Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Do beloved carols teach the wrong lessons of Christmas?

Just before Christmas, First Things reposted a 2012 article (orginally written in 2009) about the importance of hymn doctrine in Christmas carols. It was the perfect topic for this blog -- the intersection of hymn theology and the most popular church hymns of the year -- but it was also at the busiest time of the year, the last few days before Christmas.

Now, on the 4th day of Christmas, I thought I'd use the article to interpret the Anglo-Catholic (Hymnal 1940) services we attended this year.

Our Christmas 2015

This year our family went to church twice to observe American Christianity's second greatest feast day, marking the Nativity of Our Lord.

The first was on Christmas Eve at our home parish, where our youngest was singing in the youth choir. As seems to be the norm for Protestant and Catholic churches nowadays, Christmas Eve is the main event: at our parish (like many others), there are two packed services, first around dinner time (for families) and the second around midnight (for adults). As elsewhere, the former was marked by lot of cute kids reenacting the Nativity scene, while the latter included the widest variety of Christmas tunes.

The second service said Mass with hymns)was a much smaller service (in terms of liturgy and attendance) held at 9am in the morning. As we have done every year since 2003, we visited Holy Trinity in San Diego with my wife's parents — first as an ECUSA parish in their long-standing sancutary, since 2011 an ACNA parish hot-bunking with Missouri Lutherans and led by the recently-named president of Forward in Faith, Rev. Lawrence Bausch.

The Wright Thesis

Provocatively entitled “How NT Wright Stole Christmas,” the article was by Peter Leithart, Reformed theologian and president of the Theopolis Institute of Birmingham, Alabama.

The premise of the article is that the theological writings of Scottish professor (and former CoE Bishop of Durham) N.T. Wright have ruined popular Christian interpretations of the significance of Jesus Christ.

Leithart argued that Wright first ruined movies about the Crucifixion, including The Passion of Christ:
I realized that N. T. Wright has spoiled every Jesus film.  Once you’ve read Wright, you realize that none of the movies get Jesus right.  … No film ever gives us what Wright says we should be looking for: a “crucifiable” Jesus, a Jesus who does something so provocative to make the Jews murderously hostile.  In the movies, Jesus is a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi.  Why would anyone want to hurt Him?
He continued (in 2009):
Just this year, I had another realization.  N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas too.

He made me see the fairly radical difference in tone and content between Advent and Christmas hymns.  Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets.  Advent hymns are about Israel’s desperations and hope, and specifically  hope that the Christ would come in order to keep Yahweh’s promise to restore His people, and through them to restore the nations.

Advent hymns are about Israel.  They are deeply and thoroughly political.  Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out.  How many Christmas hymns mention Israel?  Many refer to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, but Jerusalem?

Christmas hymns focus a great deal of attention on the details of the Christmas story, as is fitting.  There are shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph and the baby in a manger, magi from the east. Sometimes the details are inaccurate (we don’t know there were three kings), Jesus did cry when He was a baby.  And Christmas seems to elicit some of the worst and most sentimental poetry ever written.
With this gauntlet thrown down, how did this year's services fare?

Christmas Eve

While the choirs performed various introits and anthems (including a version of “In the Bleak Midwinter”, #44 in H40), the congregation sang four hymns:
  • 236 Once in royal David's city. This focuses on the details of the Christmas story, but does emphasize Jesus is fully Man and fully God.
  • 42 Angels we have heard on high. Pretty much only about the Christmas story.
  • 33 Silent night! Other than "Son of God," again a Christmas story.
  • 27 Hark, the herald angels sing. While there are obviously angels and shepherds, the second verse seems to very clearly emphasize Christ the savior (even if it only partially links to the OT prophecies):
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a Virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see:
hail, the incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark, the herald-angels sing
glory to the new-born King.
Christmas Day
  • 12 O come, all ye faithful. Other than the allusion to John 1 in verse 6 ("Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing"), clearly a version of the Christmas story.
  • 775 Joy to the world! [Only published in the final revision of H40, this includes the familiar US tune, unlike #319]. Of all this year’s hymns, the clearest exception to the Leithart thesis.
  • 36 What child is this? Very clearly the manager, shepherd & Magi story.
  • 30 The first Nowell.  Ditto.
  • 21 O little town of Bethlehem. As the title suggests, it is much like the two previous hymns. The exception is the final verse: contrary to the Leithart stereotype, Fr. Bausch asked the congregation to mediate on this verse, which is entirely about the meaning of the coming of our savior:
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
Joy to the World!

The real exception for our observance this year was Joy to the World! For many years, I remembered it as the exit hymn for a Christmas eve service: at the parishes I was at, on Christmas (as at Easter) the rectors wanted to select something that captures the exultation of the great feast and (perhaps being cynical) leaves people all pumped up.

I don't really care for the melody, because of the great range, the voice leading and that it's at the high end of my range. It's a little more interesting when I have a hymnal with Lowell Mason's harmony (which I've learned) and the organist is playing that harmony. Still, between the tune and the lyrics, it seems like a simple hymn — less nuanced than some of the others.

However, in retrospect I was selling short the 1719 text by the great Isaac Watts
Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns;
let us our songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders, wonders of his love.
Nothing of this year's services better fits Leithart's standard for an ideal Christmas carol: no baby Jesus, shepherds, angels or Magi. Instead, a song focused entire on the redemption of the world by coming of our King and Savior.

As the preface in morning prayer (at least in the 28 BCP) says from Advent 1 to January 13: “O come let us adore him.”

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