O Come All Ye Faithful: The stanza we don’t sing

What we sing together forms what we believe. Let me give you a specific example.

First, a short list of things I love:

  • Congregational singing
  • Hymns
  • Christmas hymns and carols

I am sad to report that this year I got to sing only one (yes, that’s ONE) Advent or Christmas hymn with a congregation. It is truly tragic. Nevertheless, I have many fond memories of Christmas songs in church. Though I like many of them, I particularly enjoy O Come All Ye Faithful. This hymn text does a fine job of reflecting the themes surrounding Jesus’ birth as recounted by Luke and John.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold him, born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

 

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
sing, all ye citizens of heaven above:
“Glory to God, all glory in the highest!”
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

 

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing” … What a well-written abbreviation of John 1:1-14! And the way the angels’ song invites all of us into adoration of Christ is glorious!

A bit of history . . .

The text O Come All Ye Faithful exists in multiple forms, so the origin of the hymn is not certain. However, it is generally agreed that John Francis Wade, an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic, is both the author and composer of the hymn, originally written in Latin. It was translated in the nineteenth century by Frederick Oakeley, who was first a priest in the Church of England, and later became a Roman Catholic priest.

Although I have sung O Come All Ye Faithful for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until graduate studies that I was introduced to the original second stanza of the text. I grew up in a church that used the Baptist Hymnal (1975), and stanza two was not included in this hymnal. The editors of the subsequent Baptist Hymnal (1991) and Baptist Hymnal (2008) also chose to omit stanza two. In fact, the omission goes further back than 1975; the stanza is not found in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal, and neither is it in the 1940 Broadman Hymnal.

I asked a colleague of mine, a prominent Baptist hymnologist, about the reason for this omission. Here is his reply: “I don’t have any documentation for what I am about to say, but my suspicion is that [stanza two] was omitted because it is so significantly irregular in its hymnic meter. Of course, all the stanzas of this hymn (or at least this translation) are irregular, but that stanza is even more so. Once the stanza was omitted in Broadman Hymnal, subsequent Baptist hymnals simply used the version that was in the previous hymnal. In Celebrating Grace [2008], there was a conscious effort to go back and at least look at the versions of hymns found in books from other denominations, as well as the original versions as they were first written or published, which accounts for the presence of the stanza in that book.”

And now, the text of this stanza, so elusive among Baptists:

God of God, Light of Light eternal,
lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Why is this such a big deal to me? These lines convey a vital theological belief that is often misunderstood by the very people who don’t sing it! The words are borrowed from the Nicene Creed to express the Christian belief about the incarnation. From early on, Christianity has maintained that Jesus Christ is God. When we say Jesus is the Son of God, the little preposition “of” means he is the same substance as God; Jesus is God. I have encountered a common misunderstanding, however, that implies (if not states outright) that Jesus is God’s Son, in the same way that I am the son of my father. But while my father helped to create me, the hymn reminds us that Jesus was “begotten, not created.” Jesus Christ is “God of God,” and “Light of Light eternal,” not a subsidiary of the Father, and not separate from the Father.

What we sing together forms what we believe, and by omitting such a stanza we limit our understanding of who God is and what God does.

 

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6 comments

  1. Michael Palis · December 27, 2015

    While it is a verse of good theology, you have to admit that those words don’t exactly flow ones’ mouth.

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    • stephenacowden · December 27, 2015

      You’re right. Most hymnals that include the stanza adapt it slightly. “True God of true God…”

      Like

  2. Tanya Riches · December 27, 2015

    I literally had an argument online with an Anglican about this and was about to write a post on it. Aside from the irregular meter and the beautiful “begotten, not created”, in our argument, I objected to the line “he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” for a number of reasons, mainly because I feel it could only be mirrored by us singing “he abhors Joseph’s testicles” in a context in which men’s bodies were used in all manners of ways, but mainly for the pleasure of others… this is an antiquated way of speaking about women, and implies that while God *could* have abhorred the womb he did not, a bizarre concept. In our current age, it comes across as extra strange, as if a baby could decide whether or not a womb is good enough, which implies miscarriage – something a lot of women in their twenties and thirties have experienced. Although it is *trying* to say that God does not abhor material matter, it is complex and convoluted. For this reason, Stephen Burns suggests “he delights in the Virgin’s womb” as a phrase that is much more conducive to communicating the Incarnation. 🙂

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    • stephenacowden · January 3, 2016

      I agree, Tanya, that the line “lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb” merits some explanation. According to Daniel Webster’s 1828 dictionary, “abhor” could mean detest or hate, or to despise or neglect, or to reject. It could be that Oakeley meant that God did not hate the virgin’s womb, or material matter. Or maybe Oakeley wanted to note that Jesus didn’t reject the simplicity of infancy. God could have come as a full-grown person, but he entered the world in a helpless state just as each of us has done. I think this is a helpful theological idea, but I agree with you that the language could be misunderstood.

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  3. Annie Darst · December 29, 2015

    This was a great read! Thanks for posting!

    Like

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