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Singing our Faith at Christmas

Christmas is a time for singing! Carols are played in stores, 24/7 on some radio stations, and in our homes. During worship in our United Methodist churches, we also sing some special songs for the season, a couple of which were written by Charles Wesley, the poet-theologian of the Methodist movement.

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In this episode, I got a chance to talk with the Rev. Paul Chilcote, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary, and author of Come Thou Long-expected Jesus: Advent and Christmas with Charles Wesley. We talk about some of the themes Charles Wesley teaches through his hymns, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," and some of his lesser-known writings.

This conversation and the special song at the end, are sure to help you get ready for Christmas!

Paul Chilcote

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This podcast was first posted in December 2016.


Joe: Welcome to our Christmas episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

Today I’m on the phone with the Reverend Doctor Paul Chilcote, a United Methodist elder and the Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. Welcome, Paul.

Paul: Hey Joe.

Joe: So, you’ve authored a bunch of books on Wesleyan history and theology, and we’re gonna post links to those on our website. But I deeply appreciate your work with Wesleyan spirituality including the book we’re gonna talk about a little bit today. You wrote a book on Christmas hymns, and the book is called Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Advent and Christmas with Charles Wesley. And it’s a great devotional resource for people to pick up for Advent and goes through the 12 days of Christmas, which is a wonderful little bonus there.

Paul: Yeah.

Joe: But before we start talking about Christmas hymns in particular, can you tell me a little about Charles Wesley and his importance to Christianity and his contribution to the United Methodist Church?

Paul: Yeah. Absolutely. I’m a Wesley scholar, as you said. And so I’ve always had this great love of both John and Charles Wesley. But I think if people know anything at all about our history as Methodists the person they probably know is John. John was the older of these 2 brothers. And Charles has oftentimes been in the shadow of John. And as I was working through all the different aspects of the Wesley material this became pretty apparent to me pretty quickly. And I developed something of a passion to get Charles out from under the shadow of his older brother. I’m a second born of 2 boys. So maybe there was something personal in that.

Joe: Right. You can relate.

Paul: Yeah, I can relate to that. But the more I came to know Charles Wesley the more I just fell in love not only with his hymns, with his poetry, but with the man. Such an amazing and transparent person, I would say, to God’s love for all of us. And that was the central theme of his life and the central theme of his poetry was…was this ‘love divine, all loves excelling,’ to quote one of his hymns. So another really important thing, I think, for any Methodist to grasp, to get an understanding of, is a simple fact, really. Early Methodists learned their theology by singing it. Maybe that’s true of all people today in the church. You know, the theology that we kind of live and know oftentimes is the theology that we sing. If, you know, some of those listening, just think of your…your favorite hymns and how those hymns have shaped you, those words or favorite more contemporary choruses, you know, some of those songs being sung in…in corporate worship today. So, you know, I fell in love with Charles Wesley for all of these different reasons. And when you begin to think about his…his own output in terms of poetry and hymns it’s just…. It’ll knock you off your feet. Over the course of about 50 years, 1739 when he published his first collection of hymns and sacred poems ‘til his death in 1788, he…he produced about 180 hymns every year. That comes to a total (if you’re quick with math) around 9,000 hymns.

Joe: That’s amazing. And that’s like a song every other day.

Paul: Right. That’s right.

Joe: That’s crazy.

Paul: Yeah. Now not all of them…to be honest…not all of them are a “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” or “Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” You know, some of those great hymns—“Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” for example. “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” But many of them are just stellar hymns and packed with 2 things. Packed with Scripture and packed with deep theology. Really make you think.

Joe: And that’s what we wanta kinda touch on today, is the Advent and Christmas hymns and kinda their theology that Charles Wesley packs in there that might be unique, might be Wesleyan, and that we can learn something about that. So tell me a little bit about…there’s only…I…I went through the index in the hymnal. There are, I think, 49 Charles Wesley hymns in the United Methodist hymnal. But only 2 for Advent and Christmas—the Advent hymn “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and the Christmas hymn that everybody knows, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Can you give us a little bit…. Let’s start with “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” What are some of the theological points that we might miss as we sing that hymn.

