One of the best loved Christmas Carols is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Rightfully so. Charles Wesley, brother to the great Anglican evangelist, John Wesley, wrote the original lyrics in 1739. It’s a classic, even though adapted from its initial version. I still sing it with joy every Christmas, realizing the meaning of the original opening line.
A little-known fact is that Wesley’s version of the first sentence of the carol was actually, Hark How all the Welken Rings. The word welken is Middle English for heavens. The version altered and eventually handed down to us was modified in 1758 by George Whitefield. He was the Calvinist associate of the Wesleys, another Anglican evangelist. He changed the first line to, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
The difference from heavens to angels on the face of it may seem insignificant. In reality the change loses the full force of not only the original biblical scene, but Wesley’s interpretation of it. Nothing against angels; they were indeed there gloriously singing the Gloria in Excelsis. The shift in language, nevertheless, loses something of the enormous cosmic and sacramental elements of the birth of Jesus Christ. For starters, heavens is more than the angels involved in the Incarnation.
To understand the dynamic difference of terminology, we should first consider the biblical passage on which the carol is based. The combination of the text and the theology of it, clarifies to whom and to what are the clouds of the heavens where angels dwell. The text is St. Luke’s account of the visitation of the Angel of the Lord to the shepherds in the field.
The verses say that when the angel appeared, “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” a multitude of the heavenly host” joined him “praising God,” and they sang The Song of the Angels, as it’s also called. When the heavenly chorus stopped, St. Luke records that the angels “went away from them into heaven” (Luke 2:9). Yet he does not say that this heaven left them. It remained open releasing a series of miracles.
A mysterious star appears, descends over the place of Christ’s birth, and leads kings from the east to the Christ Child. An evil king is thwarted. The Son of God is born in a manger amidst animals. The place of feeding became the food of the world. All of creation ends up beckoned into service of the Incarnation. This is the point of Wesley’s use of heavens and not only the angels. Whatever these heavens of heavens were and are, as the Ancient Church referred to them, much more was occurring than only singing angels.
If one reads the passage of Luke 2 observantly, the heavens that opened unveiled the glory of God. This was not simply the heaven as we know it by the term, sky. It was more. Rather, this heaven is what Wesley means when he says in first line of the second stanza, “Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.” At the same time, that which we know as sky to the naked eye was apparently enveloped by the highest heaven. The implications are much more cosmic and sacramental with the word welken as Wesley conveys in his carol.
First, let’s understand what the Scriptures mean when referring to the highest heaven. It is what the Bible calls the glory cloud of God. It is the glory space around the throne of the Triune God. Hence, when this highest heaven opened to the shepherds, we’re told and the angel of the Lord appeared, and more importantly, “glory shown all around.” Clearly this is the heaven to which Wesley refers in his carol when he says, “Christ by highest heaven adored.”
Elsewhere in Scripture, this glory cloud is described in much the same way. A cloud of glory led Israel. It was just any cloud. It appeared as a cloud by day and fire by night. Eventually it came surrounded the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Angels were in this cloud. Cherubim stood at the four corners of the mercy seat extending their wings to form a canopy over it.
Ezekiel saw into the same glory cloud with considerable detail provided, as recorded in the first chapter of his prophetic book. On the inside, Ezekiel observed a throne, a sea of glass, myriads of angels, and the same massive cherubim with faces of an ox, a human, a lion and an eagle. Their wings canopied altar throne on which the Lord God Almighty sat (Ezekiel 1). The fiery light of His presence penetrated the whole glory throne room.
Isaiah the Prophet is also ushered into the highest heavens, resulting in his getting low and declaring, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6). St. John is also allowed to see and even enter into the same glory cloud. Not surprisingly he records identical phenomena presenting continuity between the heavenly worship of the Old and New Testaments. St. John even witnesses all the company of heaven bowing before God and saying exactly what Isaiah heard.
From the outside looking in, the glory cloud as described by Ezekiel and John, as well as other places in Scripture, is like an enormous raging cloud. This is why the Israelites saw what led them as a cloud by day and a fire by night. Elijah hid from this glory cloud in the cleft of a rock as it passed by him in the form of a storm, from which the Living God spoke to him. It is cosmic of enormous proportions. When it appears, it swallows up earthly sky as we know it.
To be even more biblically precise, the glory cloud is not an inanimate object. It is personal as in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Third Person of the Godhead throughout the Scriptures is actually the One who creates the glory space around the Living God seated on the altar throne. For this reason in the Old Testament He is called the Shekinah Glory. His fiery presence creates the glory of God. At Pentecost He births the Church where we’re told a great cloud filled the Temple. It is this very glory cloud that fills the Temple. The same the highest heaven opens upon the Apostles (Acts 2).
