A Christmas Homily

A Bit of History

Originally penned by Charles Wesely in 1739. The song did not include the 
“chorus” at the end, repeating the first line of the song. The first line was slightly 
different from what we are used to. It proclaimed that the firmament rang with 
glory to the King of Kings. There was no direct reference to angels in the original. 

In 1754, George Whitefield modified it, changing the first line to the version with 
which we are familiar. In 1782, the chorus was adopted in an English hymnal. 

It wasn’t until 1855, that William Cummings mated the lyrics to a cantata 
composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, giving us the hymn that we know today. 
The version we sang this morning was the Cummings song in its full form, from 
the Cantus Christi. Commonly, a shorter version with only three of the five verses 
is used, as it appears in many other hymnals.

The Song and Christian Theology

We will follow Wesely’s 10 stanzas and see how he develops the story of the 
incarnation as a statement of theology. 

First, the purpose of the Incarnation was to satisfy Divine wrath and restore men 
to God’s favor. This is expressed in the words from the first stanza:

Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild 
God and Sinners reconciled

From the second stanza:

Joyful all ye Nations rise 
Join the Triumph of the Skies 
Universal Nature say, 
Christ the LORD is born today!

And from the sixth stanza:

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

This purpose is central to the Christian understanding of Christmastide. It is 
not merely that God gave us a gift; what is important is what that gift 
represents: our only path to God and His righteousness. We are reconciled 
to God by Jesus Christ.

Second, we celebrate the Eternality of the Son of God in the third & fourth 

CHRIST, by highest heaven adored 
CHRIST, the everlasting Lord 
Late in time behold him come 
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see 
Hail the Incarnate Deity! 
Pleased as man with men to dwell 
JESUS, our Immanuel here!

Notice the clear Chalcedonian statement of the hypostatic union. Jesus the 
man is Christ the everlasting God. His deity is veiled in flesh, not 
transformed into flesh.

Third, Wesely calls attention to the resurrection. The incarnation would be 
without effect if Jesus is not raised from the dead. This is brought out in the fifth 
& sixth stanzas:

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

We can no more separate the resurrection from the birth of Jesus than we 
can separate our own resurrection from that of Jesus. One depends on the 

Fourth, we proclaim the Victory of Christ & His Church, in the seventh & eighth 

Rise, the Woman’s Conquering Seed 
Bruise in us the Serpent’s head (cf. Rom 16:20)

Now display Thy saving Power 
Ruined Nature now restore 
Now in Mystic Union join 
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine

Finally, the song makes a plea for the Church’s sanctification. This is the message 
of stanzas nine and ten:

Adam’s likeness, LORD, efface 
Stamp Thy image in its place 
Second Adam from above 
Reinstate us in thy Love

Let us Thee, though lost, regain 
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man: 
Oh! to all Thyself impart 
Formed in each Believing Heart


The Eternal Son of God Incarnate to redeem mankind from bondage to sin 
The centrality of the resurrection in the Christian message 
Total victory of heaven over earth, & the church’s participation in that conquest. 
The necessity of the Church reflecting the image of Christ, of being drawn into 
This is the message of Christmas, brought to us by Chas. Wesely’s great hymn.

This document is available to download as a pdf.