The Language of Christmas
Try, if you can, to remember the first time you heard the Christmas story—the awe it inspired as you took every word to heart, every image, every movement of the narrative, printing it to memory, the highness of the language it was clothed in, how the words seemed to sparkle like the season itself. “And she brought forth her first begotten son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Or “And there were in the same region shepherds abiding in the field and watching their flock by night.” Or Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel upon his announcement.
My soul magnifieth the Lord.
And my spirit rejoiceth in God my savior.
For he hath looked on the poor degree of his handmaiden.
Behold now from henceforth shall all generations call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things, and holy is his name.
And where would the Christmas story be without “And it came to pass . . . ?”
These beloved passages, and passages like them, gave Christmas a sound of its own. Even the carols we sing, year after year, have this same voice—Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, Away In A Manger, We Three Kings, Silent Night, Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel, and many others. Though the sound is long frosted with age, Christmas doesn’t exactly seem like Christmas without it.
Contrary to what you may suspect, the passages above, as familiar as they are, were not taken from the King James Bible (1611), but were introduced into the English language many years earlier by an Englishman named William Tyndale. To understand Tyndale’s contribution to the language and the sonority of Christmas, a little backstory may help.
For the centuries that preceded the advent of bible translators like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, there was no vernacular scripture, that is, no scripture in the common tongue. Dominating western culture, the Roman Catholic Church would not allow it. Latin was the rule (lingua franca) of both the church and the universities. It was against the law of both church and state to possess, translate, or even read scripture in your own language, and the cost of resistance was most often fatal. In 1519, in Coventry, England, six members of one family were burned at the stake for simply teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English. As horrific as that sounds to us today, it is an accurate measure of how severe and how lethal the times were. The believer had no access to the scripture in his or her own language, and therefore had limited access to God.
Enter William Tyndale and his 1526 English New Testament.
For the first time in history, an Englishman could read the Bible or have it read to them in his own language. No longer driven by medieval superstition and fear, the English believer’s entire perception of God began to come under new management. It was still dangerous. But it was also irresistible. Imagine hearing for the first time, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16) Sweet to the ear, it is not difficult to see how revolutionary an English translation could be, especially since God had been muzzled for so long. Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament introduced the following phrases into the stream of the English language forty years before King James was even born.
Give us this day our daily bread
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory,
Behold, I stand at the door and knock
I am the way, the truth, and the life
Fight the good fight
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light
Let not your hearts be troubled
In him we live, move, and have our being
In my father’s house are many mansions
While these words are familiar to you and me, to the English believer at the time they were startlingly new. God was no longer hoarded or kept at a distance. He was flush, lucent, almost palpable. And he spoke English. He sounded like the people sounded. He used their words, their patterns and rhythms. This new bible had the effect of an emancipation, not just for the English language but the English spirit as well. A single generation after Tyndale’s death in 1536, between the years of 1570 and 1630, thirty thousand new words flooded the English language. The English bible is not the only reason for such a flood, but it was certainly a major contributor.
An English bible put a new taste in the mouth for the delicious English word, a whole new pride. Until Tyndale, the English language was scorned by the elite, by men of learning, who considered it the bottom of the pond. A student at Oxford could speak English only on holidays or in the privacy of one’s own room. Tyndale’s Bible changed that perception and gave the English something it had never seen, heard, or hardly imagined before. Scholars talk of that Tyndale/Shakespeare English we speak to this day (though, in truth, more of the English we speak comes from Tyndale than from his literary heir, William Shakespeare).
Though the King James translators made minor improvements to the text, 90 to 94% of the King James New Testament is the translation of William Tyndale, and most often word for word. That means that Tyndale, one of the chief architects of the English language, remains the ghost behind it, invisible and regrettably underprized.
So what about the language of Christmas, with its high step and its lovely old voice?
Why does it never seem to age?
Why does joy itself, exultation, even glory seem to have a tongue of their own, so very English and so perfectly tuned?
Because Tyndale wrote and translated while on the run, because he was an outlaw writing and translating an outlawed book, because Christianity is always at its best when under fire, not only did he overcome outrageous odds and produce an English masterpiece, giving us something very special, he did it at the cost of his own life. But there is more.
There is a living quality about Tyndale’s New Testament, an animating spirit, that has little to do with intellect, drive, passion, or long hours of study. I’m not sure it is a thing that can be taught. Consider the following passage from Romans:
Who shall separate us from the love of God? shall tribulation? or anguish? or persecution? or hunger? or nakedness? or peril? or sword? As it is written: For thy sake are we killed all day long and are counted as sheep appointed to be slain. Nevertheless in all these things we overcome strongly through his help that loved us.
—Romans 8:35, William Tyndale New Testament
When Tyndale translated this passage and passages like it, he was forced to live the kind of life described in that very text, a life of hardship, peril, and persecution. Given his artistic, literary, and spiritual instincts, pressed to the surface and exercised at full capacity as they were, it gave the words of Paul profound resonance within him, making the Word come alive in Tyndale in ways that were not possible in fairer times. The result? Majesty. Authority. Beauty. Tyndale had a way of blending simplicity and splendor, precision and grandeur, clarity and magnificence into every line he crafted.
William Tyndale did not set out to create a literary masterpiece or to give the Christmas story the peculiar kind of linguistic sparkle, movement, and inner life he gave it. It just happened. He was simply obeying a call. Arrested and tried for heresy, after spending 500 days in a lonely dungeon, he went to the scaffold on October 6, 1536, as a lamb, knowing his departure was at hand, just as he translated it.
He was burned at the stake and his ashes were thrown into the River Zenne.
We owe William Tyndale a debt we hardly know about, much less that we could ever repay. Every time you hear the Christmas story in King James English, or any English, it would be nice to remember the great cost of him who first gave it to us, who taught us how to listen and what to listen for, who set the words of God to a grand music of their own, a devout man who wanted nothing more than for Christ to be born in you, and in a way that could be easily understood. Like salvation itself, our English Bible was purchased with love and sacrifice, and offered to each of us as a gift. I, for one, am grateful.
Godspeed (a Tyndale word),