Paul: That’s the hymn for which the title of the book comes, obviously. “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” And you know, Advent is that season of the Christian year that we’re preparing for Christ’s coming. And this hymn was written specifically for that purpose, to help the Christian, to help the disciple be in a posture of waiting for Jesus. You know, Come, thou long-expected Jesus. This is … has a lot of messianic imagery that’s attached to that language of long-expected. You know, this is the one that…the…the Jews, the people of Israel, had been waiting for as a deliverer, as their savior, and waiting for a long time. And so Wesley, Charles, takes all this kind of biblical imagery related to both redemption and all of the messianic imagery, deliverance, liberation, all of that and packs it into this powerful hymn. It’s interesting; Wesley did write collections of hymns for different seasons of the year. And many of the hymns in the Come Long…Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus book are drawn from his hymns for the nativity of our Lord, 18 hymns in that small collection. Charles was doing this kind of thing all the time to help Christians both understand and live into their faith in a really rich way. The book is divided into those weeks of Advent and then the season of Christmas itself, and reflects some of those typical themes that, you know, many kind of regular church-goers, let’s say, would recognize for the season of Advent. So “Waiting in Hope,” “Yearning for Peace and Light,” “Singing for Joy,” “Living by Faith,” and then “Wondering in Love.” Those are the kind of primary themes that I’ve drawn out of this collection of hymns with the reflections.

Joe: Yeah, I really enjoyed the book. And I need to take time during Advent to use it more appropriately. But I want to look at a couple of those themes that might be helpful to us. So one of the things I noticed coming through…and I’ll use “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” for it…is there’s the sense of…. He…he talks about Jesus coming to relieve us from fear in “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is “…from our fears and sins relieve,” and later I guess that was changed to ‘release.’ What’s going on there? Why so much talk about Jesus taking away our fear?

Paul: Boy, two things come just immediately to mind around that. In Wesley’s theology, this sung theology about redemption, for Charles, in particular, one of the central themes is liberation—that our redemption is all about being liberated from those powers, those forces in our lives that keep us from being the children of God that God has created us to be. Of course Saint Paul, you know, makes quite a lot of this in terms of sin and death and evil. Those 3 things are oftentimes kind of clustered together in his writings. And those are the same things that Charles is concerned about in, you know, the lives of ordinary people. What is it that’s binding you up? You know, what is it that’s keeping you from being the loving, caring, compassionate person that God has created all of us to be? What are those barriers that stand in the way of that? So redemption for Charles is really about liberation. And secondly it’s also about restoration. He’s not… He…he’s one of these kind of theologians…. And I love this actually. …for whom redemption is not simply forgiveness of sin. Now that’s important. I don’t want hearer to get me wrong. The forgiveness that God offers us and the liberation, you know, it’s a part of that forgiveness is so critical. It’s foundational in our Christian lives. But Charles yearns for more than that, more than just being forgiven. He … he yearns, and I think I would say, with … with Christ, that all people might be restored to the kind of love that God has created us to have, both for God and for others. So, Charles, you could say, kind of a way he…he wants people not only to experience forgiveness. But he also longs for those people to genuinely become loving people—to love others in the same way that God has loved us in the person of Jesus. And all of that then is empowered through the Spirit indwelling our lives. And, you know, a lot of these Advent and Christmas hymns really do play with those themes because it…it’s as it were kind of here at the beginning of Jesus’ life in this world. And kind of the beginning point is also an important place to think about the goal. You know, when something starts it’s oftentimes really helpful to know, where am I headed? When I start on a journey it’s helpful to know what the goal is going to be. So in these Advent and Christmas hymns we’re kind of at the beginning of the journey. But Charles is focusing our attention, always forward, always pulling us forward to the goal, which is love—love of God and love of neighbor.

Joe: Yeah, I notice, too, that…. Along those lines…. I notice that a lot of times he’ll talk about the hope of Israel, again “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” uses those words. Then he talks about the event, the Christmas event of Jesus being born into history. But then there’s also a lot of imagery about Jesus being born in us today. This sense of…that it’s not just this historical event, but it’s this recurring of Jesus coming in and through us.

Paul: Absolutely. And that’s a consistent theme throughout all of Charles Wesley’s hymns. You’ll oftentimes have a kind of … I’ll call it a broad theological theme that he’ll articulate kind of in the opening verses, perhaps, of a hymn. But a hymn will almost always move to the personal. You know, kind of from the general to the personal. I just pulled one of the hymns out here really illustrates that. It’s … he says here…sings here: “The universal light thou art/ and turn to thee the darkest heart/ a glimmering spark may find./ Let man reject it or embrace./ Thou offerest once thy saving grace/ to me and all mankind.” So he kind of starts with this image of Jesus as light, which is a primary image, of course, for the whole Christmas season. We think about the centrality of light. Even candles, you know, at Christmas, that’s a way of real tangibly getting a hold of that imagery of light. But that kind of generalized, almost abstract concept of light is immediately drawn into a direct personal reality. I… I find that to be really powerful in Charles’ hymns.

Joe: Yeah, there’s always this personal side of it that’s very, very powerful. So, if you don’t mind kind we move on to probably the most popular hymn in Christmas season that’s written by Charles Wesley, is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” And one of the things that I’ve learned in recent months is that those aren’t exactly the words Charles wrote.

