What we can learn from the beauty of Christmas carols
December 21, 2018 (Turning Point Project) – One of the perpetual complaints against Christianity is that it is a life-denying, puritanical system. In the Victorian era, poet Algernon Swinburne referred to Christ as the "pale Galilean" from whose breath "the world has grown grey." In our own time, films and television shows such as The Handmaid's Tale portray Christians as robotic control freaks. Meanwhile, elite commentators contend that the only reason Christians oppose same-sex "marriage" and transgendered toddlers is that they are full of hate.
One way to rebut the charge is to point to the fact that traditional Christmas carols – the ones that retell the central Christian story – are generally full of joy and gladness. They are decidedly not "grey" or "life-denying." What, exactly, one might ask, are the life-denying elements in Joy to the World and Ding Dong! Merrily on High?
But before getting to the carols, it's instructive to note that Christianity's two main competitors for the souls of men – secularism and Islam – actually are on the grey and grim side of the continuum. That's easy enough to see in Islam. With its burqas, alcohol ban, and rigid rules of behavior, Islam actually is a puritanical religion. But so, in its own way, is secularism. Today's universities, which are almost totally controlled by secularists, have elaborate behavior and speech codes which effectively take the spontaneity out of relationships and even out of simple conversation. You have to tread carefully in the secular world because it is seeded with hidden booby traps. Try reciting one of Swinburne's poems to a group of fellow student and you might end up in diversity hell. You never know what will offend the new puritans until it's too late.
Christians are supposedly life-denying, but Islam and secularism are patently cultures of death. Again, this is more obvious in Islam. Jihadists like to say that they will win out over non-Muslims because "you love life, but we love death." But, in many senses, secularism is also a death cult. Although secularists aren't generally keen on martyring themselves, they don't have any principled objection to sacrificing babies (through abortion) and old people (euthanasia) in order to make life more convenient for themselves. And this dismissive attitude toward human life has gained wide acceptance. In a photo taken when they still looked like choir boys, the Beatles posed with the dismembered parts of life-like baby dolls for the album cover Yesterday and Today.
For a supposedly life-affirming philosophy, secularism tends to have a distinct apathy toward new life, and toward marriage, which is the usual way of bringing new life into the world. Hollywood, which is secularism's dream weaver, is far more interested in babes than in babies.
Islam frowns on abortion, but not for the same reason as Christians. There is no well-developed theology of the value and dignity of each human life in Islam. Instead, Islam seems to have a more utilitarian view of life. One can't help forming the impression that for many Muslim leaders, raising babies is just another way of raising an army.
At first glance, Islamic attitudes toward women seem poles apart from Western secular views, but on closer inspection the Islamic view of women is not that far removed from the Hollywood view that women are little more than sex objects. The difference is that Islam conditions Muslim men to prefer babes in paradise to babes on earth. Some are so well-conditioned in this respect that they are quite happy to exchange earthly wife and kids for heavenly maidens should the occasion present itself. In any event, the exalted view of women and motherhood that one finds in the Christian carols is largely missing from both Islam and secularism.
Degraded views of life and death, birth, and babies come from a low estimate of human value. Christmas is a celebration of that moment of enlightenment when the full value of human life became apparent. In retrospect, it was far more enlightening than the European Enlightenment which arrived 18 centuries later and which would have been impossible except for the light provided by the first.
The Incarnation revealed God to man, but also, as St. John Paul II observed, it revealed man to himself. The birth of Christ revealed that the worth of men and women was far greater than anything that had hitherto been presumed. The birth of Christ also put family life in a whole new light. God entered the world not as a full-grown autonomous individual, but as a member of a family.
The birth of Christ changed everything. It added layer upon layer of meaning to the human condition. Human life was of inestimable value. Death was no longer to be feared because this child was born to vanquish death and open the way to life everlasting. That life, moreover, was to be more than the pleasant continuation of this life envisaged by some pagan religions, and, later, by Islam. It was a new kind of life – one that transforms us into the likeness of Christ, and makes us worthy of communion with God.
The wonder of all this is difficult to grasp intellectually. Indeed, the birth of any child seems miraculous. And no amount of biological science comes close to explaining it. When one considers that the particular child who was born on Christmas day in Bethlehem set the planets in motion, the miracle is compounded beyond all understanding.
The proper response to the miracle of Christmas is a mix of wonder and joy. And few things convey that mix as effectively as the traditional Christmas carols:
Come let us surround him
On this magic night
Gather here around him
Wondrous Babe of Light.
That's from Sing We Now of Christmas. Those who know the tune will agree, I think, that the words and music were made for each other. We find the same thing in almost all of the traditional Christmas carols. The harmony between heaven and earth that the birth of Jesus brought is matched by a rare harmony of music and lyrics. Indeed, the lyrics to Pat-A-Pan make that very point:
God and man today become
More in tune than fife and drum
So be merry while you play,
Sing and dance this Christmas Day
Christmas carols also give us a glimpse of our heavenly destiny. Take these lyrics from Good Christian Men, Rejoice:
Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss;
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has oped the heav'nly door
And man is blessed evermore.
