Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

MilkyWayStones
There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

Of Noel and Becoming Certained

Here is a challenge for you. Find the origin of “Noel.” There are a respectable breadth and shallow depth of information on where this word came from. While today we use it commonly as a synonym for Christmas, agreement pretty well ends after that. Uncertain roots and meanings do not seem to inhibit the use of the word “Noel” this time of year.

I expected general consensus that Noel was of French derivation. A little research, however, turns up a competing claim that the word has a Gaelic or Celtic source. That need not disprove the theory of a French origin, since many Celtic peoples lived in France (or Gaul) before the Romans came, and many who today live in the northwestern parts of France trace their genealogies to Celtic roots, especially in Brittany.

Another French origin theory links the word to Latin, but here again opinion diverges. One school traces Noel from the Latin word natalis, suggesting a meaning derived from a reference to birth, particularly celebration of the birth of the Savior.

The other French-from-Latin line takes us to Nowell, and from there to Nouvelles, referring to the Latin word for “news”: novella, as in the good news of Christ’s birth. With no personal claim to expertise in the science of etymology, I will admit to a preference for this derivation. Aware of the French way of smoothing out Latin words, Nowell sounds like a very understandably French form of Novella. Moreover, we have Medieval and Renaissance carols using the words Nouvelles and Nowell in much the same way that Noel is used in more modern carols. In each case, the word is sung as a way of proclaiming joyous news, which fits very well with today’s French greeting of the season, Joyeux Noel! Good news also happens to be related to the meaning of “Gospel” (which, by the way, comes from old English).

Which brings me to the popular carol, “The First Noel” (perhaps translated from the French), which begins like this:

The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
[and so forth].

Children love to sing Christmas carols. The carols, after all, have laid claim to some of the most memorable melodies. The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children. Through many years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective. In my young mind it described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds. The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.

While I was not sure what it meant “to certain” the shepherds, today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb. Why the angel chose those shepherds and perhaps not some others who might have been nearby seems to me less important than his purpose. The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to be witnesses. The angel explained to the shepherds what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally. Immediately afterward they shared what they knew.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:8-17)

The Lord wants us to believe His word, but He wants our belief to mature into certainty, into knowledge. As the Savior Himself prayed to the Father in the presence of His disciples,

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.

Wherefore I give you to understand, . . . that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Similarly, in our day, the Lord would that we had living faith grown to knowledge through the Holy Ghost. As the ancient American prophet, Moroni, testified,

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)

I, too, have been certained. I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ was resurrected and is the Savior of the world. I am not alone in that knowledge. Many have believed and had belief confirmed by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.

This Christmas season—or any season—I invite you to become certained, as were those poor shepherds and millions of God’s children before and since. For you, like them, that would be discovering the true Noel of Christmas.