Blog Note: The current series, The Meaning of Christmas, will focus on understanding the various terms and concepts related to Christmas. Some of the terms will come from songs, others from the Bible, and depending upon the time, perhaps some from culture. The first post in this series focused on songs which are listed as we sang them.
It has been said that whoever controls the vocabulary controls the culture. I believe that is largely true. For instance, I have certain pet peeves regarding the English language, but because I don’t have any control over the English language, I have no control over the culture. And frankly, I do not care about controlling culture, but some matters just do not make sense. And perhaps that is because most people either do not know or do not care about the study of the origin of words and the history of their changes which is otherwise known as etymology.
A part of this is true because most people, myself included, often only think about words in their language. In fact, many people do not even consider any other languages. Thus, when a word is heard, it must have originated in that language. And, in reality, what is important is knowing how to communicate in the language around us. It does not make sense for us to know ancient Sanskrit, because few people around the world even study it.
So we hear a word like “fly” and we may have to interpret if the person is talking about a noun (the insect) or a verb (what the fly does in the air; by the way, which came first, the noun or the verb?!?), but in context we can generally figure it out. And we can hear a word like grasshopper and assume that the name is because the insect hops on the grass. But other words may not make as much sense without a little thought. For instance, the word caterpillar. The insect does not look like a cat or pillar (bad pun), but instead derives its name from a combination of cat (and specifically a “hairy cat”) and an obsolete word piller which means to “ravage.” Thus, the word means “the hairy cat that ravages.”
Well, enough about insects. The point is that we often hear and say words that we might not always understand their meaning. And the same is true of Christmas. We sing songs and hear stories and do not always know what the words mean.
So, for the next few weeks, I am going to help us identify some of these words and attempt to explain their origin. In some cases, the words might be understood, but the full meaning might not. So, that is the goal of today and the next couple of weeks.
SONG: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
In the song O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. One of the terms in that song will be seen in a couple of other songs, so I will defer on that term. But the essence of this song is about pleading with God to come and take away the captivity. In many ways, the words will remind us of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Terms such as captive Israel and exile remind us of Egypt, (and later Babylon). The path can help us remember the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Envy, strife, and quarreling were a part of the challenges Moses had with the Israelites and caused a generation to miss out on entry to the Promised Land.
But the word in this song I want to mention is the word DaySpring. Some will hear this word and immediately think of the company that makes Christian cards and gifts. But why?
The word Dayspring was a common term 400 years ago when the King James Version was originally translated. The term is all but obsolete today, except in Christian terminology. It is used in Job 38.12 and Luke 1.78. In Job it is referring the rising of the sun. In Luke, Zechariah uses it to talk of the coming of the Messiah.
In the song, I believe the word has a double meaning. The verse does talk about removing the clouds and the darkness of the night, so in a practical sense, the writer is showing what a sunrise can do. But without a doubt, the term is meant to talk about the coming of the Son, Emmanuel, to be with us and take away the darkness and gloom in our lives. That is the true reason for the term in the song here.
Regardless of the terms, the real question we must ask ourselves in singing a song like this is, do we desire for God to come. Do we expect it? Throughout the centuries people have. The question is, “Do we?”
SONG: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
In the previous song, the term Emmanuel was used. In this song we have the name of Jesus. Now that name deserves a lot of study, but Matthew 1.21 provides the meaning – God saves.
The name for Jesus is actually Yeshua or Yoshua. I mentioned during our year-long study on the life of Jesus. The “J” did not come along for a few centuries and was used interchangeably with the “I” until it received its own sound (“juh”) in 1524. Thus, it is Jesus, or Yeshua, who leads the people into a land of promise, just like Joshua, or Yoshua, did in the Old Testament.
The phrase “Israel’s strength and consolation” is a reference to the Messiah. And this Messiah was born. Notice the word born is used four times in this short hymn – once in verse 1 and three times in verse 2.
In verse 2, it is all about Jesus as King. He was born not only to come and deliver (save), but to rule. Notice the kingly references in verse 2. He is King. He will reign. He has a gracious Kingdom. He will rule. He has a throne. And He, Jesus, has the merit to do so. That is, He is worthy.
He has saved us. He is King. The question is, will we offer our allegiance to the King?
SONG: Angels from the Realms of Glory
This song tells a wonderful story. It does contain one word (or phrase) we need to review, but I want to focus on the sequence first. I enjoy songs that flow from a sequence.
First, you have the angels. They began in the realms of glory. That is, they began above. They were there to sing the story of creation. They have watched God’s plan unfold from just after “In the beginning.”
The story then moves forward to the night of Jesus’ birth. But it also moves from the realms of glory to the fields surrounding Bethlehem. It moves from the awe-inspiring angels to the also-ran shepherds. It moves from those who are abiding with God to those who are abiding with sheep. But the story here says that these outcasts now have a chance to abide with God as well – because of Jesus.
Verse 3 moves back up the social scale. The sages, or wise men, are not on par with the angels, but society would hold them in much higher regard than the shepherds. These sages are to leave contemplations behind in order to seek something, or Someone, greater. This statement is not an indictment against knowledge; rather, it is a reminder that we must act on what we know. Specifically, they have seen the infant’s star and must choose what they will now do.
