The Secret Message in Some of Our Most Popular Christmas Carols

By Brian Lowther

With Christmas just days away, Christmas music can be heard on every radio station, and in practically every store and elevator in America. Often we don't pay attention to the lyrics of Christmas music because we’re so accustomed to them. It’s easy to sing along, but how often do we think about the words as we sing? Some popular Christmas songs are rather inappropriate, but the lyrics of several Christmas carols are marvelous and profound, and if you listen closely you might discover a secret message. One such carol is “O little town of Bethlehem.”

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.
   Yet in thy dark streets shineth
   The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
   O morning stars, together
   Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God, the King,
And peace to men on earth.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sins and enter in,
Be born to us today.
   We hear the Christmas angels
   The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” has many common Christian themes such as an everlasting light shining in the dark, our sins being cast out, and peace on earth. It concludes with a word that sums up all of these themes: “Emmanuel,” which is commonly known to mean, “God with us.” But hidden within the name Emmanuel is an awe-inspiring biblical vision.

Thy Kingdom Come

In singing “Emmanuel,” we are, in affect praying for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we are singing / praying for shalom, a one-word summary of God’s will for the earth and everything living on it.

The usual connotation of shalom is “peace.” And, while peace is one aspect of shalom, it doesn’t begin to describe the full meaning of the word. In the biblical sense, shalom is an all-encompassing term that essentially means perfect harmony, rest, and completeness. In her essay, “Shalom: The Goal of International Development,” Beth Snodderly defines shalom as, “wholeness and wellness in the context of right relationships with God, people, and nature.”[1] That says it all. 

During this holiday season which is so thoroughly associated with gift giving, what gift can we give to a person or a society in need that will reflect the shalom God wants for all of creation? What will it take to see God’s kingdom come to the troubled lands of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar, or Aleppo?  

As an answer, we can extend shalom at an individual level by proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.[2] But these proclamations need to be empowered by intentional acts of service like sharing our possessions with the needy and helping the poor,[3] or healing the sick, the blind, and those tormented by evil spirits.[4] We can also provide a preview of what God’s Kingdom will look like when it comes in its fullness by participating with others on a global scale to resolve major human problems like disease, poverty, illiteracy, apathy, corruption, racism, exploitation and violence. These are ways we destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and how we can assist God in extending shalom to our sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying corner of the universe.

If that sounds vague, I’ll make it more specific.

If you want to extend shalom in your neighborhood and around the world, I think you should sit down and make a list of everything you can think of that is wrong, unfair, ungodly, deadly, and dangerous, and then ask the Lord throughout each day, “What would you have me do about these evils?” If you sense something, and it is consistent with the self-sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus, do it. The worst-case scenario is that you will perform a small act of love or compassion for someone in need. The best-case scenario is that you will accept profound responsibility to do something significant about one of these global evils.

Still too vague?

Okay, if it were up to me, everyone reading this would find a way to focus their specific set of gifts, abilities, and interests onto the global cause that I personally feel is most compelling and strategic: disease eradication. There is a considerable list of 16 diseases which we already know how to extinguish completely, but haven’t. If I were you, I would set out with all of the willpower and courage I could muster and direct it with a laser-like focus on one of those diseases, or partner with an organization that is already doing so. I think there is every reason to see this as your Christian calling. (Read this article for why).

Does that sound impossibly ambitious?

If so, that's because it is. But while we cannot predict or count on human success in eradicating the next disease, or quelling any specific kind of evil completely, we also cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a complacent sense of resignation. As if the problems are so big we shouldn’t try. We as the collective body of Christ know far more about the problems and far more about the solutions than ever before. Yet we mainly sit back and let civil organizations[5] take the lead in tackling the great world problems of our day. I believe the principal reason shalom isn’t more widespread is because the body of Christ has not adequately accepted the challenge along with civil forces to exterminate the roots of disease and evil.

We can resolve this here and now, and empower our evangelism while we’re at it.

What we need—it seems to me—is a rally cry, a moral and spiritual equivalent of “For King And Country.” We need a sticky concept that will inspire a massive, urgent, sacrificial concentration of human effort against not humans, but human problems and against the spiritual enemy of God and of all creation.

The obstacle is, there are so many competing rally cries in today's world of advertising overload. Many of us have compassion fatigue. We are indifferent to the plethora of causes we can join, to the slew of appeals we encounter on behalf of those who are suffering. We need a rally cry that will cut through all of that fatigue and indifference, one that will turn our hearts to fire and our nerves to steel.

What if God is providing this rally cry right now on every radio station, and in practically every store and elevator in America? I think this rally cry is the secret message in many of the best Christmas carols. “Emmanuel, God with us, peace on earth, goodwill to men, the Lord is come, the Savior reigns.” When I hear these words, I hear the expectant visionary language of revolution. I hear the ultimate heavenly plan of peacefully bringing God’s kingdom of shalom to this darkened, violent planet of ours. I hear the one quality that makes any rally cry truly effective: the capacity to instill absolute confidence that the battle can and will be won. It’s the same quality contained in the famous question, “What one great thing would you dare to dream, if you knew you could not fail.”

No one anywhere is doing anything truly important if it is not part of the battle to defeat evil and extend shalom. This calling is inescapable. There is no reason for non-involvement. We either live for him and his purposes, or die in vain.

Even if you don’t tear yourself away from the work you do to join this cause “full-time,” do you consider the job you have a holy calling? Is it just a source of income and an opportunity to witness? Or, is it the most significant kind of work you could choose to do? You have only one life to live. Why not choose something most others can’t or won’t do?

Over the next few days until Christmas when you’re in the car, or in an elevator, or shopping for that last gift and you hear a Christmas carol, know that God is speaking to you, calling you to join him in defeating evil and extending shalom. Are you listening?


This blog entry was inspired by the following three blog posts that first appeared on the William Carey International Development Journal website:

Brian Lowther is the Director of
the Roberta Winter Institute


Posted on December 23, 2016 and filed under Blog, Fifth 30.