s Supper in worship – the Lord’s Supper, after all, relies on the Incarnation. When the focus is on the feeling of an encounter now outside of and apart from the Incarnation, it’s no wonder that in many people’s minds the singing has taken on the primary place in Christian worship at the expense of Word and Sacrament (where the Incarnate Christ has promised His presence).

The gospel is the good news of the God who took on flesh for us and for our salvation. Jesus Christ our Saviour, the Son and Word of God the Father, is and ever will be the Incarnate Christ. He has so joined our humanity to Himself that He will never abandon it (which assures us that He will never abandon us!). That means the only Saviour of whom we can sing is the Incarnate Saviour. The only salvation of which we can sing is the salvation found in the Word made flesh. The only Spirit on whom we can rely is the Spirit poured out by the Incarnate Christ and who glorifies the Incarnate Christ. The only Christ whom we can encounter is the Christ who has come in the flesh.

So, we don’t need to call on God for a new coming down and rising up to make our Christmas carols more worshipful. Instead rejoice that Christ has come down to us in His Incarnation and has risen up from death for us in His Resurrection. Join with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and the angel hosts in beholding the wonder and the glory of the Word made flesh.