The Angels Sing, the Shepherds Too
by Ken Myers
According to my American Heritage Dictionary, the first definition of the word "Noël" is simply "Christmas." The second definition is "a Christmas carol." The word entered Middle English from Old French, where it earlier derived from a Latin family of words tied to birth and the day of a birth. It's the same neighborhood from which our English words natal, native, nature, and nativity derive.
Etymological trajectories can teach us a lot about how creation is ordered and about how cultures take shape in light of that order. The birthday that Christians know simply as "The Nativity" inexorably calls forth music, and of a particular character. The birth of Jesus contains paradoxes and otherwise unimaginable contrasts: a King born in a stable, God in humble human flesh, the turning point of history witnessed initially only by humble rustics. Likewise, the Christmas carols with the most power and longevity seem to combine—in both text and music—simplicity and depth, reverence and festivity, a sense of tentative wonder ("Can this possibly be happening?") and confident decisiveness ("Yes! God has made it so!").
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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