We know all the carols by heart, at least in my family we do. I have memories of singing these songs through the years at church gatherings or dinners or joining with people to share the Christmas hymns with others, which we call caroling. Caroling has become one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. I’ve been in groups where we went to hospitals, to retirement homes, and even bars one year.
That was interesting. We had to ask the DJ or band to pause their music so we could sing about Jesus into those places. Some were annoyed but most appreciated it. At the same time, these are old songs with old language. Repetition and tradition can teach well, but if we’re not careful, we devolve into rote, mindless activity, adopting obligation, and losing meaning. That definitely happens when songs use words we don’t understand.
One of those songs I never understood as a kid was The First Noel. What does “noel” mean? A quick Google tells us that it is an old French word that meant “birthday” and developed to a term for Christmas, as in the birthday of Jesus. That might be simple, and we could stop there. But if we dig a little deeper, we can find a treasure of meaning that can help us infuse an old Christmas hymn with life and learn why we can celebrate noel every day.
How Christmas Developed
We don’t find a celebration of Christmas in the Bible. The only regular observance mentioned in the New Testament was Communion, described by Paul in 1 Corinthians (one of the earliest letters written) as a common meal with bread and wine to signify the body and blood of Jesus.
The first holiday instituted by the early church was Easter, and the fight over which calendar they should follow almost split the leaders of the church at the time. Some wanted to keep the traditional Hebrew calendar and associate Easter with Passover. Others pushed for a change to the Roman calendar. The Roman calendar won.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what day Jesus was born, although we can guess in late summer or fall, when it was easier and more convenient to travel for a census. Winter would have been more difficult. Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the date for the Feast of the Nativity (natus Christus), which coincided with popular Roman pagan festivals, which Christmas now replaced. The Christmas holiday spread down to Egypt by 432 AD and out to England by the 6th century.
“Noel” comes from the same root words from Latin, natus, where we get the nativity, meaning “birth,” and the French used it over time to exclusively mean the birth of Jesus. As we know, the birth of Jesus was unique and monumental, worthy to be celebrated around the world.
A Child Born, A Son Given
Isaiah shares this prophecy – “Unto us a child is born, a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). It is important to notice the difference of those two phrases. Jesus was physically born of Mary 2000 years ago with animals all around him, swaddled with cloths and placed in a manger. That event happened in history. However, the Son of God was given. Christ, the Anointed One, is eternal. In that moment, the eternal and heavenly reality entered the broken, temporary world. Jesus was both fully God and fully human.
This had never happened before. There had been miraculous births, notably Isaac the son of Abraham. God had appeared to Abraham, Moses, and others in different ways, expressing himself through creative means. But putting on humanity? Living within this dying, temporary stuff? That had never happened. Despite the modern attempt to redefine dates according to BCE and ACE, the birth of Christ to the world is the hinge of all of history. Before Christ and Anno Domini, in the year of the Lord. He reigns.
It is appropriate that we divide history that way. The gospel for the world was shared with us in that manger.
The Good News
The sky split in two and Heaven showed up to declare the joy of the good news. A host of angels, powerful and glorious beings, shouted the declaration to a few poor shepherds – Jesus was born! The King of all creation is here!
For the good news to work, Jesus had to be born both human and divine. As supernatural as Isaac’s birth was, his sacrifice wouldn’t have solved anything. Only a fully human and divine Jesus, God in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16), could die and be resurrected, thereby breaking the bondage of sin and the penalty of death and raising once again in power. Eternal life, immortality, is now shared with all of us through that loving, victorious sacrifice.
The whole of the Old Testament led up to this moment. It would be tragic and sad if the Old Testament were the end of the story. The law and prophets spoke of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), a child born and Son given. An eternal King that would rule in justice and love. “His government and peace will never end” (Isaiah 9:7).
And it is no longer up to us to manufacture or create this Kingdom. God himself has done it and has fulfilled it. “The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen.” God is excited and passionate about this Good News! This gift he gave us through his Son! That’s why we sing a song about it.
The First Noel
With this in mind, we can sing the carol and understand the meaning in the lyrics. The first noel, the initial announcement of the birth of Jesus, came from angels in Heaven. The truth that matters comes from Heaven, begins there, so it is important that the announcement came from the eternal to the Earth. Another two French terms should be mentioned here. Joyeux Noel means “Merry Christmas,” literally, joyful birth of Jesus. And Bonnes Nouvelles means Good News. The Gospel.
Poor shepherds heard the announcement first. These were Jewish men but not the educated or the wealthy, not even in Jerusalem or in the Temple. That first noel came to a pastoral people, men that worked the night shift, not the best job, and in the middle of nowhere. Jesus later quoted about the Messiah bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:17-19). That noel came to them first, and they responded by going to see what it was all about. Those shepherds then became evangelists, telling the little town of Bethlehem what they had witnessed.
Next in the song, we hear about the Magi, those wealthy men from the East. They were Gentiles. These men had seen the star, an odd celestial event, and they connected it with ancient Hebrew writings. The Magi likely had some connection to schools that Daniel set up while administrator over all of Persia. With the sign of the star, these Gentiles understood that the Messiah was about to be born.
This birth was so momentous that they traveled far, at great cost to themselves, to see this child king.
The first noel tells this story. But why the first noel? Because while the first, it wouldn’t be the last.
Living in Noel Today
That was the first noel. There are others. Christ is still being born today. Every day. Yes, we continue to celebrate noel every December 25th. We have our traditions and watch our movies and sing our songs, and I love every minute of it. But that is one part of our lives, one season of the year.
The celebration of Christ, noel, isn’t limited to one day a year or even a month. How can we limit what is infinite and eternal? We can’t. It is a constant reality.
For those that come to Christ, those that see and hear the good news and respond like poor shepherds or Magi and come to worship the Son, we are born again (John 3:3). The Bible tells us we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is no longer us who live but Christ who lives in and through us (Galatians 2:20).
The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in born again believers (Romans 8:11). The noel, then, happens all the time, all over the world, in those who believe and walk by the Spirit (Romans 8:1-2). Heaven rejoices when one sinner repents for a reason (Luke 15:10). It’s like Christmas all over again.
The noel season is an amazing reminder that we have been given treasures in these earthly vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We have been redeemed from the curse of sin and death into life everlasting in relationship with a Father who loves us and is excited we are in his family. We can live in that celebration, that constant, inexpressible, full joy because of what happened on that day thousands of years ago.
We can rejoice in him always. And again, I say rejoice. Peace.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kevron200
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.