RPM, Volume 10, Number 52, December 21 to December 27 2008

The Christmas-Easter Connection

Meditations on
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"

By Kenneth Taylor

Mr. Taylor's interests include theology and worship. He, a collector of hymnals and books of worship, analyzes these volumes for their theological content and in their historical and sociological contexts. Mr. Taylor, a convert to from The United Methodist Church to The Episcopal Church, attends St. Gregory the Great Church in Athens, Georgia, where he sings in the choir and serves as a Lay Eucharistic Minister. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: "Tis dearness that gives everything its value. Thomas Paine, The Crisis, #1 (December 23, 1776)
A few Christmas Eves ago in Tifton, Georgia, I saw the following arrangement in a church: a manger placed in front of a high altar, which stood in front of a huge Christus Rex. (The Christus Rex, or Christ the King, is a cross featuring the triumphant Jesus wearing a crown and priestly robes). This scene summarized much of the story of Jesus: birth, sacrifice, and priest-king. It expressed the Christmas-Easter connection eloquently. 1

The earthly story of Jesus, as the canonical Gospel writers told it, began with the Annunciation and ended with the Ascension, with the promise of the Second Coming. These authors, writing after the fact of Jesus' earthly life, included foreshadowing of the events of Holy Week and Easter in their texts. They must have considered these details more important than certain others, for they omitted many matters that might interest modern readers of biographies. What interesting childhood pranks did Jesus play? We do not know, although the author of one justly non-canonical work, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, provided some creative answers to that question in the Second Century of the Common Era. 2 Yet such details did not further the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Gospels concerned with greater matters. One example of foreshadowing occurs in Luke 2:34-35, where Simeon, speaking of the newborn Jesus, told Mary:

This child is destined to be a sign that will be rejected; and you too will be pierced to the heart. Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him; and so the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare. 3

Although the narrative events of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are generally happy,4 they occur in the shadow of Golgotha, which would have been a dead end except for the empty tomb. This birth-death-resurrection (B-D-R) sequence resides in the heart of Christianity. This B-D-R link becomes apparent musically in The Methodist Hymnal (1965), which provides two tunes for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." One is "Mendelssohn," the familiar tune. The other is "Easter Hymn," which many churchgoers associate with "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." 5 Hymns constitute sung theology. With that in mind, consider the following texts:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, "Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled~" Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the Triumph of the skies; With th'angelic host proclaim, "Christ is born in Bethlehem."

Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord! Late in time behold him come, Offspring of the virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th'incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings. 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. 6

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia! Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia! Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia! Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia! Where's thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!

Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia! Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia! Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia! Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Following our exalted Head, Alleluia! Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia! Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia! 7

Birth, life, and death are linked. The Easter hymn states, "Love's redeeming work is done." One phase of that work began with the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. (a Reformed perspective, of course, the redeeming work has its roots in the Covenant of Redemption). As the Christmas hymn says, "Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth." This "second birth" is spiritual renewal, the sort God imparts and that one might mark by baptism, confirmation, or reaffirmation of faith. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus make this renewal possible. "Made like him, like him we rise;/Ours the cross, the grave, the skies." 8

As the Reverend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who became an anti-Nazi martyr in 1945 wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, following Jesus requires much of one. Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, is that which we bestow on ourselves. It requires intellectual assent to certain propositions yet not spiritual sacrifice. It is an easy road to travel. However, it costs nothing, and is therefore worth nothing. Costly grace, in contrast, cost God much and requires obedience (taking up one's cross) from the one who follows Jesus. It is the narrow road that leads to true life. For Bonhoeffer, as for many others, discipleship entailed surrendering physical life. Those not called to martyrdom have their other sacrifices to make. And so we should not sing blithely, "Made like him, like him we rise;/Ours the cross, the grave, the skies." We should, rather, sing these words cognizant of the profound truth they contain. 9

I invite you to sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," to the tune of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and to ponder the significance of certain lines in this new context then to reflect theologically. The line that stands out to me most prominently as a result of this exercise is "God and sinners reconciled," which I hear afresh to the tune of an Easter hymn. In A Short History of Christian Thought, Professor Linwood Urban, late of Swarthmore College, explains three old Christian understandings of the atonement: penal substitutionary atonement (Jesus took our places on the cross), the Incarnation (God assuming human form accomplished the atonement), and the conquest of Satan (Christ's Incarnation and resurrection defeated evil). Two of the three understandings—penal substitutionary atonement and the conquest of Satan-- make the death of Jesus important. And, indeed, it was, as was the Incarnation. The death and resurrection of Jesus would not have been possible without his birth, so the first important statement we can make about Jesus is that he was born. Lacking that, no other statements about him ring true. 10

The divinely-planned reconciliation was a process that included the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, Christmas has meaning only in the context of what came before and after it. As the Christmas hymn states, "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." That price for the second birth is high, but worthwhile.