"Endless bliss"? Blessed evermore"? But what kind of creature are we that we are meant for endless bliss? If we are honest, we think as Scrooge did (in that other Christmas Carol), "I don't deserve to be so happy."
Well, in our present condition, most of us don't deserve it. The good news is that we "are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2 Co 3: 18) so that we become "a new creation" (2 Co 5:17). In the words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Christ was
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth
The savior's birth makes possible a second birth by which we become a new and transformed self. But this concept of being born again is alien to Christianity's main competitors for the souls of men. Secular man is taught to have self-esteem. He thinks he's fine just the way he is, and the suggestion that he needs a new self is highly offensive to him. Besides, his spiritual needs are already fulfilled by regular yoga and meditation. Islam is not particularly interested in spiritual transformation either. In Islam, death signifies a transformation of one's circumstances, but not a transformation of one's self. You can end up in paradise (Allah willing) and remain essentially the same person you were on earth, lustful desires and all. Indeed, the surest way to get to paradise is to commit what, from a Christian perspective, are grave and even soul-destroying sins.
In both Christianity and Islam, heaven is viewed as a better place. But for Christians it is a better place because it is filled with better people – far better than they were on earth because they have died to their sins and risen to a new sinless existence. Consider this verse from As with Gladness, Men of Old:
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin's alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.
This view of man, cleansed from his sins and gloriously transformed is remarkably different from the low estimate of man presented by secularism on the one hand, and Islam on the other. In the secular view, man's final destiny is to dissolve into the dust and take his place among the other particles on the periodic table of elements. To which the normal human response is, "Is that all?"
Islam seems to promise more, but it does not solve the problem of what C.S Lewis called the "inconsolable longing." Suicide bombers tend to be on the young side, because it eventually dawns on even the dullest mind that endless copulation with Islam's version of the Stepford Wives will not bring infinite fulfillment.
Men and women are meant for more. The proper response both to Islam's otherworld enticements and to secularism's bleak view of human destiny is the same: "Is that all there is?" Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring comes much closer to naming our deepest aspiration:
Jesu, joy of man's desiring
Holy wisdom, love most bright.
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
The irony is that Christianity in the West is losing souls to secularism on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, even though both are essentially joyless belief systems. In America, increasing numbers are opting for atheism, agnosticism, or simply, "no belief." Meanwhile, according to several observers, Europe may be in the process of exchanging Christianity for Islam.
Whether you trade Christianity for Islam or exchange it for secularist "no belief," it's a bad deal either way. It's as though someone offered you a quarter in exchange for the ten-dollar bill in your wallet. The uncanny thing is that so many have fallen for these bad bargains.
Just compare Islam's hymns and carols to the Christian ones. What's that you say? There are no hymns and carols in Islam? Oh, yes, I'd almost forgotten. Muhammad wasn't keen on music. "Allah," he said, "commanded me to do away with musical instruments, flutes, strings, crucifixes, and the affair of the pre-Islamic period of ignorance." Islam's rules for dhimmis (conquered non-Muslims), which are still in force today, also forbid Christians to ring bells or clang cymbals. Of course, there is the chanted Islamic call to prayer. Barack Obama said it was the sweetest sound he ever heard, but to most non-Muslims it seems quite a bit more ominous than sweet.
Islam's puritanism even extends to humor. As the Ayatollah Khomeini once said, "There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam." Islam, in essence, is like Scrooge before his encounter with the three ghosts. He chases carolers away and he has no sense of humor. Once he catches the spirit of Christmas, however, he becomes deliriously happy, dances a jig, and is transported by the peal of church bells. Scrooge's story of redemption is aptly titled "A Christmas Carol."
Of course, secular society does have music and jokes, but many of the jokes are not funny, and much of the music is so bad that one begins to sympathize with the idea of banning it. Islam under sharia law is a pretty grim affair, but in its attempts to take Christ out of Christmas and out of almost every other area of life, secular society has become increasingly grey. Traditional family ties have been shattered, abortions are counted in the millions, joyless promiscuity has become the norm, and tens of millions fall victim to depression, drug dependency, violence, and suicide.
Secularism doesn't offer any way out of our society's downward spiral, but Christianity does. Christ did admonish us, however, that we can't enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become as little children. Christmas carols are one way of recovering the awe and wonder that children have in the presence of the Most High:
Come let us surround him
On this magic night
Gather here around him
Wondrous Babe of light
Sing we Noel!
The King is born, Noel!
Sing we now of Christmas
Sing we here, Noel!