The First Noel

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Noel is a French word that means “birth of God,” which speaks to the mystery at the heart of Christmas.

But the familiar carol called The First Noel is English through and through.

No amount of research has turned up the composer of the tune or the author of the verses, but historians suspect they may go back as far as 500 years.

The melody has an odd feature.  It consists of one musical phrase that is repeated twice, followed by a refrain which turns out to be a variation of the same.  That suggests this carol might have begun in a church setting as “music for beginners.” 

It’s simple to sing:

The First Noel, the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light and so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent and to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the king of Israel!

This star drew nigh to the northwest o’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both pause and stay right o’er the place where Jesus lay.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of naught and with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the King of Israel!

Here’s a gentle rendition of this classic carol by 29-year-old David Archuleta

We should pause and note that while shepherds have a cherished place in our nativity scenes – they are usually depicted leaning on their crooks, holding lambs, and looking awestruck – it’s hard to imagine a group less likely to be on anyone’s guest list for the world’s first Christmas party.

In Jesus’ time shepherds were considered inherently untrustworthy.  They were forbidden to testify in court, since it was assumed they would lie.

The least important person in a family usually drew the short straw and had to watch the sheep – kind of like the youngest kid having to take out the trash. 

It was an unendingly dull and depleting task.  Tending sheep, after all, is not like working with dolphins or border collies or preschoolers.  There is no likelihood the sheep will ever “grow up” and make life easier for the shepherd.

Sheep are skittish creatures.  They are often in a state of agitation, which can be contagious in a flock.  Sheep will bolt when they are startled.  They unthinkingly follow whoever or whatever appears to offer them leadership, even if that leader is taking them over a cliff.

In Psalm 23 we learn that the Lord who is our Shepherd “makes me lie down in green pastures.”  It’s not easy to make sheep lie down.   

When some breeds of sheep accidentally roll over onto their backs, they find it hard to right themselves.  Death from asphyxiation can come within 45 minutes.  Shepherds must be constantly vigilant. 

Sheep-tenders wore the bluest of blue collars in Palestine.  Yet they were the ones who were visited by the angels.  They were the ones who heard about the Child who would rescue God’s people.

And by God’s grace they were the ones invited to the manger.  This would kind of be like a crew from a trash collecting truck pulling into your driveway, coming to your front door, and saying, “We heard you just brought your new baby home from the hospital.  Could we each hold him?”

It has long been thought that the sheep grazing near Bethlehem were exceptional in one regard.  They were part of the temple flocks – the sheep that were used for the daily sacrifices on the altar in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, lying in a feeding trough in the small town nearby was the Lamb of God, “who takes away the sins of the world.”

The shepherds heard the first Noel. 

Our call is to share the angels’ song everywhere else on the planet.