THE WORD MADE FLESH, or, DO I HATE CHRISTMAS MUSIC?

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Dec 24, 2013 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

THE WORD MADE FLESH, or, DO I HATE CHRISTMAS MUSIC?

THE WORD MADE FLESH, or, DO I HATE CHRISTMAS MUSIC?
A Christmas Meditation by COL(AL)John Eidsmoe, Senior Counsel, Foundation for Moral Law

Hate Christmas music? I’m the guy who livestreams KFUO’s 24/7 classical Christmas carols throughout the Christmas season, who sings in the community Messiah, who goes to every Christmas concert possible, who keeps Christmas CDs in his car until March or later.

DI admit I used this provocative title to gain your attention, but I do wish to make a point: I love Christmas carols, but Christmas music is often another genre.

And by now I’ve thoroughly confused everyone, and angered most, so let me try to explain.

The Christmas message is capsulized in of John 1:14, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And the manger led to the Cross, whereon Christ died as our substitute to pay the penalty for our sins. Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity God breaking into human history to accomplish the redemption and restoration of fallen man.

Jesus was, and is, God made flesh, fully God and fully man. The songs of Christmas can and should celebrate both His divine nature and His human nature, and the hypostatic union of both natures.

That’s where the carols come in. Like the older Latin hymns of the Church, the carols express the doctrines of Christianity as they relate to the birth of Christ. Consider the heavy doctrinal expressions this carol by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, a fourth-century Roman who resided in Spain:

Of the Father’s love begotten,
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega;
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore!

By his Word was all created;
he commanded; it was done:
heaven and earth and depths of ocean,
universe of three in one,
all that sees the moon’s soft shining,
all that breathes beneath the sun,
evermore and evermore!

O, that birth forever blessed
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race,
and the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

This is he whom seers in old time
chanted of with one accord,
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word.
Now he shines, the long-expected.
Let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven, adore him.
Angel hosts, his praises sing.
Powers, dominions, bow before him,
and extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent;
every voice in concert ring,
evermore and evermore!

Christ, to thee with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unwearied praises be.
Honor, glory, and dominion,
and eternal victory,
evermore and evermore! Amen.

Or John Francis Wade’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the oft-omitted second stanza of which reads,

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
True God of True God, begotten not created:
O come, let us adore him, Christ The Lord.

Very God of very God, begotten, not created. Does that sound Athanasian? It should; it’s straight out of the Nicene Creed, the Creed we recite blissfully ignorant of the centuries of struggle as the Emperor Constantine and the Bishop Athanasius battled against heresy to establish the true doctrine of the Church based upon the Word rightly divided.

Read the lyrics of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” or “O Come, O Come, Emannuel,” and contemplate the doctrinal content and Old Testament references. Consider the depths of thought and expression in this fourth-century carol that Christians have sung for 1,700 years:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,n
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Some carols are more devotional than doctrinal. Some, like the third stanza of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” lift us from our earthly burdens and urge us to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.” Others, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in a Manger,” reverently transport us to the place of Jesus’s birth. The favorite of many, “Silent Night,” contemplates the holy birth with quiet reverence. My personal favorite, “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” comes to us from Germany in 1656:

All my heart this night rejoices,
As I hear, far and near, sweetest angel voices;
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
Till the air, everywhere, now with joy is ringing.

Hark! a voice from yonder manger,
Soft and sweet, doth entreat, “Flee from woe and danger;
Brethren, come; from all that grieves you
You are freed; all you need I will surely give you.”

Come, then, let us hasten yonder;
Here let all, great and small, kneel in awe and wonder,
Love Him Who with love is yearning;
Hail the star that from far bright with hope is burning.

And the final stanza calls us to be faithful unto death:

Dearest Lord, Thee will I cherish,
Though my breath fail in death, Yet I shall not perish,
But with Thee abide forever
There on high, in that joy which can vanish never.

Luther and Calvin both recognized the role of music in the Church, but they saw that role differently. Calvin believed Christian music should be based on the Bible, and especially on the Psalms; hence Calvinist churches commonly used and some still use the Psalter, the Book of Psalms adapted and set to music. Luther’s view was broader. He believed music was a gift from God, and that man should use his creative gifts to praise God and edify man. He wrote in1538,

“…next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. … Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace.”

On another occasion Luther wrote, “Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine skillful people.”

What would Luther and Calvin think of this carol, sung by wandering minstrels throughout medieval Europe?

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.

Our Saviour, Christ, and His Lady,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
Our Saviour, Christ, and His Lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray, whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
Pray, whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.

O, they sailed to Bethlehem,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
O, they sailed to Bethlehem,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the angels in heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the angels in heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Then let us all rejoice and sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
Then let us all rejoice and sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

Now, how do we understand this carol? It’s no great revelation to tell you that nowhere in Scripture do we find three ships with Jesus and His mother Mary on board, and sailing to landlocked Bethlehem on Christmas morning would be most problematic. Calvin would have dismissed this carol out of hand as unscriptural nonsense. Luther might have been more accepting, seeing it as a creative form of expression. Certainly no medieval minstrel ever meant this carol to be taken literally, but they probably meant the ships as metaphors for the magi coming to worship Christ. (And for those who confidently assert that the magi did not come to Bethlehem, please see my 21 Dec 2012 post on this blog, “Who Needs the Star?”, my 23 Dec 2009 post “‘Following Yonder Star’–A Christmas Meditation,” and my 18 Dec 2008 post “The Magi, the Monarch, and the Messiah: a Christmas Contemplation.”)

But let’s get back to the message of Christmas: The Word made flesh. Carols and hymns express the divine and miraculous theme of Christmas; secular Christmas songs may express the secular outworking of the Christmas miracle. The good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (II Corinthians 5:19) should fill us with joy and inspire us to outward expressions of love and charity. “Good King Wenceslaus” tells the story of a Christian king who braves a blizzard to bring a warm meal to an impoverished peasant. “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Silver Bells” are expressions of joy that accompany the Christmas season. “Home for the Holidays,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and “White Christmas” speak of the common longing to spend the Christmas holidays at home with those we love. Remember, Christ is lord of the secular as well as of the sacred realm.

And then there are a few that give all secular Christmas music a bad name. “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Rock Around the Christmas Tree,” “I Just Go Nuts at Christmas,” and “Please, Santa Baby” (gag!) honor neither the sacred nor the secular.

So, do I really hate Christmas music? Should we hate Christmas music?

Not in its proper place. In a society infused with Christianity, it is understood that Christ is lord of the sacred and the secular, and that the miracle of Christmas leads to both sacred expressions of joy and secular expressions of cheer. And in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 619 F.2d 1311 (8th Cir. 1980), the Eighth Circuit held that a public school Christmas program could include both sacred and secular Christmas music.

The problem is, in recent years the secular Christmas music has been taking over, and Christmas carols are being crowded out. The “war on Christmas” is a reality: school children forbidden from passing out Christmas cards, teachers prohibited from reading the Christmas story, store employees prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas,” etc. The secular songs of Christmas should supplement the message of the Gospel expressed in the carols,by showing the joyful secular outworking of the Christmas miracle.  Instead, they are becoming the message of Christmas as the carols that express the true meaning of Christmas are pushed out of sight and mind.  So when I push back by singing the sacred Christmas carols with extra gusto and taking a pass on the secular Christmas songs,  I’m simply trying to restore the balance.

So I’ll close this rambling message with Merry Christmas to all, in every proper sense of the term. And may the carols of Christmas lift us from our earthly constraints, open our eyes and ears, and enable us to see the silent stars go by, and hear the angels sing.

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