The Best Verse of Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing Requires Some Explaining
“Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” is my favorite Christmas Carol. It was a family favorite growing up but it became a personal favorite when I was driving home form the hospital after my first son, Oliver was born. Carrie Underwood was singing it on B101, when it struck me as I made the turn from Spruce Street on to 38th Street in university City, that Jesus also came to be with my son. This life i had chosen to bring into the world was anticipated and provided for by the Newborn Prince of Peace. I had been grateful for this gift of Love for myself but never had I yet been so grateful for the salvation of another. Fatherhood had pulled me out of my self circumscription sufficiently to weep for joy of the Lord’s nearness to another. I think that moment with Carrie Underwood in the car, less than 24 hours after Oliver’s birth, was when I actually became a father.
But Carrie Underwood, like many before her, skips the fourth verse. Here it is as I know it.
Come Desire of Nations, come! Fix in us thy humble home.
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed! Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s image now efface, Stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
I just learned on Wikipedia that this song features lyrical contributions from Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, two of the founding ministers of Methodism, with music adapted from “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen” by Felix Mendelssohn. This version of verse four is a mash up of Wesley’s original version in 1739 and Whitefield’s adaptation in 1758. The wikipedia article also shows how many hymnals don’t even have a verse four. But verse four is the best verse!
The “desire of the nations” is the prophesied coming Messiah (Hag 2:7). God wants to dwell in us. We are God’s home. The “woman’s conquering seed” comes from Genesis. After Adam and Eve sinned, God promises that the seed of the Woman will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). This child, born of a virgin (Isa 7:14), will make all things right that was broken in the Garden. As Jesus rises, we ask him to bruise in us the serpent’s head. Jesus is coming into the world in the drama of Advent and again in his Second Advent (“advent” means coming) to undo the sting of sin and death. The source of it will will be crushed! We sing to Jesus, this conquering seed, “Efface the image of Adam, the first Adam, and stamp a new image in it’s place, your image, Jesus, the “Second Adam from above” (“efface” means to scratch out or erase.)
Here’s the scripture from Corinthians that gives us this language:
“So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” – 1 Corinthians 15:44b-49
I love the future orientation of this fourth verse. Christmas is not just about something that happened in the past. It is happening here and now in us and is going to happen even more , for every child that is born until Jesus returns. (Here’s some love to travisagnew.org for the Bible references compilation.)
But who is Adam?
Pette Enns is releasing a new edition of his 2012 book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins and on a recent episode of his podcast, The Bible for Normal People (Episode 148: Adam, Evangelicalism, & the Metanarrative of Evolution November 22, 2020), he walked through some of his argument in the book. His most noteworthy claim is there was not a historical Adam and Eve. Evangelical attempts to maintain a belief in a historical Adam and incorporate what we have learned through scientific discovery will inevitably fail. “You can’t pin the scientific tail on the evangelical donkey” he says in the podcast, “We can’t simply merge the ancient world and the modern scientific one.”
I love the imagery he uses of trying to solder on the new information from science to the traditional theological reading of the Genesis account of human origins. Enns says we need a synthesis of theology and science and this means that the basic theology musty be impacted by the science.
His soldering image called to mind a time when I was trying to solder the fitting of the pipe that went from my basement under the porch and out to the spigot in the front yard. The pipe had frozen and I was replacing it with my minimal plumbing skills and with minimal time. I didn’t wait for the pipe to adequately dry after turning off the water, so their was still water in the pipe. I do not know how plumbers who know how to do this deal with this problem, but my solution was just to not wait and put a ton of solder on the joint. It did not work very well. The water inside the pipe kept bubbling through the liquid metal I was trying to melt onto the joint. I got it water tight after several attempts and I imagine the globby mess is still on that pipe in that basement in West Philly which I no longer own.
It’s ok for our ideas about God, the origins of the cosmos and our own thoughts about it not to work. Properly done, the job will take time and it won’t be pretty. Because we are “in the pipe” so to speak. Life is a constant flow of water and we might not ever be able to shut off the water at all. Pete Enns says, and with this I heartily agree , “To claim that God doesn’t change doesn’t mean that our understanding of God should never change.”
Enns’ example: What does it mean to say with the iron age poet who wrote Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God”? when the known universe is 546 sixtillion miles wide. In the podcast, Enns demonstrates how incomprehensibly big this is by talking about how long it would take to count “1, 2, 3 … all the way up to 546 sixtillion,
“This is were my calculator just gives up . It punts it spits out 1.75 followed by sixteen zeros which is just south of twenty quadrillion years to count the size of the universe and that number quadrillion means nothing to us. These are incomprehensible numbers….The thought of it all should be unsettling to all who are paying attention…The staggering dimensions and vast age of the universe coupled with the revolutions of relativity and quantum physics are psychologically and spiritually disorienting.” – Pete Enns
Whoever the First Adam is or Was. The Second Adam is on His Way
There isn’t much comfort in that disorientation. I feel grateful that I don’t have a lot of anxiety about what it all means. I am confident that all will be revealed by the Second Adam, when he comes to raise us from the dead and bestow upon us the inheritance of his resurrection life in our renewed bodies.
On Christmas Day, when I sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” I won’t be focused on the incomprehensible past but the incomprehensible future. There is just as much disorienting mystery in that new reality we are promised. The immensity of time and space, for me, are a lovely amplification of the staggering mercy of God, that God would be with us in this tiny, seemingly insignificant, but apparently very significant pale blue dot in an effectively infinite cosmos. Yes, God came to be with us. God came to be with me and with you, and with my son. And God’s plan does not end in the current mystery of my unknowing.
To quote my favorite band and my brothers in Christ, Dan and Pat McGowan of The Tea Club in their anthem, Creature,
“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing.”
“Adam’s image now efface!/Stamp thine image in its place!/Second Adam from above,/Reinstate us in thy love.” (This choir just posted the “full” version)
Merry Christmas, y’all.