Christmas is just around the corner, a season perfect for refocusing our attention on Christ and his incarnation. God the Father sent his Son to earth to redeem his people, and Jesus accomplished that mission through his perfect life and sinless sacrifice on the cross.
Christmas is also a time for singing. I always look forward to this time of year because during this season we get to sing some of the most beautiful hymns in the Christian tradition—songs full of precious truths about God in flesh coming to atone for the sins of the world.
During the Christmas season, our focus on Christ’s mission on earth should motivate our mission as well. Jesus prayed in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Just as Christ was responsible to accomplish the mission his Father sent him to do, so we who Christ sent into the world are responsible to accomplish what he commanded of us, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
It’s no surprise, then, that Christmas hymns are full of references to the nations.
In one of the earliest Christian hymns ever written, Ambrose of Milan composed in the fourth century, “Savior of the nations, come, virgin’s Son, make here thy home!” Known today as the “Father of Latin Hymnody,” Ambrose set a pattern for other hymn writers to focus Christmas hymns on the nations.
“Let’s allow the hymns of Christmas to create a longing within us for the day when Christ will redeem the nations.”
The Angels’ Song to the Nations
Several Christmas hymns remind us of what the angels themselves sang to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. As John Byrom recounts in his 1749 “Christians, Awake!.”
Then to the watchful shepherds it was told,
who heard th’angelic herald’s voice, “Behold,
I bring good tidings of a Savior’s birth
to you and all the nations of the earth;
this day hath God fulfilled his promised Word;
this day is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” penned by Charles Wesley in 1739, calls the nations to join in with the angels’ song, rejoicing in the incarnation of Christ.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise;
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark, the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
These hymns remind us that Christ came, not only to the people of Israel but also to redeem people from all nations, and this is cause for great rejoicing.
Calling Magi from the Nations
Other Christmas hymns relate the calling of magi from other nations to come and adore the Christ child. For example, the familiar hymn, “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” written by James Montgomery in 1816, begins with a focus on the angels but then calls magi from the East to worship the newborn King.
Sages, leave your contemplations;
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star:
come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King!
“The Christmas season and its beloved hymns should propel us on our mission to spread the gospel to all nations.”
Prophecy of the Redemption of the Nations
Montgomery’s reference to Christ as “the great Desire of nations” explains one of the key reasons Christmas hymns often have the nations in view: prophecies of Christ’s coming foretell the redemption of all nations. Montgomery’s phrase is a quote from a Messianic prophecy in Haggai 2:7, “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts” (KJV). The prophet foresaw the day when the “treasure of all nations” would come and deliver the nations from oppression.
Charles Wesley quoted this phrase in his 1744 hymn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear Desire of ev’ry nation,
joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Christ’s Future Rule of the Nations
Many Christmas hymns not only celebrate Christ’s arrival, they lead us to anticipate Christ’s return. While Christ’s first coming accomplished atonement on the cross, the final redemption of the nations will take place at his second coming.
For instance, Paul Gerhardt reminds us in “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” that when Jesus comes again, “He comes to judge the nations.” Those from the nations who reject Christ will be condemned, but another hymn by James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” gives us hope.
Kings shall fall down before him,
and gold and incense bring;
all nations shall adore him,
his praise all people sing;
for he shall have dominion
o’er river, sea, and shore,
far as the eagle’s pinion
or dove’s light wing can soar.
Montgomery’s hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 72, a Messianic psalm predicting the future reign of Christ over all people he has redeemed from every nation.
This is similarly expressed in what is likely one of the most well-known hymns associated with Christmas, Isaac Watts’s 1719 “Joy to the World.” Watts paraphrased another Messianic psalm for this hymn, Psalm 98. Like Montgomery, Watts anticipates the day when Christ will reign perfectly over all the nations, when “his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love.
As we enjoy the Christmas season’s focus on our Savior’s incarnation, let’s allow the hymns of Christmas to create a longing within us for the day when Christ will redeem the nations. But until then, this season and its beloved hymns should propel us on our mission to spread the gospel to all nations.
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and serves as the editor of Artistic Theologian, a scholarly journal of worship and church ministry. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol.
The featured image is a 15th century illuminated manuscript by the Master of the Riccardiana Lactantius. Gift of Louis L. Lorillard, 1896, transferred from the Library. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.