When the hymns at my parish are more traditional ones, I like to thank the music director after the service.
I’m grateful to hear these older hymns because their words often hold powerful lessons that leave me with a lot to think about for the rest of the day.
Just look at the lyrics for O God Beyond All Praising, for example. They’re rich with meaning and beauty, offering a blueprint for how to face daily challenges with courage and trust in God.
Yesterday a conversation with my young kids struck me with how much these older songs have to teach us, when we stop to really think about what they mean.
Paying closer attention to those old familiar Christmas songs is doing a lot to prepare my heart for the upcoming holiday.
A familiar song heard anew
It all started when I was helping my young kids learn some Christmas songs for an upcoming school performance. My daughter in first grade is working to memorize “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
At first we were just singing the songs together to help her learn the words and melody. But when we got to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” I realized she didn’t really know what she was singing.
“Do you know what ‘herald’ means?” I asked her.
“Is it like Harold and the Purple Crayon?” my preschooler piped up, citing her current favorite bedtime story.
“No,” I laughed, so I began to go through the song slowly, line by line and word by word, to explain what it meant to my children. And to my amazement, it felt like I was hearing it for the first time too.
Here are the lyrics in case you want a little refresher:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful all ye nations rise
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”
A global victory
We started simple: “Hark” means “listen,” and “herald” means “messenger.”
“Listen! The messenger angels are singing! What are they telling us?” I asked. Glory to God was pretty straightforward, but then we got to the next surprise.
“God and sinners reconciled. What do you think that means?” We talked about how people can become separated from God by their choices, but God came to earth so that he could be close to us. “‘Reconciled’ means they come back together.”
The next two lines left me with chills. “‘Joyful, all ye nations, rise,’” I began.
“Why does it say ‘ye nations?’” one of my kids interjected.
“Ye means you. Joyful, all you nations. That means everyone on earth,” I said. ‘Now, “Join the triumph of the skies.’ Triumph means victory, a win. The angels are telling us to come join them in a great big celebration going on in heaven and around the whole world.”
“Wow, so the whole planet is winning because Jesus is born?” my daughter said.
“Yes… yes it is.” I’d never quite thought of it that way before, but I went on slowly, “Yes, the whole earth had a big victory over everything bad that day. Goodness won when Jesus was born.”
As we finished singing and went about our day, I found myself pondering the beautiful words we had sung. Somehow Christmas felt even more thrilling through the words of the song, as my kids understood them.
Those herald angels are still bringing us their good, good message today.
I’m so grateful that my kids are learning these beautiful hymns. And it seems that a great way to appreciate old familiar lyrics is to explain the words to a young child.
With their fresh perspective and innocent understanding, these little ones make all things new.