. . . And Peace on Earth

Many hymnals have a large section devoted to Christmas. In actual practice, this section gets used throughout Advent (thereby shortchanging the character of Advent). If you take a few moments to page through the Christmas carols and hymns in almost any hymnal, you’ll find that narrative and folksy, sentimental lyrics easily outweigh songs with a theological treatment of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation. We’re served with “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and their many equivalents, for better or for worse. The theological profundity of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is rare among our Christmas songs.

After you’re done paging through the Christmas section of your hymnal, I invite you to take a look at the Easter section too—just for comparison. In that section you’re likely to find numerous theological convictions about the resurrection of Christ, relatively few narrative Easter hymns, and no sentimental ones. While you’re at it, recall the kinds of Christmas cards you receive and send out, and contrast those with the Easter cards you may have seen. Most likely you’ll notice a similar pattern there: the Easter cards are far more likely to focus on theological themes than are the Christmas cards.

I believe we could use a few more theologically exact lyrics for Christmas.

Let’s look at some specific examples. When paging through the Christmas songs, did you find any lyrics describing the humility and servant role of Christ when he became human (see Phil. 2:6-11)? Instead we have “Away in a Manger,” in which “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”—a song whose moralism is as bad as its potential denial of Jesus’ humanity. Most hymnal editors omit the most glaring example of moralism by deleting the stanza from “Once in Royal David’s City” that includes the following couplet: “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he.” But many still include “The First Noël,” whose unbiblical scrambling of shepherds, the star, and wise men in its opening stanzas is matched by similar artwork on Christmas cards that portray shepherds standing side by side with wise men at the manger. Does snow really fall in Bethlehem, or does that happen only in “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and in the dusting of fake snow on our Christmas crèches? And where are the lament hymns about the Bethlehem babies?

One of the great marvels of the Christmas gospel is the song of the angels recorded by Luke: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). When these lyrics became part of the larger “Gloria in excelsis Deo” text of the mass, composers past and present often take great word-painting delight in contrasting the “glory in heaven” on high notes versus the “peace on earth” on low notes. Handel does the same in “Glory to God” in his oratorio Messiah. And hymnic versions of the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” certainly feature both “glory” and “peace,” as in the song “All Glory Be to God on High,” for example.

But now take a look at “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Here we find a folksy text in the stanzas, rooted in the Christmas gospel of Luke 2, and the famous Latin refrain “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” This refrain, however, only exalts God “in the highest” and omits entirely the complementary “peace on earth.” God is praised in the abstract, and John’s testimony that “we have seen his glory” in Christ’s ministry on earth (John 1:14) or Paul’s teaching about Christ as “our peace” (Eph. 2:14-18) is ignored.

We’ve been singing this truncated version of Luke 2:14 for some 150 years—which really gets into our collective consciousness that it’s OK to sing “glory to God” but ignore the corollary “peace on earth.” So perhaps it should not surprise us that the much more recent Taizé round “Gloria, Gloria” continues to perpetuate the same error: there’s a delightful four-part harmony to express “glory to God” but no voice that sings of “peace on earth.”

Where are the great hymns of “peace on earth”? Did you come across a large section devoted to shalom, righteousness, and social justice while you were paging through the hymnal? Although this is one of the great themes of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Amos, and in Mary’s song in the New Testament, it is noticeably scarce in Protestant hymnody. And where are the hymns that encourage us to be peacemakers (see Matt. 5:9)? As Jay Howard points out in his book The Message in the Music, while contemporary Praise & Worship hymns have some fabulous lyrics about “glory to God,” they exhibit the same paucity about “peace on earth” as is found in the classic hymn tradition.

For now, let’s get back to our two “Gloria” hymns and offer alternative versions: an English translation and addition for the second half of the refrain of “Angels We Have Heard on High” [see example 1], and a second stanza for the Taizé “Gloria” round [see example 2]. As “Angels We Have Heard on High” is so encrusted in our memories, you might try the alternate text first with a soloist or the choir, and then invite your congregation to join their “glory to God” with “peace on earth.”

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 93 © September 2009, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.