Behind the Carols: O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Come, All Ye Faithful, joyful and triuuuuuumphant. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be looking at a few Christmas hymns. O Come, All Ye Faithful is a hymn originally written in the mid 1700’s in Latin. We don’t know who wrote it, exactly. It has been attributed to several people – but the story that is at least the most fun is that it was written by English “Jacobites” as a birth hymn to someone whom they thought should have the throne of England. 

The story goes that these Jacobites wrote a Christmas hymn that was ostensibly about Jesus, but was really about the birth of the next heir in a dynastic line that had been refused the throne by a usurper. Charles Edward Stuart was born in 1720, the son of James Francis Edward Stuart – someone who felt that he was owed the throne of England by succession, but had been passed over because, out of many reasons, he was Roman Catholic. The supporters of the Stuarts and their claim to the throne were known as Jacobites, and the Jacobites were excited when they found out that the dynasty that they supported was continuing with the birth of a new “true king”.

This isn’t to say that we’ve simply been singing political propaganda every Christmas. In fact, it’s probable that the Jacobite origin story of this hymn is a made up political campaign in itself. But the story of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (the Jacobite nickname for Charles Edward Stuart), does have some similarities with the story of Christmas. Like the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Jesus was born as the claimant to a throne – the throne of David. In fact, if you read the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel, it appears that Matthew is making a case for the kingship of Jesus. The hymn also includes the line “born the King of angels,” which alludes to Jesus’ role as the King of all Created Things (since angels are creatures, created by God).

Throughout the hymn there is an affirmation of both Jesus’ divine and human natures, as in this line which is almost a direct quote of the Nicene Creed: “God of God, Light of Light, Lo He abhors not the Virgin’s womb”. This is an important point for us as Christians, and especially this year as we consider what it means for us to be the Body of Christ. What it means is that Heaven and Earth, through the birth of Jesus, have a common King – the King of all Creation, the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. There may be false kings that claim His throne, from Herod to our false gods and false kings today – but the throne is always His.

And so, like Jacobites this Christmas we come, singing our rebellious song against the usurping powers of this world. We sing our song against the false kings who place themselves on the throne, against the anti-christs of political power and popular adulation. We know the true King, even if He is born now in a manger, we know that He is the truth. We, the faithful, sing our song against that which is false and give our worship to the true King, Jesus Christ.