A Sussex Carol – On Christmas Night

For this final installment of some of my favorite Christmas Carols, I want to share with you the Sussex Carol, otherwise knowing as “On Christmas Night.”  This isn’t a well-known carol in the U.S., but is among one of the more popular Christmas hymns in England.  

The song was first published in 1684 by an Irish Bishop, Luke Waddinge, in an 11 song collection entitled “A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, Composed by a devout Man, For the Solace of his Friends and neighbors in their afflictions” (seriously, I think the title is longer than some of the songs). Since this was long before hymnals were readily available (not to mention streaming music on the internet), it was through little songs books like these that hymns and carols were brought to congregations, giving them resources for worship and a library of music.

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century, though, that the carol became well known. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was working to preserve and collect English folk songs. In 1904, he was traveling through Sussex County, England, asking people to sings old folk songs for him, which he would then transcribe. A Mrs. Verrall sang the ‘On Christmas Night” song for him, and it since became known as the Sussex Carol.

What I love about this carol is it’s simplicity in style, but richness in content. It is a call and answer carol; where one voice sings, and another voice echoes. The tune has a joyful bounce to it, so you can’t help but smile when you sing it.

And that’s the purpose of the words as well.  This carol doesn’t tell the story of Christ’s birth, nor is it shrouded in the longing and burden of the years of waiting for Christ’s coming. Instead, this carol calls us to sing of the joy of Christ’s coming, the blessing of our salvation, and of God’s grace conquering over all our sins. The carols sings of Christ’s work of redemption, bringing light and grace, and setting us free from our sin.

I pray you’ll enjoy this carol as much as I do. 

I’ve included a link to the King’s College Choir from 2019, and the lyrics are below.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring
News of great joy, news of great mirth
News of our merciful King’s birth

Then why should men on earth be so sad?
Since our Redeemer made us glad
When from our sin he set us free
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace
Then life and health come in its place
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the newborn King

All out of darkness we have light
Which made the angels sing this night
“Glory to God and peace to men
Now and for evermore, amen!”

Do You Know What You’re Singing?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing here about some of my favorite, though somewhat obscure, Christmas Carols. I’ve made no bones about it, I love Christmas music. Not the materialistic, plastic-pop music that’s all about Santa and reindeer and snow (though I must confess that “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” does hold a dear place in my heart), but the good old Christmas carols and hymns that convey the message of Christ’s birth. I love that these songs are being played on radio stations around the clock right now, because, in the midst of all the other clutter, the truth is being spoken. Whether the listener knows it, the gospel is being preached, and God’s word will not come back empty (Isa. 55:11).

This is why I love the old carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739. Though not a Calvinist per se, much of Charles Wesley’s hymns convey the reformed view of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and Wesley himself noted that he “was within a ‘hair’s breadth’ of Calvinism” (click here for the full interview).  

We sing “Hark! The Herald…” so often that I don’t know if we really stop to consider what we’re singing. The world’s casual familiarity with this song has people singing along, subversively teaching profound Biblical truth without the singer ever really knowing it. This hymn conveys the doctrines of incarnation, atonement, union with Christ, and sanctification.

I’ve included here the original lyrics of Wesley’s hymn. Today we usually only sing three verses, but I think that’s a shame considering what verses 4 and 5 contain. I’ve made some notations along the way for clarification. Enjoy!

Vs 1

Hark how all the Welkin rings
(Welkin – an Old English name for Heaven or sky)
Glory to the King of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconciled.
(Here we note the need of Christ’s coming – for the reconciliation of sinful man with a Holy God.)
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
(The Gospel isn’t for one ethnicity, but for all peoples who would come to Christ by faith.)
Join the triumph of the skies,
Universal nature say
(Romans 8 talks about all creation eagerly awaiting the revealing of the sons of God)
Christ the Lord is born today!

Vs. 2
Christ by highest Heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,

(Essential to our understanding of the person and work of Christ Jesus for our salvation is the teaching that the Son of God is of one substance and equal with the Father, who, in the fullness of time, took upon him man’s nature, in order to serve as our Prophet, Priest, and King. This second verse teaches great incarnation theology.)
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin womb
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to appear
Jesus, our Immanuel here!

Vs. 3
Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n 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.

(This verse, especially the last half, brings to mind the substitutionary work of Christ in the atonement. He was born that Man no more may die. How? By dying in the place of sinful man. He was born to raise the sons of earth. How? By rising again from the dead on the third day. He was born to give man second birth. How? Not by reentering our mother’s womb, but by being born again of the Spirit, sent from Christ at Pentecost to all who believe.)

Vs. 4 
Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in Us thy humble Home,
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.

(Here, our union with Christ through faith is exemplified. United to Christ, the power of sin and death is crushed, and we are more and more made like unto Christ.)

Vs. 5
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:
O! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.

(Following the theme of union with Christ is the natural result of that union: our sanctification. No longer does the old Adam have dominion over us, but we live through the second Adam, who gives us life. What I love most about this verse is the desire for Christ. “Let us Thee, tho’ lost regain, Thee, the Life, the Inner Man.” To translate that for modern vernacular: “God let us, though lost, regain You.”)

My prayer is that the next time you sing this, you’ll contemplate the deep truths being conveyed here, and the message of the Gospel will ring clear this Christmas!

Here’s a Video from King’s College singing the Carol: