Dec 21, 2011
The Catholic Church has earned a lasting place in history for inspiring Christian culture through the literary, visual, and musical arts, understood as beautiful. For centuries, the Church has celebrated the beautiful as the splendid guardian of truth and goodness. By commissioning the finest artists to express the faith in music, the visual and literary arts, the Church has stood as their foremost patron as well. When illiteracy was common, the visual arts served as catecheses that persuaded by their beauty. Every year tourists are overcome by the beauty of the great cathedrals, and, during the Christmas and Lenten-Paschal season, many attend Vespers and Mass to hear the Church’s great heritage of sacred music. Benedict XVI observes that “cities and countries throughout the world house treasures of art that express the faith and call us to a relationship with God” (“Beauty Can Cause a Conversion,” Aug. 31, 2011).
It is especially during the Christmas season that the Church’s special affection for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord overflows with magnificent splendor. The Church cannot contain herself from again bursting forth her joy, wonder, and gratitude as she commemorates the birth of the Messiah into the world, God who became a human being that we might become like God.
The good news of Jesus Christ expresses itself not only in the heightened intensity of the eucharistic liturgy but also in sacred music with its soaring prose and poetry. Christ’s coming in history raised beauty to a new level of significance, and this beauty is to be renewed and restored in Christ. Christianity proclaims that those “who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). The sacred arts are also to be “clothed in Christ” (Rom 13:14).
Among the many Protestant hymnodists and composers is gifted Charles Wesley (d 1788). His famous and enduring Christmas carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” expresses through Old and New Testament references a fulsome theology about the birth of the Incarnate Word. We know the lyrics by memory, and meditating on the rich meaning of these words repays the effort. The italicized words below in the first column alert the reader to the scripture reference in the second column. (This analysis is taken from Dr. Ralph F. Wilson’s web page, “Joyful Heart.”)