Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story,
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth.
Shepherds in the fields abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant Light.
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen his natal star.
Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In his temple shall appear.
All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son;
Evermore your voices raising
To th’eternal Three in One.
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.
We can grasp the game plan of this poem’s author at a glance by looking at the opening words of its successive stanzas. The paradigm on which the poem is built is that of addresses that are directed to separate entities, each of which is accompanied by a directive for that entity to perform an action. Simply listing the groups that the stanzas address reveals that they were the key players in the drama of the first Christmas and its aftermath: angels, shepherds, the wise men or sages who followed a star to the manger, saints who were waiting for Christ, and all creation. Whereas most Christmas poems have a specific focus, this one is expansive and includes as many groups as possible.
The poetic technique that underlies this strategy is called apostrophe—a direct address to someone who is absent as though he or she is present and capable of hearing and responding. It is a standard way to express strong feeling. What all the addressees in this poem share is that they are part of the Christmas story in some way. With that constant factor firmly fixed in our minds, our attention naturally turns toward seeing how the poet matches the content of the addresses to the specific group that each one names. As we explore the logic of the different stanzas, we can see the skill with which the poet carried out his plan.
The poem opens on a soaring note by addressing the angels, who are described as coming from “the realms of glory”—an epithet for heaven that fires our imagination and awakens our longing. From time immemorial, angels have been viewed as winged creatures that fly over the entire earth on missions from God. Just as the angels sang at creation (see Job 38:7), it is fitting for them to proclaim an even greater act of creation: Christ’s birth. The second group that is addressed, the shepherds abiding in their fields by night, keeps our imaginations rooted to the original Christmas night. The shepherds are not explicitly commanded to do anything, but by pointing them to the light where the Christ child lies, the poem implicitly directs them toward Bethlehem. In the meantime, we the readers are reminded that the significance of Christ’s birth is that God is now residing with people (the God with man theme).
Next this pageant of snapshots from the nativity shifts to the wise men from the East. They are commanded to leave their accustomed practice of searching for wisdom and instead to follow the star of Bethlehem to the Christ child. Imagery of light informs this stanza. The pageant continues in the fourth stanza with a reference to pious Jews like Simeon and Anna, who lived in anticipation of the appearance of the infant Jesus (see Luke 2:25–32, 36–38). The statements they made when they saw Jesus in the temple sweep into our awareness here.
Just as the nativity story in Luke is permeated with cosmic imagery, here the poet commands all creation to praise the triune God in the final stanza. In keeping with the expansive vision of the poem, the entire Godhead is brought into the address and time expands to all eternity.
The poem is carefully crafted, and we can relish the simplicity of its scheme. It exhibits a balance of complexity and subtlety in its five apostrophes as it molds the content of each one to a specific group and ties in evocative Scripture references. This poem exhibits the virtue of being carefully thought out.
Because this poem keeps shifting its frame of reference from one part of the Bible to another, it is a little arbitrary to choose a single part of Scripture as a corroborating text for it. Hebrews 1:1–2 follows the same pattern that the poem does of presenting Christ as the fulfillment and replacement of earlier things:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
—Leland Ryken, 40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year