THE FIRST NOEL

Birthday! Birthday!

That God should take upon Himself our humanity and walk among us, that is the breathtaking reality we celebrate at the Christmas season. As the Apostle John puts it, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). Even God's revelation about the virgin birth (Matt. 1:22-23), and the supernatural conception of the Baby through a work of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35) does little to lessen the mystery and the wonder of it. It is no wonder Mary exclaimed, when she was told of God's plan, "How can this be?" (Lk. 34).

The saints have celebrated this amazing event since the beginning. No doubt Mary and Joseph had their own time of rejoicing, though it is not recorded for us. The first celebration of which the Bible speaks is that of the angels. Their "Glory to God in the highest!" (Lk. 2:14) is later echoed by the shepherds who returned from the stable "glorifying and praising God" (Lk. 2:20). Beyond the bounds of Holy Scripture, dozens of hymns and carols have been created to express the joyful praise of God's people at the birth of Christ. One of these is so old a precise record of its origin has been lost. Written anywhere from 300 to 600 years ago, we know it as "The First Noel." (To see the full text, click here: link ) The word "noel" (in old English, "nowell") means birthday. It is intended in the refrain of the carol as a fourfold shout of joy, "Birthday! Birthday! Birthday! Birthday! Born is the King of Israel!" In England, centuries ago, traveling troubadours (folk singers) went from town to town sharing the news and telling stories in song. The whole community would gather to hear them. One of the songs originating at that time (today's carol) proclaimed the news of Christ's birth. Eventually, someone carried it across the English Channel, and the French spelling "Noel" was adopted. The tune and lyrics as we now have them were first published in 1833.

The song begins, "The first Noel, the angel did say, / Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay; / In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, / On a cold winter's night that was so deep." The originator of this carol was clearly excited about the birth of the Saviour. But his Bible knowledge was limited. It should be remembered that the Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500) are referred to as the Dark Ages for good reason. Copies of God's Word were relatively scarce--especially before Gutenberg's invention of the modern printing press (around 1455). Fanciful legends and superstitions encrusted the biblical record. This accounts for the fact that the carol, in its second stanza, has the shepherds following the star to Bethlehem!

But what the story teller lacked in knowledge of the event he somewhat makes up for in his application. His message to his listeners is: "Then let us all with one accord, / Sing praises to our heav'nly Lord; / That hath made heaven and earth of naught, / And with His blood mankind hath bought." Consider this verse, and you will see it has captured some important truths. Christ is "our heavenly Lord." That speaks of His sovereign rule over us, and perhaps of His deity as well (Matt. 1:23; Acts 10:36). He "made heaven and earth of naught." Not only is He the Creator of all, but He created all things out of "naught" (nothing). He called all that is into existence by His word (Jn. 1:3; Heb. 11:3). And finally, there is His redeeming sacrifice on the cross. He is the One who "with His blood mankind hath bought" (I Pet. 1:18-19; I Jn. 1:7b) That is reason to celebrate above all, and to "sing praises to our heavenly Lord."