One Carol, Three Marriages (O Come All Ye Faithful)
William Wordsworth sounds the warning:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.
Dissecting Christmas carols can be musical murder. Unless the disassembly fits together again more beautifully and more fully felt. That’s my goal.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” is near the top of my favorites. As I ponder why, I see it’s because of three marriages in this carol.
Heaven and Earth
First is the marriage of heaven and earth.
Of course, that is what Christmas is: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” But this glorious fact is not what I have in mind. What captures my attention here is that, as we sing, we summon all the faithful on earth to come, and we summon choirs of angels to come — both to see and adore Christ.
Verse 1: “O come, all ye faithful. . .”
Verse 3: “Sing, choirs of angels . . .”
And so the “us” of “O come let us adore him” is the “us” of heaven and earth, singing together. According to Revelation 9:16, there are at least 200 million angels at God’s bidding. Surely at least some of them are assigned to give heed to us as we sing, and do what we say: “Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation!” If we could only hear! Heaven and earth married in singing to Christ.
Doctrine and Delight
Second is the marriage of weighty doctrine and delight — weighty affirmation and wonder-filled adoration.
All good hymns and spiritual songs do this, in some measure. But this carol pushes the envelope — but not too far. The Nicene Creed from the fourth century is quoted almost verbatim: “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal . . . Son of the Father, begotten, not created.”
You can’t do this in poetry very often — quote creeds. It will sound clumsy and heavy handed. But this works — metrically and emotionally. Just in the split second when you start to feel, “That’s a bit much, the whole profundity of the eternal generation of the divine Son from the Father” — just at that moment, you are catapulted from rumination to adoration. “O come let us adore him!” Again: “O come let us adore him!” Again: “O come let us adore him!” In other words, just when you might sink in the ocean of mystery, you soar.
Text and Tune
Third is the marriage of text and tune.
There are twenty imperatives in this text. Sixteen of them are “Come!” Three are “Sing!” One is “Behold!” Then there are the soft imperatives: “Let us adore him” — twelve times. Then there are the imperative-like, “Glory!” — three times. “Glory to God!” “All glory in the highest!” “Jesus! To thee be all glory given!”
In other words, there is an ache — a longing, a passionate summoning in these words: O people, join me, join me. Heaven, join me. Will you come? Do you see? Will you sing? Come, see, adore. Adore! O please, come and join me!
I cannot imagine a better tune to waken these feelings, and carry them. Again and again the musical stress falls in exactly the right place: “O COME all ye FAITHful, JOYful, and TriUMPHant, O COME ye, O COME ye to BE-ETHlehem.”
Then there is the emotional bulls-eye with the striking of the knell at the beginning of each third line with the highest note in the song:
COME and behold him . . .
SON of the Father . . .
GLORy to God . . .
WORD of the Father . . .
This bell-ringing first syllable of the third line seems to me just about perfect musically.
Finally, there is the building of the three lines of the refrain to the crescendo — from soft to loud.
O come let us adore him!
O come let us adore him!
O COME LET US ADORE HIM!
CHRIST, THE LORD.
Here is where the summons to adoration becomes adoration. And the threefold repetition gives us just enough time to gather our scattered emotions, and on the third line mean it with all our heart.
So in the spirit of this great carol, come all you faithful. Come you angels in heaven. Come. Behold. Adore. Together. Jesus Christ.
1. 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 (3x),
Christ, the Lord.
2. True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created.
3. Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest.
4. Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.