Risen with healing in his wings
Everyone who enters church on Christmas knows that singing carols is far and away the best part of the worship. The melodies stir deep-down sentiments that most of us can’t even find words for. And the words of the carols themselves? – “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” – well, they come at us as poetry and theology beautifully commingled. It’s no surprise they’ve stood the test of time.
We could challenge any number of the memorable phrases, I suppose. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Really?! Since when has an infant avoided crying, or should crying at any age be considered a shame or sin? But those little skirmishes with fact checking miss the point.
We belt out Christmas carols because singing is an intrinsic part of a breathing faith. We’re not just copying the “multitude of the heavenly host” because it seems as though those angels were on to a good idea that holy night. Singing is an internal component of being human. We sing because there is more in us than we can contain. Some of the most persecuted Christians in history, stuffed into prison cells because of their beliefs, survived because of memorized songs that freed them from bondage.
In December every year, some people lament the disappearance of Christmas carols in public school concerts. “Why have these staples of Christmas joy been banned?” they say. “I don’t get the hostility towards Christianity,” I overheard someone say last week.
Well, if truth be told, hostility toward religion is not the issue in this bantering; neutrality is. We’re a big and beautifully diverse country. First Amendment court cases, one after another, do not forbid the mention of religion in public schools or the singing of some religious songs. How would an art history class ever be complete without reference to the Sistine Chapel, or Renaissance architecture studies add up to anything without noting European cathedrals? What educational value would there be for a serious music class or choir to pretend that Bach’s Hallelujah Chorus or Handel’s Messiah never existed?
The only issue is that public schools cannot be about the advancement of religion. Unless we are fooling ourselves, we don’t need them to be. They have plenty else on their platter. What we need to come to terms with is not the abdication of our schools in promoting the great Christmas carols of faith. We need to ask why we’re not sharing and cherishing these beautiful songs in our own homes in a regular way, or taking church seriously enough to learn them there. That’s where faith is born.
A man in our congregation attends at least three of our five Christmas Eve services every year for the last two decades. He never misses. Each year, in our ritual exchange, when I ask Dave how he manages to put up with the same sermon, he reminds me: “I didn’t come for the preaching. It’s the music I don’t want to miss.” How right he is!