There is something very special about Christmas Carols, something warm, something remarkably ‘friendly’ and comforting. Whether you are in church every Sunday of the year, or have come along to this Carol Service as a kind of way of welcoming the Christmas week, I expect singing the carols – some old favourites, some new – was one of the main things that you were looking forward too. And of course, it’s something Welsh people do well – this singing thing is part of who we are, what we are about!
I wonder though whether you’ve ever stopped to wonder why carols have this impact on us, why the sound of the Salvation Army band on the corner of Mill Street, or why the sounds of carols on our radios, even in our shops, has such an effect on us? In these few minutes of reflection, I want to suggest three reasons, by which I also wish to make a link to the sharing we’ve experienced this evening.
The first is that praising God in poetry and in song is a tradition which goes back as far as there have been people of faith. This isn’t something which we’ve recently thought of as a ‘good idea’ or an innovation, rather, we know from ancient writings and in particular our Bibles that this is something which humanity has done ever since we found our voices. The psalmist wrote ‘make a joyful noise to the Lord’ and ‘sing a new song of praise’ – and this is what we have been doing. And there is something very important about this because by using our voices in poetry and song our worship and our praise isn’t just internal, it’s not just within us – rather it becomes something which we are doing with all our being, our bodies as well as our minds. In days gone by – and in certain traditions still – song would have been accompanied by dance. We still bear the mark of our Puritan and Victorian forefathers in this respect I’m afraid, who thought that dancing was frivolous and not at all suitable for congregational worship. But when we do something for God, indeed with God we should throw ourselves into, with everything we’ve got – and that’s just what God intended. So the first reason that carols have such an impact on us is simply because we are meant to sing!
For the second reason carols are so special to us, we should note how the tradition of this particular type of singing came about. Congregational hymn singing traces its modern history back to the times of the reformation, where the music was handed back from the well-trained choir to the ordinary people by the first hymn writers – Martin Luther himself included. Carol singing however also combines another tradition, that of Wassailing. In the days when begging from door to door was illegal, it became customary for poor people to go around the houses singing their Christmas greeting in exchange for a charitable gift of food – it’s where songs like ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’ come from, complete with its other verses – ‘bring us some figgy pudding’ and ‘we won’t go til we’ve got some’. During the great period of Victorian hymn writing, the poetry of Christian writers was added and through the social awareness of the churches, carol singing for charity became something with which we could all get involved. So carol singing is dear to us not just because we are meant to sing, but also because it has become part of our culture in Britain, in and through which we share our Christian love and concern for other people, for that is what charity is and should be.
So firstly, God meant us to sing! Secondly, Carol singing in particular became a way and a means for us to show our love. But finally, and most important of all, our Carol singing is part of the way in which we tell the story of Jesus. The church word for this is ‘Gospel’ but that’s only a formal word for ‘Good News’ – the good news that at Christmas, God came to be one of us, to share in our lives and to show us that God’s way is love. In the days before people could read and write, and longer ago still, before humanity had even formulated written communication, histories and stories were passed from one generation to another by word of mouth – the oral tradition. And it’s within this tradition that we have developed a capacity to remember things better when poetry and music are involved. We remember a tune much better than we remember the words, but when it comes to remembering words, poetry is far easier than prose. Christmas Carols trigger memories from deep within – and here’s the key – they trigger them not only for those of us who have found a home with the people of Jesus, but also those outside the church.
Of course, the good news about Jesus isn’t just something for Christmas, it’s with us all year round. The warmth of the welcome we give is, and should be, a constant all year round. And we need to be careful too that we don’t misrepresent the incarnation either. I’m one of many who get frustrated at some of the misleading ideas you get in carols. For example “Christian children all should be mild, obedient, good as He”. Really? This is the Jesus who worried his parents silly as a 12-year old on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And then “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”. Really? How many babies do you know who don’t cry? The Jesus recorded in the Good News stories has the full range of emotions; he cried. The danger as I see it is that in trying to make Jesus more than human we can somehow make him less than human, thereby undermining the very incarnation we celebrate.
This though is a time of year where we get to tell a part of the story in a way which resonates, and using words and tunes which have a familiarity outside the walls of the church. And so we have to make the most of it.
It’s important to remember that we are not reminding people of a story as we would a pantomime or a favourite Christmas movie. We are retelling the story because at its heart is something very different to what modern Christmas has become. This evening we’ve heard stories this evening of how we are reaching out in our own community, how the love of God, the good news of Jesus is shown in the way we relate to those around us. We’ve also sung carols which echo this and which tell the story on which our faith is built. That God in Christ came to us, to be one with us, to share our good times and difficult times, and most of all, to show us love, which is the very nature of God. This is something very special; this is something worth singing about!
22 Dec 2013