The time in and around Christmas has always been one of my very favorites, and for many reasons – the festivities and food, get togethers with family and friends long distant, the decorations, the well-wishes that come from near and far – and even the shopping believe it or not (I love to go into the stores when they are abuzz to pick out “the perfect gift” for loved ones!) But probably as much as any of these, it is the music that accompanies the arrival of Christmas that I love the most. Christmas songs at this time of year can seem ubiquitous of course – some very sappy, and others very trite (“Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” comes to mind…). And yet, for those songs that maintain their focus on the real “reason for the season” – the birth of Our Lord Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem – there is still something good and wholesome and profound in walking all around the city and hearing everywhere you go music that heralds the arrival of Our Savior.
I have some favorite Christmas songs of course; on the top of my list has always been “Do You Hear What I Hear” – which I always thought was a “traditional” song, but in doing some research for this post discovered was first written in October 1962 making it just a little bit older then I am – how is that for a little bit of unwelcome information! Interestingly, the song was written in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace in a world threatened with nuclear annihilation. The reason that I love this song in not only for its melody – which of course is beautiful – but most particularly for its message: the lyrics relate the story of Jesus’ birth but actually do so in a very ambiguous manner. Jesus’ name in fact is never actually mentioned. Instead He is spoken of as simply “the Child” – the Child who is simultaneously “shivering in the cold”, “sleeping in the night” and who will bring us “goodness and light”. The anonymity of the Christ Child in the song is to my mind reflective of the circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth – far, far away from the political, religious and economic power centers of Rome and Jerusalem in the tiny little backwater village of Bethlehem, and not even in an inn, but in a place where they kept the animals. The song continues to reflect the humble circumstances of Christ’s actual birth in the manner that it relates how the news of Jesus’ arrival is passed along – beginning with the lowly little lamb – most certainly one of the least of God’s creature – up to the Shepard Boy, who then tells the mighty King, who eventually proclaims the message to people everywhere. In spreading the word of Jesus’ Nativity, the song very much takes the route that God Himself actually takes in the Gospels: beginning in the stable, moving out to the Shepherds in the fields, then on to the Magi from the East and then out to every corner of the world. In a very sublime way, this simple song communicates God’s gentle ways of speaking to the human heart – not with bombast and ostentation, but instead in the beauty of simplicity and honesty.
Another favorite at Christmas is a bit more offbeat – not so much for the song as for the version that I like. The song is “We Three Kings of Orient Are“, and it too is beautiful, and it is also “traditional” in that very real sense, being that it was written in 1857 – making it considerably older then me thank goodness, and sharing with me only the fact that our origins both trace to New York City. There are very many magnificent recordings of this song and I appreciate them all, but the version that I most particularly like is the one released in 1997 by the New York down-town Rock and Roll song-writer and performer Patti Smith on the album “A Very Special Christmas 3” - which was issued by the Special Olympics organization to raise funds for their excellent programs for special needs children. Smith’s rendition of the song is a bit different from the others that you sometimes hear – very atmospheric in nature; the song intersperses verses from the Gospel of Matthew regarding the visit of the Magi to the crib in Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 9-15) with the verses of the traditional song sung in a very foreboding, gothic manner. Melody is a very powerful conveyor of mood, and to be quite honest I think that this almost off-putting arrangement that Ms. Smith couples the lyrics and Matthew’s Gospel account to communicates very effectively the very humble, vulnerable and dangerous circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth. When recounting the Christmas story – which has been sentimentalized by the media and trivialized by commerce – we need to remember that Mary and Joseph lived within a Palestine that was occupied by the ruthless forces of the Roman Empire, the journey that they took from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the orders of the dictatorial occupying power Emperor Caesar Augustus was a long, dangerous and arduous one – especially for the pregnant teenage Mary. Upon arriving in Bethlehem of course the Holy Family found themselves homeless, and were forced to take lodging in a dirty animal stall that would today probably be comparable to giving birth in a commercial garage. Then upon the birth of the Christ Child, there was the threat of death from King Herod the Great – a thug and local puppet enforcer of Roman authority so threatened by this humble birth that he murdered countless other children in a fruitless attempt to retain his worldly power. As a response to this very real threat, the Holy Family was then forced to flee to a foreign country, which of course would render them as refugees in today’s world. This is the actual story of Christmas – without the sentimentality and saccharin coating we sometimes try to place upon it. Perhaps we do so because we do not want to imagine Mary, and Joseph and Jesus Himself in such humble and vulnerable and dangerous circumstances – perhaps it frightens us to do so. But being frightened by the circumstances of Jesus’ humble birth is the exact opposite of what God intended to communicate on that first Christmas night. We need to recall that the first words that the angels heralding Jesus’ birth spoke to the shepherds in the fields were “Do not be afraid!” By choosing these exact circumstances in order to become flesh and blood, Jesus is teaching us all a lesson: these circumstances never diminished the inherent human dignity of His Holy Family – no, instead they show us that human dignity is never dependent on where one is born, on whether one has a home or not, on whether one is rich or poor, on whether one is welcome or unwelcome. Jesus’ birth into difficult circumstances should remind us all that – like Him – every person we encounter must be valued as preciously as we would value the Christ child Himself – this I believe is and remains the true message of Christmas.
It is my prayer that this Christmas, you all may find the Peace, Joy and Hope that was born to us in that humble stable on that first Christmas day and that these gifts from God remain in your heart throughout the coming year. A Blessed Christmas!