Paul: I felt that coming in my bones. Yeah, it’s true. When Charles Wesley wrote that it was entitled “A Hymn for Christmas Day.” When…when he wrote that hymn his opening line was ‘Hark how all the welkin rings.’ And those who are listening right now, they’re probably scratching their heads and saying, What in the world are welkins…

Joe: What’s a welkin?

Paul: A welkin has to do with spirits basically? And interestingly George Whitfield, who was a very close friend of both John and Charles Wesley (they’d been students together at Oxford University and kind of co-leaders of movements of renewal in the church.) …George Whitfield came back to Charles. He said, I have an idea about this hymn. How ‘bout ‘hark, the herald angels sing,’ rather than welkins and that which no one will understand. And it stuck. John actually did not like it.

Joe: Charles was okay with it?

Paul: Charles was okay with it, and it stuck. And obviously …. There’s just no question whatsoever that around this globe “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is…is the most well-known of all the Christian Christmas hymns.

Joe: Yeah, Charlie Brown sings it. So it’s, you know, it’s out there in the mainstream.

Paul: There you go.

Joe: So, tell me a little bit about the welkin…. What was Charles going for in that opening line?

Paul: He’s really echoing Scripture. He’s echoing the chorus of angels that are singing at the time of the birth of Jesus and that whole story of the shepherds on the hillside and kind of not woken from sleep, but just startled by this presence of ‘the heavenly host’ is the language that’s oftentimes used. This army of angels all singing praise to God for the birth of the second person of the trinity of Jesus Christ into human history. So he’s really echoing that scriptural, that narrative about Jesus’ birth, and the way in which the birth of Jesus in human history has a cosmic dimension. Not just, you know, here in this world in our lives, but there’s something much larger happening in this, and that it’s something that leads all of heaven to celebrate in song.

Joe: It’s interesting that we have in those words today ‘joyful all ye nations rise,’ and so this sense of this universality of who Jesus is…

Paul: Right.

Joe: …for all of us, which to me, I think, is also central in Wesleyan theology. Right?

Paul: Absolutely. The Wesleys were really concerned that all people realize that God’s love and grace and mercy are intended for everyone. No one is excluded from the love of God. And this was actually something of a diatribe, in a sense, against some of the other theology of the time that said essentially that God’s grace and love are only for certain people, you know, that some are excluded from that love of God. And this…. To the Wesleys this was just absolutely counter to the gospel, counter to the message of the good news of God’s love for everyone. So, you’ll find in most of Charles Wesley’s hymns a very strong statement about the universal nature of God’s love for all people with none being excluded whatsoever from the embrace of God. And I love that image of ‘embrace.’ That’s an image that Charles uses quite frequently. And there’s a Collect of it comes out of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, which of course was the original place of the Wesleys. They were both priests of the Church of England and lived the entirety of their lives within that tradition. And that Collect says that Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross that he might take the whole world into his saving embrace.

Joe: Oh wow.

Paul: I love that imagery. And Charles Wesley exploits that imagery, uses that language in many of his hymns.

Joe: I want to talk a little bit about a relatively unknown hymn that caught my attention. And I know it was not one of John’s favorites. But it’s hymn 6 in the Hymns for the Nativity. And one of the things that it picks up on for me is that Jesus, the child, is also God. And you have this, you know, this immensity of God contained in this little child. And I love the way Charles writes this. This one little verse says, ‘See the stupendous blessing/ which God to us hath given,/ a child of man, in length a span/ who fills both earth and heaven.’ And I just….

Paul: Yeah.

Joe: All the times I’ve tried to describe that, and those words do that so well. And it seems to me throughout the Wesleyan hymns on Christmas this is a recurring theme—that Jesus is God come to us. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Paul: How many hours do we have?

Joe: Yeah, we better.... we’re a 10-minute talk, and I want to get to one other thing. So, no.

