Luke 2:8-9 (ESV)
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
One of the oldest Christmas ballads we sing today goes back to the 1500’s. Whoever was responsible for writing this carol was obviously incredibly enthusiastic about Christmas and fully understood the wonder of Christ’s birth, but didn’t have a full grasp of the Scriptures that told the story of that birth. During the Middle Ages, when “The First Noel” was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation. Common people rarely saw a Bible and even if they did, they probably couldn’t have read the words.
With no Bible to guide him, the writer of this carol surely drew from the stories he had been told about the events of Christ’s birth. Most things he recounted accurately, but he erred when he depicted the shepherds following the star to Christ’s birthplace.
Oh, what a privilege we have today to have personal access to God’s Word, and have the ability to read and understand it. We no longer need to be in the dark regarding what the Bible says. Now we have the responsibility to hold everything up to the light of Scripture. For example, when we sing that the shepherds looked up and saw a star shining in the east in “The First Noel” we are aware of today’s Scripture Luke 2:8-9 which says, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
The Bible never mentions the star with the shepherds, only with the wise men. Nevertheless we can enjoy singing “The First Noel” because the spirit of this old hymn more than makes up for its deficiencies.
For the first three hundred years of its existence, “The First Noel,” was not allowed in most churches. Because the clergy disregarded this beautiful carol, it became the holiday voice of the people. Over the years English peasants adopted the Scandinavian custom of ushering in the Christmas season by lighting a Yule log. “The First Noel” became the song that was sung as a part of this custom. It was simply passed from generation to generation until it was finally published in 1833.
Today this song, obviously inspired by the story of the birth of a Savior and probably written by a common, illiterate man, remains one of the most loved carols of all time. Although we must keep in mind that the shepherds didn’t follow a star, we can also remember that “The First Noel” represents the real essence of Christmas: the announcement of Christ’s arrival on earth. The tradition of the Yule log may have died out, but the message of “The First Noel” still burns brightly.
Dear Lord, we thank You for coming that first Christmas. Help us like the shepherds seek to find You. In the Name of Jesus Amen.