An old friend once sent me a card which read: "Don't let them destroy the hypocrisy of Christmas-it's the only part I really enjoy." Ever since, I have found myself unable to throw away the idea cased in that cynical little comment.
It identifies a feeling I have whenever carols are sung of a "religious" kind, in contrast to the jolly, folksy "Good King Wenceslas" variety. Christmas has conventions, which we honour and enjoy, one of them being the homely familiarity of the traditional carols and the folk stories within them. But, as John Bell points out in his introduction to "Innkeepers and Light Sleepers":
To say there is nothing wrong with traditional Christmas carols is to be less than discerning. . . . there are some which tell patent lies about the nativity or about Jesus himself.1
He goes on to speak of:
the temptation (in carols) to depict the characters in the nativity story as less than full-blooded. . . . And in the midst of all diis, the wonder, the confusion, the conundrum of the incarnation is hid behind the verbal equivalent of Victorian stained glass.2
This is to make Jesus, the most full-blooded human we know, become a washed-out version of a bad print.
In part, I blame it on "theology by rhyme.* You will recognise this syndrome in hymns ("save/grave," "crown/down," "love/above") and in carols, ("holy/lowly"), making Jesus the "mild /child" not to mention "reconciled" in predictable rhyming. The choice of words we sing often paints with sentimental pastels instead of robust primary colours. It also skews the picture, and keeps new theology from being born.
Convention, in carols, it seems to me, has the same role as gift wrap: it is not the actual gift, but rather it is the protective covering for the gift, sometimes imprisoning the contents, which are the meaning, or revelation. Convention requires the stable scenes, the shepherd rustics, and the choral angels. And carols will continue to be written and sung which touch the yearning in all of us for a fairytale scenario.
It is the Church itself that perpetuates the "hypocrisy" of Christmas, celebrating it as convention requires. We sing carols that keep the shock of the birth story safely swaddled, without the unwrapping of the Jesus child so that the earthiness and marvel of the Incarnation becomes more and more real. We have the package without the insight to know what the gift might mean. Jesus grows up. We must, too.
In 1995, composer friend, Jillian Bray, sent me a tune. It had a name, Elizabeth, but no theme was indicated. As is her style, Jillian asked politely what theme it made me think of, and because Elizabeth is part of the Christmas narrative, I suggested a carol. That was before I listened attentively to the tune, with its happy lilt until the last line, when it has a wistful and falling tone. So this was not likely to be a totally merry carol, even if I might have written one. Without putting the Cross into the cradle, it seemed important to honour the solemn prophecies, such as the one given to Elizabeth.
As I scribbled ideas, I reflected on how many different stages in life we all have sung carols, from a childhood form of faith onward. While we are still children singing "Away in a manger," we are at that stage of understanding exemplified by "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."3 This is not to diminish the glorious simplicity of the statement. Even Karl Barth used those very lines as the summation of all his theology.4 But when we are grown-ups, and the gospel of peace has been disregarded, misunderstood, riddled with conflict, what then? Surely this Christ will ask for accountability in our work for peace, justice, and the care of our world? …