I propose these thoughts as only the beginning of reflection via these two hymns. Meditations upon the profound source materials, guided by the Holy Spirit, can lead to many excellent insights. May they do so.


1. Dr. David Emory Stooksbury, University of Georgia professor and Georgia State Climatologist, informed me that one can sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" to the same tune. He planted the seed that grew into this article.

2. I use the terms "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era" because, according to the "Before Christ/Anno Domini" scale, Jesus could have been born no later than 4 B.C. To speak of Jesus being born "Before Christ" seems absurd to me. One may read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden (World Bible Publishers, 1926-1927; reprint, 1963), pp. 60-62; Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 371-379; Willis Barnstone, ed., The Other Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984; paperback), pp. 399-403; and Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 58-62. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was one of many works which Holy Mother Church excluded from the canon, mercifully. This ancient text claims to recount how young Jesus learned gradually to exercise his divine powers responsibly. The book tells stories disturbing and fantastic. In one case Jesus caused a person's death. In another incident he lengthened a board Joseph had cut too short. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is, in comic book and superhero terms, an origin story. While reading it one can imagine Joseph giving Jesus a speech like one Peter Parker's uncle delivered to him: "With great power comes great responsibility."

3. Luke 2:34-35, The Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). The Revised English Bible is a beautifully written and completely modern English revision of The New English Bible.

4. New life is (or at least should be) joyful. One can imagine the joy Joseph and Mary felt, as well as the responsibility of raising a newborn child, in this case, God incarnate. The canonical accounts tell of reverent visitors from near and far.—certainly positive. These texts also mention the murderous actions of a mean and emotionally disturbed Roman client king, Herod the Great.

5. The Methodist Church, The Methodist Hymnal: Official Hymnal of The Methodist Church (Nashville, TN: Methodist Publishing House, 1965), #387-388. The Methodist Church (1939-1968) merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church (1946-1968) to form The United Methodist Church. Beginning in 1970 reprints of 1965 hymnal bore the label The Book of Hymns. The capitalization of the definite article in "The United Methodist Church" is correct, according to a resolution of the 1980 General Conference (The United Methodist Church, The Book of Resolutions 1996, p. 712).

6. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," quoted in The Methodist Hymnal (1965), #387.

7. "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," quoted in The Methodist Hymnal (1965), #439.

8. Lines from "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," quoted in The Methodist Hymnal (1965), #387 and #439.

9.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1959; paperback, 1963), 37-60. Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler's regime and its hijacking of the German church actively. The reverend's deeds in his cause prompted his arrest and execution. Thus, Bonhoeffer's ruminations about the high cost of following Jesus carry much weight.

10. Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought, 2d. Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 106-110. Professor Urban quotes Biblical passages proponents (including pre-Nicene Church Fathers) of each theory of the Atonement have made to support their case. For the Incarnation as the Atoning act: John 1:14, 18; John 12:46. For Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Hebrews 13-14, 28; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2. For the Conquest of Satan as the Atoning act: Colossians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:24-25; Romans 8:38-39. Even a casual reading of ancient comparative religion, especially of the mystery cults that attracted many converts during the Hellenistic Period, reveals many similarities in claims about Jesus and fictitious figures, such as Mithras, Heracles, Attis. I tell my World History I students that Jesus was born, lived, and ate dinner in people's homes, so claims that he was born of a virgin, saved the world through his sacrificial death, and was the Son of God—none of which are unique to Christianity—carried much weight. That much is objectively accurate. As a Christian, I claim that Jesus was and is the real deal and that the competitors were frauds and figments of fertile imaginations.


Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Other Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Paperback.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959. Paperback, 1963.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. World Bible Publishers, 1926-1927. Reprint, 1963.

The Methodist Church. The Methodist Hymnal: Official Hymnal of The Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: The Methodist Publishing House, 1965.

Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Paine, Thomas. The Crisis. New York: Penguin, 1995.

The Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

The United Methodist Church. The Book of Resolutions 1996. Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1996.

Urban, Linwood. A Short History of Christian Thought. 2d. Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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