Even though I’m not a great singer, as anybody who has heard me singing on Zoom when I forget to mute can readily attest, I do love singing Christmas carols. There is something about singing out loud the familiar tunes and words that brings me great pleasure, that fills my heart and soul with joy and helps me to feel that Christmas has truly arrived.
This year is different. Due to the very sensible Covid-19 regulations around worship we are not allowed to sing those carols as congregations in our church buildings. Yes, soloists and small socially distanced choirs can sing, but most of us can’t.
I have had the opportunity to sing some of the carols, at our Zoom Circuit Carol Service last Sunday, but even that wasn’t quite the same as singing them together in church. Most of the time we are just reading the words or a screen whilst the organist is playing, or listening to others singing them, which has brought me a strange and unpredicted benefit …….
For the first time in several years I’m thinking more about the theology behind the words, the complex theology the words convey so simply and beautifully; and I’d like to share some of my thoughts with. Don’t worry, I’m not going through every line of every carol, just a few highlights.
And don’t be frightened of by the word “theology”. It just means thinking about God.
I’ll start with a line from my least favourite carol, Away in a Manger, a carol I dislike so much that I never choose it for services. There is one particular line that really, really irritates me, “but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”. I’m sorry, but if a baby, any baby, is woken up by an unexpected noise that baby will cry. Even the most perfect baby. I’m assuming the intention of the anonymous writer of that line was to convey the sinless perfection of Jesus of Jesus, but he goes rather too far, elevating Jesus to something more akin to God pretending to be human rather than being fully human as well as fully divine. Like any other baby Jesus cried, and he fed from his mother’s breast and he had the ancient equivalent of his nappies changed. Yes Jesus was fully human and fully divine and yes he was perfect, but that fully human bit means the baby Jesus definitely cried.
Moving on alphabetically we come to our second carol, Born In the Night. The line in this carol that particularly struck me this year was “Hope of the world, Mary’s Child.” Hope of the world! What our world needs right now is hope.
There is no denying that this year has been a difficult one for us all. At the very least we have all been subject to two lockdowns when we have been largely restricted to our homes and we couldn’t gather together here in our building to worship. Some of us have had Covid-19 and some of us have lost family or friends to the disease. Some of us have had our Christmas plans to be with loved ones disrupted. Even now we know that all these things may continue into 2021 until enough people have had the vaccination.
We need hope, and not just the hope the vaccination brings, but a hope that will never fail us, a hope that is eternal, the hope of the world, Mary’s child, our Lord Jesus Christ.
O Little Town of Bethlehem has a similar line that conveys the same message, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”.
The circumstances of the birth of Jesus give us the assurance that God cares for all and that God loves all. Nobody is too insignificant that God doesn’t love them. Jesus was born to peasant parents, who probably just about had enough food, in the poorest of circumstances; in the common room in the home of a family member in Bethlehem where the animals were sheltered and fed. His first visitors were shepherds. They were not really the sort of people that would expect to be invited to be the first to visit the newly born Son of God. Yet they were invited by angels to visit Jesus.
This hope of God’s care for and love of all was demonstrated throughout Jesus’ earthly life. His disciples were fishermen and tax collectors and revolutionaries. He spent most of his time with the ordinary people rather than with the religious leaders. He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners. It wasn’t that the religious leaders weren’t also important to and loved by God: it was that everybody is loved by God.
There is another line in the carol Born in the Night that is relevant here, and that often hits us hard at Christmas:
“You tell us God is good; prove it is true, Mary’s Child, go to your cross of wood.”
The death of Jesus on the cross is part of the hope that God brings at Christmas time because he loves us. Jesus went to the cross of his own free will and gave his life for us, so that we can know forgiveness of all our sins, so that we can know God loves us. Then Jesus rose from death, assuring us that we too will inherit eternal life of we follow him as our Saviour and Lord.
We need hope, and not just the hope the vaccination brings or that anything else on Earth brings, but a hope that will never fail us, a hope that is eternal, the hope of the world, Mary’s child, our Lord Jesus Christ who brings us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is the hope we need and have, not just this year but every year until he comes again.
Which brings us to Hark! The herald-angels sing, a carol by Charles Wesley and like many of his best hymns absolutely crammed full of stuff about God.. We have the confirmation of Jesus’ fully human and fully divine nature, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail, the incarnate Deity!’ More on that later. We also see confirmation of the hope Jesus brings, “born that man no more may die” which in less gender exclusive language means born that all genders no more may die but be given the life that is never ending. Hark! The herald-angels sing is my favourite carol to sing, but it’s not my favourite carol.
My favourite isn’t one that many would choose their favourite, but its mine because of the depth of theology (thinking about God) in its five verses. The carol is Let earth and heaven combine and the line I want to reflect on is, “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man”: a good summation of John 1: 1-14:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." RSV
This is what Christmas is really all about, “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”
The Message version of the Bible gives us some understanding here: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.” For me this really drives home just what happened on that first Christmas morning. God himself became flesh and blood. God became just like us.
As a baby Jesus was just like any other baby, completely helpless and dependent on his earthly parents for everything. Jesus needed feeding, and in those days that meant breast feeding, a very intimate moment between mother and child. Jesus needed burping, he needed cuddles and kisses and, yes, he needed his dirty, smelly nappies changing. This is what incarnation means: God becoming like us in every way.
When we really think about what happened in Jesus, that the eternal Word of God became fully human as well as fully divine, then we begin to appreciate the humility of our God in becoming a helpless baby.
When we think about the babe of Bethlehem we cannot do so without the shadow of the cross intruding. God, in Jesus, was not born just to die: he was born to show us what a fully lived, loving, self-giving human life really looks like. He was born to show us what God us truly like and to teach us the truth about real love.
But it was also Jesus destiny to die on a Roman cross and then to rise from the dead so that we can be sure our sins are forgiven and have eternal life.
All this God did for us!
I used to be uncomfortable with any mention of the Crucifixion at Christmas, because to me it spoilt what I had always been taught was a time of great peace and joy: but we celebrate Christmas only because of the cross and resurrection and they do indeed belong together. God’s saving work began in Bethlehem, but it finished on the Calvary cross.
Just a few reflections on a few lines in a few of our many carols. It’s interesting where God, by the Holy Spirit, can lead our thoughts when we think about the meaning of some carol words.
If you have some time this Christmas you might like to spend time thinking about the meaning of the words in some of our carols, about what they tell us about God and just how much God loves us.
I’ll leave you with one or two suggestions to get you started:
“Enter then, O Christ most holy; make a Christmas in my heart”. Cradled in a Manger Meanly
“What can I give him, poor as I am?” In the Bleak Midwinter
“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine”. Love Came Down at Christmas
“cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today”. O Little Town of Bethlehem
I finish with some words from yet another carol:
Jesus is the heart of Christmas,
give the Lord his rightful place!
Jesus is the heart of Christmas
welcome him with love and praise.
May I take this opportunity to pray that you have happy and blessed Christmas and New Year.