To tell the truth, this year was the first time that I had heard this carol, despite it being one of the oldest Christmas songs on record! I had seen it written often in carol sheets, so many times in fact that I had always assumed that I knew it!
The version itself is obviously a more modern arrangement than would initially have been heard around 500 years ago. The carol focuses on the message that the angels delivered to the shepherds. As we all know, this is a crucial part of the Nativity play found in schools and churches all over the country. Luke Chapter 2: "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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
One of the downsides to hearing the same words each year is that it is easy for the impact of what has happened to be lost. The shepherds were rightly initially terrified, as far as they were aware this was another ordinary day for an ordinary group of men. But this day was very extra-ordinary, it took the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of angels to announce to the world the gravity of what was about to take place. Their lives, and the lives of millions after them, were about to be changed as a result of the arrival of the Son of God.
As enjoyable and worthwhile as these classic children's Nativity plays are, I don't think that this is an image we can accurately convey when watching a handful of youngsters in bedsheets, tea towels and oversized dressing gowns!