Though I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who feel differently, I’ve never been one of those pastors who believes it inappropriate to include Christmas carols in a service of worship before December 24.
I can actually give you several reasons for this that go beyond my own well-documented affection for the music of this season: to begin with, while it certainly may be liturgically (and quite possibly theologically) correct to refrain from singing hymns celebrating the nativity while we are still deeply immersed in our Advent waiting and watching, I would submit that it can also be pastorally cruel, especially given that the rest of the world has long since begun singing and playing its own “joy to the world” by just about any musical means one can name; why should those of us in the congregation have to hold back? It’s wonderful music, after all; and besides, there are only just so many worship services in the month of December, and such a wealth of beautiful carols to sing!
In addition, since so much of the music of this season tends to focus more upon other holiday traditions – songs of Santa, jingle bells, snow and so on – there’s definitely a danger that the music relating to manger, angel and star can easily become lost in the shuffle of a holiday playlist, and thus away from our thoughts at a time of the year when we all ought to be reflecting on the true and deeper meaning of this yearly celebration (and this is to say nothing, at least for now (!), of my long held concern that our children and grandchildren are growing up far more familiar with the words to “Rudolph” than they are with those to “Silent Night,” which is a sad thing indeed). Indeed, there is so much that clamors for our attention this time of year, and so the sooner we can turn our gaze back to the manger, the better; and our rich tradition of Christian hymnody goes a long way in helping that to happen.
Mostly, however, I’ve always felt that during these weeks of Advent and Christmas we in the church have an especially important story to tell, and the “old, familiar carols” we sing and play in this season are a crucial part of the storytelling. The story begins with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” an ancient song of yearning and hope that proclaims God’s sure and certain promise of a Messiah to come. It continues with songs like “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” both of which serve to remind us not only of the infinite depth of God’s love in coming to us in the guise of a child, but also the utter simplicity in “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”
And then there’s the incredible joy of the “Angels We Have Heard on High” “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” by night; those who were among the first to see Mary, Joseph and the baby, and who then were moved to “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” that Jesus Christ was born! And finally, there’s our own pilgrimage to the Manger of Bethlehem, accompanied by what may well be the most beautiful Christmas song of all: “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Truly, all these wonderful melodies (and so many others I could list here) offer up the perfect accompaniment to a story that’s at once old and brand new; expressing joy, awe and reverence in a way that mere words can never do.
Of course, all that said I would hasten to add that quite often some of the best and most meaningful songs of the season are not the ones found in the hymnal.
For well over thirty Christmases now, there’s been one particular song that’s been an essential part of our shared journey of worship and praise: “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” It’s a carol of Caribbean origin; one that I first learned as a singer and bass player in the youth choir of my home church way back when. It was also one of the first songs I taught the children of my very first congregation as student pastor; and, as it happened, every congregation that has followed! As a result, over the years this little song has become something of a holiday tradition for me and for a couple of generations of Sunday School kids (usually while dressed in their Christmas pageant finery)!
And why wouldn’t it be a tradition? After all, it’s a fun and rousing song to sing, complete with shouts, hand claps and foot stomping; moreover, it’s what the late Pete Seeger used to refer to as a “zipper song,” in that all one has to do is change a few words here and there and… zip! …you’ve got a whole new verse! And in “Virgin Mary” we zip through the nativity story, and we do it with great joy: for just as soon as we’ve rejoiced that the “angels told where the baby was born,” we’re joyfully singing about how “the shepherds ran” and the “wise men came” to where that baby was born; all the while proclaiming that “he come from the glory, he come from the glorious kingdom!” And the best part of it all is that our singing inevitably builds in intensity and excitement until at last, there’s only one thing left to proclaim: “And they said that his name was… JESUS!”
It is a great song, and one that I have come to appreciate more and more with every passing year and every new group of children who have learned to sing it. In fact, let me confess something here: that though I do indeed love all the varied hymns and carols of this blessed season, and truly consider each one a gift from heaven, I would nonetheless be very happy to learn that when the angels themselves assemble to celebrate the Holy Birth, and right after they’ve sung a perfect four-part chorale of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” that they then launch into a “loud and lovely” rendition of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy!”
Now that would be heaven and nature singing!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry