I’ve never met a soul who didn’t love Christmas music!
Shortly after Thanksgiving (or even before) we start to hear those familiar holiday songs on the radio, piped over loud speakers, in stores and doctor’s offices and – well – “everywhere we go”: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” Those songs still make Billboard’s Top Ten every year.
And every time we sing one of those traditional Christmas carols in worship—doesn’t it fill our hearts with just a wee bit more of that special spirit of this holy season.
I think Christmas music really brings out the best in us.
Several years ago I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping (in Wichita), standing in a long checkout line at Walmart. The little old lady who was at the head of the line, right in front of me, was buying some groceries. And the conversation she was having with the checkout clerk went something like this: “Oh, no,” said the lady, “I picked up the wrong kind of soda pop. Harold likes Mug Root Beer. This is A&W.”
“That’s no problem, ma’am,” said the young clerk. “I’ll just send Gary (the bagboy) to go trade it out.” So Gary dashes off, while the rest of us stand in a line that’s getting gradually longer and longer. Gary finally returns with a six pack of Mug Root Beer and puts it on the conveyor belt.
Our little lady looks at it and says, “Oh dear . . . Those are the 12 oz cans. Harold doesn’t like to drink that much at one time. And once you open it, you know, all the fizz goes out.”
So Gary is sent on another errand, this time to retrieve a 12 pack of the 7.5 oz cans of Mug Root Beer.
Now, by this time, about ten minutes or so has rolled by while the rest of us continued to stand in place; and if you’ve ever waited in line at a Walmart, you know that 10 minutes can seem like a very long time indeed. One might fully expect others in line to be grumbling, or repeatedly checking their watches, or shooting angry glances at our little old lady. But they were not. In fact, they seemed to be very genuinely patiently waiting; and as I turned to make eye contact with a few of them (in a sort of pastoral way), and they all returned friendly smiles toward me. At Walmart!
Then something really amazing happened—a true Christmas miracle.
“Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” sung by Bing Crosby, came over the loudspeaker. And the young mother standing in line right behind me started quietly singing it to her three-year-old who was getting a little fidgety and fussy sitting there in the shopping cart. “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why . . .”
And because I’m, you know, such a goofball, I turned around and started singing with her: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice . . .”
And then, and here’s the amazing thing, other folks standing in that line – the imposing looking guy in the motorcycle jacket, the elderly gentlemen with the sporty cap, the middle-aged black women, the weather-beaten farmer in overalls, the young oriental couple – one by one all of them joined in with the song: “He sees you when your sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake . . . oooh . . .”
By the end of the song, we were all singing together like . . . like a church choir. Like a very bad off-key church choir.
And I tell you what; I will never look at Walmart – or its shoppers – the same again.
When we hear those wonderful Christmas songs and carols it seems to just touch our hearts in ways that other songs—those we sing the rest of the year—just can’t hold a candle to (so to speak). You know, it makes us kind of nostalgic in the very best of ways—fills our hearts with joy and hope, and a childlike sense of wonder.
One colleague calls Christmas carols our `heart songs.’ Songs with heart.”
In fact the word carol comes from the Old French “carole,” meaning to `joyfully sing,’ or even `to dance.’ Beginning in the 1300s the word was used for a joyful, exuberant song that was sung – by common folk – in sort of a circle dance. Carols were folk tunes—not `high church’ cantatas or operatic chorales designed for liturgical ritual. Carols were songs of the people.
In the Reformation, carols became the Christmas theology of the common folk. Carols were protestant preachers’ way to bring the joy of Christ’s birth directly to the people in their own language and culture. They were songs of hope for every class of people—sung in homes, in the streets, in worship, and at all kinds of gatherings. These were joyful songs; songs that called for dancing; songs that were meant to inspire genuine Christian celebration.
“Carols are our `heart song’—songs that touch the heart of humanity with God’s message of immanence—God’s “in the now-ness,” as one said. God’s favor and blessing.[i]
Emmanuel—God-with-us-common-folks. You and me.
The angel Gabriel makes an extraordinary announcement to an ordinary young woman, Mary. The news is so profound, so overwhelming, in fact, that it seems to leave her a bit awestruck – dumbfounded.
But then Gabriel makes his exit, and suddenly Mary finds herself alone and pregnant. And I’m sure more than a little perplexed and apprehensive about what had just taken place.
So, seeking comfort, company and good counsel, Mary makes the lonely trek to her older cousin Elizabeth’s house in the hill country, some 80 miles away.
And the very moment Mary says `Hello’ to her cousin, the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And then adds in her own perplexity, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Two marginalized, culturally powerless women chosen by the Most High to bear the seeds of salvation to humankind with all of its cosmic implications.
Co-authors Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia Rigby (in their book Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary) write, “Mary is who we are. She is a person of faith who does not always understand but who seeks to put her trust in God. She is one who is blessed not because she sins less or has keener insights into the things of God. She is instead blessed, as we are, because she is called by God to participate in the work of God . . . To call Mary blessed is to recognize the blessedness of ordinary people who are called to participate in that which is extraordinary.”[ii]
Then suddenly, it apparently all finally sinks in – the profound reality of it all, the earthshaking implication – until Mary fully embraces Gabriel’s good news and spontaneous joy surges from her own heart like a fountain; in song.
You could call it the very first Christmas carol ever sung.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sings Mary, “and my soul rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary breaks into song, filled with the spirit of joy, and it is immanently contagious.
In fact, in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, everyone is singing: Zechariah sings when he learns his is finally going to be a father; Mary hears she is going to be a mother and sings: Elizabeth sings, Simeon sings, the angels sing; everyone is singing. Which seems to be the very effect the Annunciation of the coming of the Christ Child has on people. (W. Willimon)
Since Mary first sang her song, countless scores and hymns have been inspired. The `Magnificat’ we call it. The ancient church sang it regularly in liturgy. Benedictine monks still chant it every eventide. Johann Sebastian Bach put it to some of the most glorious music ever written. (J. Buchanan)
Mary, filled with the Spirit of Incarnated Joy broke into song, and humanity has been singing about it ever since.
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Holy wisdom, love most bright
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned
With the fire of life impassioned
Striving still to truth unknown
Soaring, dying round Thy throne
May God’s glad tidings of our eternal salvation
in Jesus Christ fill your hearts with joyful song this Christmas.
[ii] Galventa, Beverly R. & Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002.