Thought for the Day by Kevin Ward (St Michael’s)
HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING
In the English Hymnal you can still see the original version of this hymn, Hark how all the welkin rings. (Number 23)
Welkin refers to the sky, the clouds. It proclaims that the heavens above rejoice at the birth of Christ here on earth, But perhaps, even in the 18th century, the word Welkin was already archaic. The Wesleys’ fellow evangelist George Whitfield replaced it by the now more familiar Hark, the herald Angels sing, referring to the choir of angels that sang to the shepherds on Christmas night. The angels proclaimed Peace on Earth and goodwill to all. Wesley also hints at the Annunciation when Gabriel tells Mary to call her son, Jesus, the saviour who will reconcile ‘God and sinners’.
It is this revised version that has become essential for Christmas services. Even the English Hymnal places this version immediately after the original, as Number 24. I think its unlikely that the original version is much sung.
The first verse simply rehearses Luke’s story of the shepherds, rather like While Shepherds Watch their Flocks by Night. Then , in verse 2, Wesley attempts to ‘sound the depths of love divine’ (to quote his great hymn And can it be?) . He expresses this powerfully:’Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!’
The event of Christmas is certainly the birth of a vulnerable little child. But it is also the time when God chose to take human flesh, to become one with us, to share our humanity. God becomes clothed (veiled) in flesh (in-carnation). God is with us, Emmanuel.
In the third verse, Wesley applies the message of Christmas to us here and now. ’Mild he lays his glory by’. The eternal God had no need to become a frail, mortal human bring. But, in his love for humankind, he choose to dwell with us, to become human, so that we might recover our true humanity, so that we can fulfil the purpose for which we were created from the beginning; so that we can be remade in God’s image. We are given an eternal destiny as children of God. We now share in his divinity, precisely because he shared our humanity, and lived a life of joy and sadness, sickness, and health, bounded by death.
This is the true wonder of Christmas, and it is indeed a mystery of God’s love which we can hardly grasp. In the words of yet another glorious Charles Wesley hymn, Love divine, all loves excelling: ‘Visit us with thy salvation. Enter every trembling heart.’
We’re helped to begin to sound the depths of love divine by the glorious tune of Felix Mendelssohn, which the Methodist Hymn Book entitles ‘Berlin’, the place where Mendelssohn lived in his youth, and where he revived some of J.S. Bach’s great choral works. Anglican hymn books simply call the tune ‘Mendelssohn’. Felix Mendelssohn was a man of Jewish descent and Lutheran baptism, and his Festgesang, originally composed as a festival chorus, is a worthy complement to Wesley’s great hymn of praise.