Wesley captures this presence of the Person of the Holy Spirit in welken in the second stanza of his carol. He says, “Light and Life to All he brings, Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.” Whose wings would these be?
They are the wings of the loving Dove of Heaven, the Holy Spirit, descending in the glorious cloud surrounding the shepherds to bring healing to the earth. The Holy Spirit surrounded the angels and all the shepherds that birth night. He came with the birth of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the wings of His presence that convey the glory of God shinning all around. More than simply the angels were present, and much more was happening than their singing, on that sacred birth night. Hence the word welken!
Second, with a more complete understanding of what was happening biblically and theologically when glory shone around the shepherds, we can begin to grasp the cosmic and sacramental effects of the Incarnation. This is what Wesley’s great hymn is about. Again, Wesley’s original version helps us to grasp this emphasis.
In the second half of the first stanza of Wesley’s lyrics we find the words: “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumph of the Skies, Universal Nature say, ‘CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!’” It’s true that Whitefield’s version says, “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumphs of the Skies; Nature rise and worship him, Who is born at Bethlehem.”
Whitefield could not escape the complete force of Wesley’s powerful insight. He says, “Nature rise and worship Him.” His version, however, does not entirely capture the sacramental implication of the cosmic reality of the highest heavens opening around the shepherds. Yes, all of creation worships the newborn Christ. There is so much more, however, in Wesley’s version.
We find in his language, “Universal Nature says, ‘Christ the Lord is born this Day!’” That is, creation in some sense speaks. Heaven is swallowed up by the highest heaven, the glory cloud of God. All of creation is sacramentally restored by the coming of Jesus Christ to be what it was originally intended.
God initially made the created world to convey the spiritual, His presence. In the pages of the creation account in Genesis, God did not simply create a symbolic, physical world and then leave it run in some Deistic sense. Rather, God was really present in, with and through His creation. A Tree of Life was there with His presence such that to partake of it would have given eternal life. Then too, God walked in the garden.
No doubt after the fall of humanity, some sense of God’s presence was lost from the earth. Yet even St. Paul tells the early Church at Rome that all of creation is revelational. It so bears the fingerprints of God that even the Doctrine of the Divine Trinity is embedded in the natural order (Romans 1:11ff.). He goes on to explain that so powerful is God’s presence with nature that humans worship the creation instead of the Creator. The two are not to be confused even though one is conveyed by the other.
Nevertheless, the reality of God’s presence in the natural order was always intended to be there. Heaven participates in earth and vice versa. It is this heavenly participation between the highest heavens and shepherd’s fields that is restored at the Incarnation. In the words of Wesley, “Universal nature say, ‘Christ is born this Day!’”
Through the Incarnation, God once again used the physical to convey the spiritual. The world and its sky was overcome by the highest heavens. To begin with, Mary the Blessed Mother had already become Theotokos, God-Bearer. The highest heaven had opened to her. God became the physical, Man. He was born of this Holy Virgin when heaven opened again.
Furthermore, the highest heaven would continue to be opened as a result of the Incarnation. At Jesus’s baptism the waters of the earth were re-valorized to be used in a sacred way. His baptism is remarkably similar to His birth.
At this event, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove on Jesus (Luke 2:21). Is it any wonder that Jesus would later associate birth with baptism and a new birth! Thus, the Ancient Church emphasized the highest heaven opens at Holy Baptism, replicating Incarnational birth, only it’s the second birth for the one receiving it. With consecrated water, the baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity are really incorporated into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6).
Then too, the creation is used to feed the People of God in the New Covenant. When Bread and Wine are consecrated, they mystically become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. As He Himself declared over Bread and Wine at the Last Supper with those immortal words, “This is My Body; This is My Blood!” (Matthew 26). In short, in and by the Incarnation heaven really participates in earth and vice versa once again. The physical conveys the spiritual that it was originally intended to do. “Universal nature says, ‘Christ is born today!’”
Sadly, the later version of Wesley’s powerful carol based on Whitefield’s alteration, comes down to us today. The sacramentality of creation is somewhat denuded, though not completely. The version most of us know says, “Join the triumph of the skies, With the angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.’” There is indeed a triumph of skies which we commemorate at Christ’s Mass, Christmas. We can still enjoy this great carol. Perhaps though, we can now read those words, “Join the triumph of the skies,” with a fuller comprehension of what Wesley intended.
Even more, we can sing with joy the rest of Wesley’s great carol: “Mild he lays his Glory by, Born—that Man no more may die, Born—to raise the Sons of Earth, Born—to give them Second Birth”! So sacramental is the opening of the highest heavens at the Incarnation, the collect for Christmas Day via the celebration of Christ’s birth calls us back to our second birth in Holy Baptism:
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
May the welken ring anew for all of us this Christmas!