Paul: Yeah. This is a… I mean Charles is phenomenal in terms of his language, kind of dealing with this. I’ll call it a central paradox in the Christian faith. How do we conceive that God, who is eternal and not bounded by time or space or any of those kind of limitations? How do we conceive that that God becomes a human being? There’s… I don’t want to simply escape into mystery here, and say “Oh, this is inexplicable. It’s just a mystery. You can’t ever explain it.” Because Charles does everything he can to try and explain that, to try and make some sense of this mystery in our lives. So, yeah, particularly in those sometimes called incarnation hymns—hymns on incarnation—where he deals with that imagery of the eternal entering into time and space in a helpless infant. And that’s such powerful poetry. Related to this, I think, is kind of Charles’ primary understanding of how all this happens. I’ll throw out a technical term. Don’t want to scare anybody, but kenosis is the Greek word for self-emptying. And this comes from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2 verses 5-11, that many scholars believe is actually one of the earliest Christian hymns. And Paul is simply quoting that hymn. So it’s interesting that he draw… that Charles, the hymn-writer, draws this imagery out of this hymn, this imagery of self-emptying. And one of the main lines repeated frequently in Charles Wesley’s hymns is…. (I’ll try to paraphrase it in a sense.) …is that in Jesus God empties himself of everything but love. So Jesus is emptied of all those divine qualities. You know, folks might think of, you know, omnipresence… (the 3 big O’s) omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, you know, all powerful, present everywhere, etc. But in Jesus God empties God’s self of those divine qualities, except for love, which if you think about that for a moment. I mean, love…. I think most people would say. …is the essence of God.

Joe: Right.

Paul: That’s the very essence of who God is, is love. So Jesus is emptied of all other aspects of the divine, but love. So you can say he is still fully divine because he’s fully love. But he’s also fully human because he’s born into this world as a human being. Now there’s a mystery for you. And maybe…. Here…. This may be a very important point. Maybe only poetry gets at that kind of a mystery. You know. Maybe our kind of discursive writing, you know, prose…maybe our prose doesn’t really get at that. Maybe it’s only poetry. Maybe it’s only singing that can express that kind of a mystery that deeply.

Joe: Which brings me to…. I want to take just a couple of seconds to talk about how someone might use your book throughout the Advent season. How might they use the hymns of Charles Wesley to help them prepare themselves for Christmas and the days that follow.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the…the book is basically daily devotions. And each of those devotions includes a scriptural text, because to be true to the Wesleys I would want everything rooted in Scripture. I mean, the Bible is primary. So each reading has a passage from Scripture and then a hymn of Charles Wesley, a brief reflection on that, kind of helping the reader to grasp some of the central issues, the central questions, the insights that Charles has, and then a brief prayer. So the hymns are a part of that daily devotional reading through the seasons of Advent, and then through those 12 days of Christmas as well. There are a lot of different things that can be done with hymns. One of the things, (to state the obvious) is they can be sung. Some of these hymns are known, I would think, to some of the readers. But probably most of them are not. There are some guides given to how to use the hymns in the book itself. In the introduction I provide some guidance for that, but they can be sung. They can also simply be read, I would say, maybe slowly, just kind of meditate upon each line or meditate upon each stanza. But I think the important thing to see is that in this book at least, they’re incorporated into a kind of a larger pattern of devotion for the day, including Scripture, reflection and prayer.

Joe: And we’re gonna put a link on our site so that people can easily just click over and buy the book.

Paul: I really appreciate that. But I mean for me the most important thing is that people use this. My hope is that really it draws them closer to Christ, that they come to understand who Jesus is in their life more fully, and that that elicits a love in them that they didn’t know was there.

Joe: Wonderful. Well, thank you very much for this. This has been a great conversation about our Christmas hymns and how we can use them to make our Christmas even …even a little more focused.

Paul: Really happy to share with you, Joe. Thanks for the invitation.

Joe: Yeah, thanks, Paul.


What a great conversation that was with the Rev. Dr. Paul Chilcote, Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, and the author of Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Advent and Christmas with Charles Wesley.

I hope some of those thoughts stick with you as you sing the Christmas songs throughout the season. If you want to go deeper into the hymns of Charles Wesley, I highly recommend Paul's book, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus. You’ll find a link to places where you can purchase the book at the page for this episode. Go to Find Get Your Spirit in Shape, and then find this episode.

Other links on that page include a series of devotionals that I’m writing for during Advent about some of Charles Wesley's hymns.

There is also a link to a download of this special music that you're hearing in the background. It is a medley of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” arranged and perfomed by my son JT Iovino who is studying music therapy at Seattle Pacific University. The download is a free gift to you this Christmas. You’ll also hear the song in its entirety at the end of the podcast, so stick around for that.

As we prepare to enter 2017, I hope you’ll subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape. You can do that at iTunes, through the Google Play store, or on Stitcher. We have some great things planned for the New Year that you don’t want to miss out on.

In January, we are going to have an interview with Mike McHargue, known as Science Mike on his Ask Science Mike podcast. He’s written a new book called Finding God in the Waves and I look forward to talking to him about that.

I’ve also invited Paul Chilcote back in 2017 to talk to us about the hymns of Charles Wesley during Lent and Easter.

Thanks for listening. It’s been a great first year for Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Have a Merry Christmas! And I look forward to getting together again in 2017.

I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.

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