For Christmas 2012 Good Shepherd-Protea has published a collection of forty carols, old and new. We enjoy singing carols, mostly to well-known and greatly loved tunes. Some of them we can sing without even looking at the words. But words are important. At Christmas time they carry the message of joy to the world, of the promise of peace and goodwill. They remind us of the deepest reason we have to ‘be merry’ and to ‘set sorrow aside’ (2). And it is the message the words carry that is a major reason for the tunes to be gladsome, even jolly. (Each number in brackets refers to the number of the carol in the collection.)
Merry has become a particularly light-hearted word for happy, cheerful, jovial and the like. Many of our carols go back some years and we hear that the bells are ringing ‘ding, dong, merrily on high’ (13); and encouragement is given thus: ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ (14). But before we start to think that Christmas is merely a ‘festive season’ – as today’s fashion increasingly emphasises – remember that joy, though akin to mirth, is something deeper: ‘Rejoice and be merry in songs and in mirth’ (31), because Christmas is the season of Christ’s birth. One carol sings of ‘Joy to the world! The Lord is come’ (22); another hails the ‘joyful day’, the ‘blessed day’ (25); and in another there are ‘sweet hymns of joy’ (26). But perhaps best of all for us, we ‘sing for joy, O Africa. Jabulani Africa’ (20).
Many, probably most, of the carols speak of the angels singing the glad tidings of great joy. Luke chapter 2 tells us that first a single angel appeared to the shepherds: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And they were told the good news, the euangelos, the godspell: ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’ (15). And suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared singing praises to God. They are called a ‘mighty throng’ (40) and ‘Heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia” ’ (33). Christina Rossetti goes into detail: ‘Angels and archangels may have gathered there; cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.’ (16)
Many carols set the Christmas scene in in a stable, ‘a draughty stable with an open door’ (8). It’s called ‘a lowly cattle shed’ (30), and it could even have been an open courtyard attached to the inn. All Luke tells us is that the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. But it’s fair enough to picture a ‘stable’. The carols populate the stable further. The ‘beasts of the stall’ (7) are mentioned: ‘horses and asses’ and ‘an ox-manger’ (2); ‘ox and ass before him bow’ (10); and ‘the cattle are lowing; the baby awakes’ (4). And, quaintly but probably, there were a cat and a mouse (28), though their harmonious relationship is scarcely credible!
Even in South Africa we have become used to the idea that Christmas is a winter-time story. We read: ‘the cold of Bethl’hem’s winter’ and ‘the shepherds’ frozen fields’ (5); and most widely known:
‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow…’(16).
That’s pretty cold. Good King Wenceslas experienced snow, cruel frost, and bitter weather as part of winter’s rage (17), but he was King of Bohemia in Central Europe, not far from the Alps!
There is no utter certainty or agreement about the exact day or year of Christ’s birth, but that does not affect the essence of the Christmas story and its significance. The idea is, however, fascinating enough for us to have looked at the weather forecast for Jerusalem for 8-12 December 2012. The highest daytime temperature was 17 degrees C and the lowest at night 8 degrees. Both cloud and sun were predicted. In the carols we do hear that ‘all is calm, all is bright’ (33), that ‘stars are brightly shining’ (26); and that the angel song ‘came upon the midnight clear’ (19). But so much in the gospel story – and in legend for that matter – is also symbolic. Note particularly that the good news comes ‘while shepherds watched their flocks by night’ (40); that ‘all out of darkness we have light’ (34); and our prayer is ‘Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid’ (7).
In Matthew chapter 2 we read that ‘wise men from the east’, led by a star, came to Jerusalem. They enquired of the sinister King Herod: ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Herod called his priests and scholars and on their evidence taken from the prophecies of old sent them to Bethlehem. They found Jesus, fell down and worshipped him, presented their gifts and, being warned of God in a dream went home another way, leaving Herod to vent his fury later with what is called the Slaughter of the Innocents.
Our carols use tradition and legend to tell us there were ‘three kings of Orient’ (38). They may not have been kings, and there may not have been three of them – a number that could have come from the three gifts mentioned. Many a nativity play and pictured scene shows Kings kneeling in the hay with the shepherds. Matthew tells us the Magi (Magus refers to a member of a Persian priestly caste skilled in magic and astrology) found the young child with Mary his mother in a ‘house’. It’s the same word as in ‘breaking bread from house to house’ in Acts chapter 2. Someone must have taken them out of that stable and been kind to them. Tradition has given the ‘three’ names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, with characteristics to suit their respective gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas is a time of joy. That is blessed and right. But it is not the whole of the Christian message. That message includes sadness, suffering and coming to terms with a world that is not all merriness or joy. Some of these carols allude to this fuller picture. In his fury Herod, we are reminded, ‘all the little boys he killed’ (37). Another tells us: ‘Trace we the babe who hath retrieved our loss, from His poor manger to His bitter cross’ (11). Holly is pinned up amidst Christmas festivities, but we hear that ‘the holly bears a berry as red as any blood’, and ‘a prickle as sharp as any thorn’, and has ‘a bark as bitter as any gall’ (36). Myrrh, traditionally the gift of the third wise man, a gift for one who is to die, was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. That wise man sings:
‘Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.’ (38)
The following carol incorporates the theme of the sufferings to come, but ends with the fullness of Easter.
Carol of the cross
(Tune: The Coventry Carol)
His mother sang her Jesus joy,
A song of love for him;
But in her joy there stabbed a sword,
The star spread like a cross.
His mother sang Immanuel joy,
A song of hope for all;
But ecstasy with pain was flawed,
And myrrh forespoke his cross.
His mother sang her stable joy,
A song of faith in God,
Who reigned, a mangered baby Lord,
And turned to gold the cross.
Today we sing our Christmas joy,
A song of life reborn;
We sing as well God’s Easter Word,
Who speaks beyond the cross.