Twelve Days: “Heaven and Nature Sing”

If Advent is a season of anticipation and Lent one of introspection, then Christmas is one of adoration, as so many of its best loved songs make clear.

It’s a quiet time of tender reverence, as we imagine ourselves in the little town of Bethlehem (“how still we see thee lie”) on a silent night (“all is calm, all is bright”) to gather around the warm intimacy of the manger (“no crying he makes”) and behold Christ the Lord.

But it’s also a loud time of exuberant praise, ringing with the sound of brass bands and mass choirs building to thunderous choruses.

Both are appropriate ways of living out the opening words of our psalm for the week: “Praise the Lord!” (Ps 148:1) The carols, hymns, and other songs of Christmas reflect humanity’s response to the closing words of the same poem:

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
    princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
    old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
    praise for all his faithful,
    for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Ps 148:11-14

As the nations rise joyfully, noted Charles Wesley, they but “join the triumph of the skies” and echo what angels have already proclaimed: “Christ is born in Bethlehem… Glory to the newborn king.” That’s actually the kind of praise that opens our psalm:

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his host!

Ps 148:1b-2
Thomas Cole, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds” (1833-34) – Wikimedia

But the adoration of the Lord doesn’t stop with angels (“all ye citizens of heaven above”) and humans. I’ve always appreciated that Isaac Watts underscored that both “heaven and nature sing” the refrain of “joy to the world!” Here too, we’ve got an echo of our psalm:

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
    stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds!

Ps 148:7-10

Perhaps Watts and the psalmist were just taking poetic license, to hear the sound of religious joy in the noises of the natural world. As I look out the window, both my neighbor’s snow-covered pine trees and the absent birds flown south for the winter sound equally silent and, in their automatic repetition of a different cycle of seasons, equally indifferent to the profound change in history that their human co-creatures are celebrating.

“Minnesota winter sunrise” – Creative Commons (ekornblut)

Or perhaps we don’t fully appreciate the height and depth of what God is accomplishing in Christ. In a passage that opens with an explanation of how the Father dealt with sin “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), the apostle Paul describes the longing for liberation as a feeling shared by “the whole creation” (v 22).

So in this season of adoration, let us join with all our fellow creatures — heavenly and earthly alike — in praising our Lord. Let us our “songs employ / While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains / Repeat the sounding joy.”

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