Finally, the story moves to the saints of all ages. Those saints include us. We are not saints (which means holy ones) because of ourselves. Rather we are like the shepherds in many ways. But God has brought us up in status by coming down to living among us, to live with us. Thus, we bend at the altar in confession and thanksgiving and expectation. We watch in hope and fear as long as it takes. We do so because just as Jesus came once, He has promised to come again.
The phrase is in this song is “desire of nations.” That phrase is found in Haggai 2.7. When we read this verse in the KJV, it appears as if the phrase means the Messiah. But the Hebrew word (khemdah) is a collective plural. That means that many things make up one. The problem is that we only have one Messiah (Christ). Thus, the true meaning of the word relates to wealth (NASB), or treasures (ESV). This idea is made more clear in verse 8 when God talks about the silver and the gold.*
*Some say that this verse has a double meaning and does refer to the Savior. The argument is made, in part, because of verse 9, when God talks about the glory of the house – the temple that is being rebuilt. The NT does call our bodies the temple and God dwells there through His Spirit, so this understanding may also be correct, though reading the context of Haggai 2 is talking about the physical temple at that time.
This phrase (desire of nations) is a great example of why we must not consider hymns as inerrant. The Bible is perfect. Hymns are not…even when they are based upon the Bible. Other than this phrase, the song is good. But with the phrase in question, the song really tells the sages to seek earthly wealth. This phrase is also why we are doing this short sermon series.
SONG: Mary, Did You Know?
The song Mary, Did You Know?, is a very profound song. The words within the song are simple enough, but most are filled with meaning that is beyond comprehension. That is, we might understand what the words mean, but it is nearly impossible to grasp the meaning of what they say. For instance, the phrase, “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God,” or “the sleeping child your holding is the great I AM,” are absolutely mind-numbing ideas to consider!
But again, the words themselves are straightforward. So, for this song, I am not going to speak on individual words. Instead, I am going to try to answer the question, what did Mary know? Or what could Mary have known? (1)
Perhaps she knew the Old Testament well. We have evidence of this in the Magnificat – Latin for Magnify. Luke 1.46-47 says, “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” So, Mary knew God. And God knew Mary. But we do not know specifically what she knew from the Old Testament. In Luke 1, however, we do find some specifics about what she did know because of what the angel, Gabriel, told her.
Read Luke 1.31-35.
What was Mary told?
- She would conceive. She would have a son who was to be called Jesus.
- The son would be the Son of the Most High (that is, God). He will inherit David’s throne.
- He will reign over the house of Jacob (that is, Israel) forever.
- His kingdom will never end.
- The Holy Spirit will come upon her and impregnate her.
- Elizabeth will also have a child.
- Nothing is impossible for God.
What did Mary know previously?
- Virgins cannot bear children. (v. 34)
- Trust what God says. (v. 38)
So, Mary did not know explicitly what the lyrics in the song ask. She certainly would have wondered what it meant to be a virgin mother. She would have wondered what kind of mom she could be to the Son of the God of the universe. And if she knew passages like Isaiah 61.1-3, which she might have, she would have a clue as to what Messiah would do. But I do not think she truly had any idea.
Why do I say that?
Because in Mark 3, she goes to rescue Jesus (Mark 3.31-35, cf. Matthew 12.46-49). As a mother, this may make sense. But Jesus is not a man in need of rescue. He is the man who came to rescue us. And, doing things that only the Messiah could do, things like healing a blind and deaf man and challenging the religious leaders who claimed He was Satan (see Mark 3.22-30, cf. Matthew 12.22-45), were bound to get Him into trouble. But the kind of trouble Jesus was far beyond what a pleading mom could do.
So, while the song is a great song, the answer to the questions is that she probably knew little of what having a son, the Son, could mean.
We may not know exactly what Mary knew? But we know that the people longed for Messiah. We have sung songs today that were written long after Jesus came; however, they depict a desire that would have been present for many in the 1st Century. We must consider if our longing is similar. We may not know exactly what they knew or expected. But we can know what happened. We can not only know that Jesus came, but we should understand fully why He came…what He did, and how He did it.
And, then we have a choice. And that choice is to believe and to long for His return. Or to carry on about our business as if what Jesus did doesn’t really matter.
The JOURNEY letter for today is: J – JESUS.
Immanuel – God with us. Jesus – God saves. And because of that salvation, we have the opportunity to be with God forever – not when we die, but now. God did not come in the person of Jesus so we could be with Him later. Immanuel does not mean God will be with us someday…it means God with us. As in NOW. And that truth is made possible because of Jesus.
Thus, as Mary said, so shall we, “‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior’” (Luke 1.46-47).
PRINCIPLE: Words matter. People matter. And that is why God came to us to save us!
QUESTION: Do you know you matter enough to Jesus that He came to earth to save you?
OPPORTUNITY: Realize how important you, and others, are to Jesus.
NEXT STEP(S): LEARN. Take time to gain a deeper understanding of the words of Christmas so you can better appreciate the gift that God has given us – and share that gift with others.
1) You can find an excellent article which captures this idea at https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/what-did-mary-know