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Words and Sayings of the Season:  “Carol, Alleluia, & Noel
Luke 2:11

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Advent Service II—December 12, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

During Advent this year our sermon series is on “Words and Sayings of the Season,” explaining the Biblical background and meaning of words and sayings that we commonly hear, and say ourselves, this time of year.  This evening we continue with, “Carol, Alleluia, & Noel.”

The word “carol” is actually a contraction of the Greek words “Kyrie Eleison,” which mean, “Lord, have mercy.”  This short prayer occurs dozens of times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments.  In the Gospels, people who seek Jesus’ help and healing often cry out to him, “Lord . . . have mercy upon me!”  Most of our liturgy is quotations directly from the Bible, and since ancient times this Biblical cry “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord, have mercy,” has been a regular part of Christian liturgy and prayers.

During the Middle Ages the church services were conducted in Latin, which most people could not understand.  But, among the common people a new style of song became popular, with the verses sung in their everyday languages, German or French or Italian or Spanish or English, and each verse ending with the refrain, “Kyrie Eleison.”  Gradually, the words “Kyrie Eleison” were compressed together and abbreviated into a new word: “carol.”  These popular, easy to sing songs came to be called “carols,” and singing them was “caroling.” 

Originally, carols weren’t limited to Christmas.  There actually are carols for other seasons of the church year, especially many Easter carols.  But, the most popular and enduring were Christmas carols, and Christmas caroling from house to house became an beloved Christmas custom.

In our hymnal, there’s only one hymn like this that repeats the Greek phrase “Kyrie Eleison,” hymn number 942.  But, many Christmas carols have a refrain that repeats at the end of each verse, and that goes back to this original form of the carol, singing at the end of each verse “Kyrie Eleison.”

Our prayers this evening will begin with this plea “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord, have mercy,” crying out to God first of all for forgiveness, and for help in our needs.  Because of our sins we deserve God’s wrath and punishment, and we have no reason to expect God to hear our prayers, and show us mercy, and grant us his help.   But, the angels announce to the shepherds the Good News of Christmas, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Christmas isn’t just a mid-winter holiday festival.  At Christmas we are celebrating the forgiveness of sins, brought to us by our Savior, Christ the Lord.  For, by his birth, life, death, and resurrection he spared us from God’s wrath, by taking our punishment upon himself.  As one Christmas carol says, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”

That’s why its customary now in Christian liturgy and prayers to have a three-fold Kyrie, like we will begin our prayers with this evening: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”  That three-fold cry represents the three Persons of the Trinity, with the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, called upon by name.  Because, through faith in your Savior, Christ the Lord, your sins are all forgiven, and God promises to hear your prayers offered in Jesus’ name.  As Jesus promised, “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”  The book of Hebrews says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” 

That’s what we do in the Kyrie and our other prayers, approach God’s throne with confidence, confidence that on account of Christ we will receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. That’s the meaning packed into the word “carol,” a contraction of the Biblical cry, “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord, have mercy.”

The question most commonly asked about the word “alleluia” is what’s the difference between “alleluia” with an “a” and “hallelujah” with an “h.”  The answer is, there isn’t any difference.  It’s just two different ways to transliterate the same Hebrew word, “hallelujah.”  The “yah” at the end is actually short for “Yahweh,” the Hebrew name for God.  “Hallelujah” means “Praise be to Yahweh,” “Praise be to God.”  So, when we sing and say “hallelujah” or “alleluia,” it’s a shorthand way of saying, “Praise be to God.”  No doubt the shepherds were singing and saying a lot of “alleluias” on the first Christmas Eve, when the Christmas story tells us that after visiting the manger “they spread the word about what had been told them concerning this child.”

Finally, the word “noel” is a French contraction of the Latin phrase “natalis dies,” “day of birth.”  So, “noel” really means “birthday.”  Over time it came to refer specifically to the one birthday in all of history that is so significant that we literally number our years by it.  When you say or sing “noel” you’re really saying, “Happy Birthday Jesus!”  As one Christmas song says:

In the little village of Bethlehem,
There lay a Child one day,
And the sky was bright with a holy light
O’er the place where Jesus lay.
Alleluia! Oh, how the angels sang.
Alleluia! How it rang!
And the sky was bright with a holy light,
Twas the birthday of a King.

At Christmastime we sing carols and celebrate with alleluias the noel of our Savior, Christ the Lord.  “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. . .  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”


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