December 17th, 2017

Why Carols


Luke 2:4-7


Is Christmas too popular?

I began this season by wondering aloud if Christmas is too popular. Every radio station plays their version of Christmas music. Every store has some kind of holiday emphasis. From the Hallmark channel to the NFL to political ads, Christmas on some level seems to belong to everyone, including those who have no interest in Jesus or church the rest of the year. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Consider Christmas carols. Everyone knows them, and everyone sings them. You don’t have to be a believer in Jesus to know and love “Silent Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I was quite sure those singing “The Little Drummer Boy” on the cable channel last night had no clue what the song is about. To them it might as well be “Jingle Bells” or “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Carols were originally outdoor songs, not church songs. They were folk songs, not necessarily related to Christmas. Carols were often pagan songs. The word itself means a “dancing song.” They were songs everyone knew, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Yankee Doodle” or “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” Everybody knew them; everybody sang them. People went around “caroling” like UNC fans breaking out with “I’m a Tar Heel born I’m a Tar Heel bred and when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead.” It’s a great song for a pep rally, but I’m guessing the UNC Music Department doesn’t perform it during concerts.

Christmas carols were considered unworthy of church. The music was probably made up by some street dude, and the words were often faulty as well. Sometimes the facts were confused, as with “The First Noel,” which has the shepherds seeing the same star as the wise men, something the Bible never mentions. I like to say about “We Three Kings” that it’s a pretty good song except that the Bible doesn’t say there were three of them, they weren’t kings, and they weren’t from the Orient.

Then why do these carols hang on? Christmas traditions – from Santa Claus to giving presents to services like this one – are relatively recent phenomena. No one in the first millennium of the church knew about nativity scenes or plays. Christmas carols started in the medieval church, and most of the cultural obsession with all things Christmas is tied to commercialism. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The New England Puritans would roll over in their graves. They famously banned not only carols but Christmas itself. One of the reasons they came to America was to get away from Christmas. In England Christmas was a big deal – traditions, feasts, revelry. In 1659, the Puritans in America decreed the following:  “The observation of Christmas having been declared a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar Satanic practices are hereby forbidden with the offender liable to a fine of five schillings.”

Brooks and Lewis

The Puritans lost that battle, apparently. Or sort of. I would say they actually changed the course of Christmas carols.

The Puritans inadvertently ushered in the golden age of Christmas carols, the nineteenth century. It was the century that gave us many Christmas traditions – from Santa’s sleigh and reindeer to indoor Christmas trees to poinsettias to sending Christmas cards to state and national holidays. “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” were both written in that century.

Christmas carols written in the nineteenth century include “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the Civil War. Those carols seem better theologically than their predecessors.

One of my favorite stories is about “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It was written by an Episcopalian minister with, ironically, a Puritan heritage. Phillips Brooks was 6’6” and 300 pounds, an imposing man. He was known as a powerful preacher.

In 1865, as the Civil War wound down, Phillips visited the Holy Land. He was only 30 years old. On Christmas Eve, he rode by horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and attended a service at the Church of the Nativity. About that experience he would later write, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth… forever there will be a singing in my soul.”

Three years later Brooks decided to write a simple Christmas hymn for the children’s Christmas program. Months before the season, he wrote out five verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and handed them to the church organist asking him to write the tune. The organist’s name was Lewis, and Brooks promised him if he would write a tune they would call it “St. Lewis.”

Our organist, Peter Corneliussen, will appreciate what one of my sources said happened next. “When Brooks asked (Lewis) to set ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ to music, he did what composers always do when handed a deadline:  nothing.” The tune literally came to him in a dream on Christmas Eve 1868, and he wrote it down the next morning while shaving before church. Six Sunday School teachers and 36 children sang it for the first time the next morning. Most hymnals omit the fourth verse, but we’ve kept it in our service tonight to remember this was originally written for the children.

Penetration of the Gospel

But isn’t it a shame that people sing this song without pondering the words? We are singing about “the everlasting light”! We sing about “this world of sin” and the need for the “dear Christ” to “enter in.” The song climaxes asking “our Lord Emmanuel” to “come to us, abide with us.” Those are powerful words about who Jesus is – God with us – and what he came to do – eradicate sin. The words sing of the need for personal decision – we have to let him in! But who’s paying attention?

All they’re doing is playing “holiday music” while they buy more presents and watch TV shows about romance and angels getting their wings. Shouldn’t we be pushing back and retaking Christmas for the sake of true believers? At the least shouldn’t we challenge Christmas to push harder against commercialism and the rat race that makes everyone fatter and more harried for the six weeks of Festivus?

About a week ago as I prepared a message for a service at Hart Square, something else hit me. Hart Square is one of those nineteenth century places that take you back to a simpler time, with wooden pew benches and pump organs and candles instead of electric lights. I started to pine a bit for those days.

Then it hit me. The genius of the Gospel is that it penetrates every time and culture. Christmas (and Easter) can penetrate Nicaragua in the 21st century. It can inspire Francis of Assisi to create the first nativity scene in the 13th century. The message can be caroled by illiterate commoners in Medieval England. It can be preached in 17th century Puritan New England with all those grinches. And if it can go to all those places, the same message can get through right here in 21st century Hickory where we’re all distracted by the Carolina Panthers or the Clemson Tigers or Amazon shipments or shopping trips or holiday parties that leave us ragged.

Jesus can even get through in a world that sings carols about him without knowing him, right? Yes, many people are singing carols superfluously, but that’s the point! They are accessible to the masses.

Suppose all Tar Heel fans woke up one basketball season to find out everyone in the country was singing “I’m Tar Heel Born” for a whole month every year. Everyone wore Carolina Blue and greeted each other with, “Go Heels!”  Would they complain and say, “This is just wrong! Duke and State fans should not be singing our songs. We need to ban Carolina merchandise until everyone wearing it really loves Carolina!”? I think they’d be thrilled. I know a few of them. True Tar Heel fans would just assume everyone has either seen the light or there’s hope for them. The more they get exposed to Carolina the more chances they have to embrace the best!

That’s where I’ve come this year. Hooray for Christmas popularity! Hooray for Christmas carols, even if their tunes are subpar and their words leave something to be desired! Hooray for the fact that our whole world gets some level of exposure to Jesus this time of year!

Those of us who know him can go deep with these carols, grasping and loving the expressions of who he is and what he did. And if you don’t know him, perhaps something in one of these old songs will penetrate your heart.

Or maybe it will be a new song. Our own Peter Corneliussen has written a new anthem for this service that speaks to God as “Winter Wind.” Wind or breath is a common metaphor in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, and winter reminds us of barrenness and need and affliction. The winters of our lives are times when the Holy Spirit especially longs to convict us of our sin and need, drawing us to Christ.

The prayer offered in these words is that this Wind would capture my heart to bring calm in my Winter. “My heart, my kiss, my offering.” He longs to draw close to us, and has provided for that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let us respond to him, giving ourselves fully to him. Amen.

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