The first verse of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" reminds me of the Peanuts gang, their wide mouths open, cartoon heads thrown back as they surround Charlie Brown's lowly holy Christmas tree on the fresh snowy night and sing loudly and unabashedly and joyously, like the children they are, but also with an element of knowledge, of certainty, that perhaps only animated characters can possess. It's like earlier in their Christmas special, when Linus says in his tiny sure voice, clutching his blue blanket, more matter-of-fact than any pastor, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
That first stanza is almost like The Lord's Prayer; I know it frontwards and backwards, sideways and upside down. I learned these phrases by heart before I truly knew what they meant, one long word: peaceonearthandmercymildgodandsinnersreconciled. (I know I knew this song before I knew what "reconcile" meant.)
The second and third verses I learned on Christmas Eves; it's the song we sing to welcome the Christ child into the world, and more immediately, to welcome the baby starring as Jesus from behind the stage and out in front of the congregation. The parents, dressed as Mary and Joseph, hold their child up for all to see, like Rafiki presents Simba to the crowd of animals gathered around Pride Rock. They certainly don't have to act out their grins. A spotlight graces the wriggling infant, and suddenly "Hail the heaven-born prince of peace!" becomes much more real and present.
But my favorite lines are the last of the hymn, and at our church service they normally happen when the child is back in Mary's arms, being cradled and comforted after the big display. We continue to sing:
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die.
The crescendo here brings tears to my eyes, the joy, the promise of this smallest human being.
Born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.
This little twenty-first century baby has no idea what is happening, or what is being sung, what he or she is representing. And perhaps that's the beauty of it. Did Jesus know who he was as he lay in the manger, being heralded by angels? I imagine that he probably didn't; like any child who has ever "acted" in this sacred role, Jesus was simply himself. He reached his small arms out to his mother, but as he grew up, he came to understand that he was actually reaching for the whole world.
Lord, may we follow in your steps and always reach for the whole world.