Now All is Well
Every year as I enter the Christmas season, I find myself mindlessly singing or humming the familiar carols without paying attention to the words of the song. I suspect that I am not alone. One such carol is “The First Noel,” a song that simply re-tells the Christmas story. But what does the term “Noel” mean?
I used to think that it was of French origin, but older hymnals and books of carols say that it is English instead. In fact, those same older hymnals spell it differently – “Nowell.” Here is my understanding of how we came to have this carol in the present form.
The English people are notorious for abbreviating words and phrases. When a friend would depart from them, it was customary to extend a blessing of “God be with you,” but as time went on that phrase was abbreviated into our present, “goodbye.” Another example is the word “bedlam” which is an abbreviation of the term “Bethlehem.” In England many years ago there was an insane asylum that was notorious for its noise and riotous nature, named St. Mary’s of Bethlehem. Associating any riotous events with the reputation of this asylum led to coining a new word, “bedlam” meaning “riotous.”
A similar abbreviation probably occurred leading to “noel.” This spelling would be a shortened form of “nowell” which itself probably is an abbreviated form of “now…well” or “now it is well” or possibly, “now all is well.” And this phrase is a fitting response to each part of the Christmas story that is related in the song.
“The first now-all-is-well, the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…” One can only imagine their sense of despair. They were Jews who knew that God had promised them His presence and provision, but rather than seeing the fruit of that promise they were under the rule of the cruel Roman Empire. As lowly shepherds, without any influence and without any legitimate opportunity to change their station in life even for the generations to come, they would likely be characterized by a deep sense of helplessness. The knowledge that there were factions within the Jewish community that couldn’t agree about how to shake off the Roman oppression only increased their despair.
It was to these oppressed and depressed people that the news first came that “Now-all-is-well” – the promised Messiah is born. Certainly we could not expect them to anticipate the future ministry of this Baby, but hope doesn’t always have to understand. It was enough that an angel with a mighty host of heaven visited them that wonderful night with the news that Messiah had come. Now all is well.
The song goes on to suggest that the wise men were looking for a king when they followed the star to Bethlehem. History has understood these mysterious men to be Eastern astrologers who discovered in the stars that the Jewish Messiah was born. They came from an area that had been the home for many Jews who had been carried into captivity only 500 years earlier and it would not be unlikely that some Jewish people remained, or that their influence remained. These men would not be concerned about the ethnic differences because the Jewish people anticipated that Messiah would be the King over all.
If they were frustrated over the political decline of the Persian Empire to Greece and later to Rome, it would be natural for them to look for a king to arise that would right all wrongs and establish justice again in the world. This news that the promised Jewish Messiah was come would indeed be a welcome encouragement. Now all is well.
Oppressed and depressed people today can also find hope in the Promised Messiah, just as they did in ancient times. The simple truth that God has heard us and has entered again into human experience should be enough to elicit a “Now all is well!” from us, but there’s more. As the carol goes on to explain, the redemptive work of the Messiah has been completed and peace is now possible between us and the Living God. That’s the best “Now all is well” of all!
Those of us who have bowed in obedience to Jesus Christ recognize that the world in which we live desperately needs a “Now all is well!” The world is on the brink of war, fears of terrorism are all around us while rampant drug and alcohol abuse impact most families in one way or another. It is a humanly hopeless setting with no solution unless God steps in. Gloriously, He has. We invite you to meet Him this season so that you can also say, “Now all is well!”