Of all the great Christian theologians down through the millennia, John Wesley ought to be the patron saint of hymns and poetry. While most of the familiar Wesleyan Christmas hymns contain the revised lyrics of George Whitefield (further revised in the magisterial Carol for Choirs), his poetic writings remind us of the intense joy of the season and the peace that the soul yearns for. Moreover, Wesley’s hymns remain an enchanting antidote to the partisans of the empty rainbow, and they make for an undeniable manifestation of what Edmund Burke called the “wardrobe of our moral imagination.”
I must profess that I am always disappointed when I do not hear some of the familiar Wesleyan Christmas hymns. Two favorites are “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and, of course, “Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing.” (A third, largely forgotten—but especially powerful—hymn is “Light of Those Dreary Dwelling”). Their popularity is undeniably tied to the fact that the lyrics, with their now familiar melodies, speak to the desire of the soul to unite heaven and earth together as one, in a grand dance and song of joyful praise and nourishment.
The genius of Wesley is borne out by the fact that his hymns have been grafted onto melodies that he did not originally intend. The flexibility of Wesley’s original hymns to conform to newer melodies—Mendelssohn’s “Gutenberg Cantata” and Rowland Prichard’s “Hyfrydol”—reveals the universal binding spirit and relationality that Wesley’s hymns are governed with. We do not sing alone. We sing with others—dead and living.
This Christmas, Wesley’s hymns are even more important as they remind us that we are not alone in the cosmos. This is all the more necessary when it is often the case that we feel burdened and alienated in our increasingly atomistic society. Walking the streets, we may hear the blaring forgettable pop songs of the modern Christmas zeitgeist—a spirit moved by what Theodor Adorno described as our fetishistic enslavement to the self’s consumeristic taste for cheap entertainment and forgetfulness. But Wesley’s words call us out of that slumbering forgetfulness and out of the empty cosmos to something grander and greater for those with eyes to see and ears to hear…