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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette nativity illustration. - Photo by Kirk Montgomery

Carols and hymns are an essential part of Advent and Christmas worship services and for many churchgoers worship wouldn't be the same without the beloved songs telling the story of Christ's birth through music.

Grant West, worship pastor at Life Line Baptist Church in Little Rock, is one of them. For West, the music of the season serves as a reminder of what Christmas is all about -- the birth of Christ.

"For me personally, it's just a reminder of why we celebrate and why we take this time to worship," West said. "There's something about this time of year when the focus is really drawn in. I think about the shepherds, the wise men. They traveled so far, but they were determined, and what did they go to do -- to worship."

West has a list of favorite carols but if pressed to select one above all others he said it would be "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

West said he learned about the story behind the song and found it gripping.

"I loved how personal it was," he said.

The lyrics were written by Boston native Phillips Brooks in 1868. At the time Brooks was serving as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, and the song was inspired by a trip he took to the Holy Land.

"He was a big guy, almost intimidating, except to kids. They loved him," West said. "The church he was at exploded with membership because he put such an emphasis on the children's program ... He went to the Holy Land one year and while he was there the children of his church came to mind, and he penned the carol for the children of the church.

"It's just a neat story. I love it. It's very Christmasy."

The lyrics are:

O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie; Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, And gathered all above; While mortals sleep, the angels keep, Their watch of wondering love; O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth; And praises sing to God the King, And peace to men on earth!

The music was added by the church organist, Lewis Redner, who had reportedly put off writing the tune until the last minute. Inspiration struck the night before Christmas. According to The Penguin Book of Carols, edited by Ian Bradley, Redner awoke "with the melody ringing in his ears, fully formed and harmonized."

The Rev. Don Hutchings, pastor of Evangel Temple, an Assemblies of God church in Fort Smith, also sees music as an act of worship.

"God gets to hear more of our heart when we don't just say it, but adore him through songs," he said.

Hutchings narrows down his favorites to "Joy to the World" and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."

"'Joy to the World' has such an impact," he said. "It really speaks to what Christmas is about."

The carol was written by prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts -- but wasn't meant to be a Christmas song. The lyrics aren't even drawn from the Nativity story as told in the Bible. The song is instead based on the text of Psalm 98, which begins with "Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things" and ends with a call to let the seas, the world and everything in it "sing together for joy."

"Joy to the World" was first published in 1719 in Watts' Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.

The lyrics include:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Despite Watts' intentions for the song, it became a Christmas favorite and continues to be joyously sung each year.

"Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" by Charles Wesley affects Hutchings the same way.

"It really speaks to me about what happened. Some people don't know that God assigned one angel to announce the birth of his son, and you get the scene in the song," he said. "The unwritten thing was probably that the other angels said 'Let us go too.' That's why the Scripture says in Luke 2:13 'and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude' -- because they wanted to be there too."

The hymn is actually based on an earlier song written by Wesley titled "Hark, How All the Welkin Rings."

"Welkin" is an Old Middle English term that means "realm of heaven." The hymn was published in 1739 in Wesley's Hymns and Sacred Poems and was intended as a Christmas hymn.

It begins:

Hark, how all the welkin rings! "Glory to the King of Kings; Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled;" Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies; Universal nature say, "Christ the Lord is born today."

The hymn sung today -- "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" -- is the result of many changes and alterations made by others through the years. The lyrics are similar:

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 angelic host proclaim, "Christ is born in Bethlehem;" Hark! the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.

The Rev. Frank LeBlanc, pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, said his favorite carol is "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." The song was written by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century.

"The carol is a call not only to remember the birth of Christ years ago but to keep the teachings of Christ relevant and instructive in our own day," LeBlanc said.

The lyrics include:

It came upon a midnight clear, That glorious song of old; From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold; "Peace on the earth, good will to men, From heaven's all gracious King!" The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.

LeBlanc said one verse contains a message "for those who labored under the harsh conditions of Sears' times." It speaks of life's "crushing load" and those "who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow."

"They're encouraged to look forward to 'glad and golden hours' and to 'rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing,'" LeBlanc said.

One stanza is often left out of hymnals but LeBlanc said it was recently put back in the new Presbyterian hymnal. It's a call to hear the angels' "love-song" and "an appeal to repent of our infatuation with war and violence."

The lyrics are:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled, Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not; The love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife; And hear the angels sing.

LeBlanc said music inspires and enlivens the celebration of the Christmas season.

"It not only helps us recall why we are celebrating but can awaken in us new insights into the message of Christ for our times," he said. "I pray everyone will find a faith community with which to share the celebration together and find new insights for their lives and our life together."

Religion on 12/24/2016

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