The first Nowell the angel 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. Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, born is the King of Israel.
Nowell, or more commonly Noel, was an early greeting for Christians celebrating the Christ-child’s birth. According to scholars, it likely comes from the Latin words for “birth” and “news.” It remained a customary saying for the season of Christmastide until far more recently.
In it’s full form, this hymn has six verses that take us through the entirety of the first visit accounts from the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the world’s “unwanteds” – the shepherds – who arrived on the night of the child’s birth, having been invited by heavenly messengers.
It then quickly moves into the account of the Wise Men who arrived after the initial Nativity. In Matthew’s telling, they represent his central vantage point – that of one who has much. The question for such a person is how will one use what one has to welcome this child?
And at the heart of this carol is the light of the star, which shines in the East, and draws much attention to this important birth. That star is the mirror image of the Light that was born into the world that night. It is a light more powerful than any darkness. Whether you are among the forgotten or the inordinately blessed, the star (and the Light it represents) offers good news to all who would follow it.
With the message of the Christ-child’s arrival fully shared, the author then shifts to what we, as followers of Christ, need most to hear – encouragement for our own part in Christ’s ministry: Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord, that hath made heaven and earth of nought and with his blood our life hath bought. Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, born is the King of Israel.