Christmas Carols and Unexpected Grace

The other morning while running on a treadmill at the local gym, I was jarred out of my early morning daze by a line sung by Chanticler, a famous men’s a cappella group who were performing for the Today Show.  The line that stirred me was one I, like many of you, have heard and sung a hundred times or more: “”¦Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel”¦”

This familiar phrase from the 19th century Christmas classic, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, written originally by Methodist composer John Wesley in the 18th century, eloquently evokes subtle but profound messages of the Christmas season: that God became human”¦better: that God was pleased to become human”¦better still: that God was pleased to dwell with us–Jesus, our Emmanuel.  And still another subtle message hit home for me: That we humans are pleased by this as well.  I spent much of the rest of the day reflecting on what it means that God, in Jesus, was (is) pleased to dwell among us and asking myself: how do I show my pleasure that this is so?

This experience has caused me to pay closer attention to the subtle theological messages of the Advent and Christmas songs (carols) we hear and sing in both sacred and secular settings and to recognize that they can be moments of unexpected grace—even in the gym.  Rather than taking them for granted, perhaps I can be more attuned to their poetic theology.  Perhaps, too, I can think about singing them over and over again, not as a chore, but rather as an opportunity for prayerful Ignatian repetition and grace.

I am curious to hear from my fellow readers of What are the Christmas messages that arise for you when you let yourself experience the carols of this season?


  1. Thank you for helping one to remember how it is to experience the carols of the season.
    “O Holy Night” stirs my soul like no other. Into the darkness comes our salvation and the answer to our eternal longing. ‘Fall on your knees’! Emmanuel has come. Alleluia!
    I am filled with the sense of wonder and gratitude.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. I awoke this morning with that Carol running through my head. It is a wonderful song in itself, but it also brings back so many memories of Christmas when I was a child. I remember practicing the Christmas songs in class in my Catholic elementary school, and that increased the anticipation of the Day, and this was one of my favorites.
    Now in my eight decade, it reminds me that, inspite of all going on in the world and the church, we still come to celebrate “joyful and triumphant” that the Lord comes again – every moment of every day.

  3. As a member of our parish choir,I listen to a wide range of Christmas songs. I have to say there so many great Christmas songs that listening to Christmas song and understanding the words can be a great way help with spontaneous prayer.
    Having said that, I think my favorite is still the simple but moving O Come All Ye Faithful/Adeste Fideles. To me I thinking of it as the call we all have to come and ponder the mysteries at Bethlehem so many years ago….it becomes the call to consider the humble birth of “him born the King of Angels… God of God Light.”

  4. I had just finished reading your post and was thinking what a great idea to think about the words of a favorite carol and find greater meaning when out of the blue my almost four year old grandaughter started singing Hark the Hearld Angels Sing. I am stunned because there was no mention of anything pretaining to Christmas. So needless to say I will be reading yht words to that carol.

  5. I’ve always preferred “Angels We Have Heard on High” to the more popular (judging by times played at different churches through the years) “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” chorus is a wonderful expression of Christmas. Your post prompted me to look at the words of the entire song more closely, and I noticed that the joyous expression welcoming the King is contrasted by the fourth verse’s reminder to “See Him in a manger laid.” Jesus came into the world as a humble child who had to rest in a feeding trough. That reminder of humility even as we celebrate the arrival of the Lord is another reason to like the song.

  6. I especially like “Joy to the World.” “Joy” has two meanings in the song: we feel joy at Christ’s coming. But also Christ is joy. I like to think about Christmas that way–the coming of joy to a world that needs joy very badly. The song also talks about our response to Christ’s coming: “Let every heart prepare him room.”


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