The Tune of Christmas
I love Christmas music. It probably had a lot to do with being raised in the family I was. My mom is the singer, and my dad was obsessed with Christmas. One of my most enduring Christmas memories is sitting in the balcony at First Presbyterian Church. And as the lights were dimmed and the candles were lit, and as we started singing “Silent Night”, a lump would rise in my throat. I was convinced that there was nothing more beautiful in the whole world.
I still love Christmas music, which is why I was particularly intrigued by an email I got from my sister yesterday, which has Christmas songs in code. Let me read a couple and see if you can guess them:
- The slight percussionist lad is…The Little Drummer Boy.
- Far back in a hay bin…Away in a Manger.
- Do you perceive the same longitudinal pressure which stimulates my auditory sense organs?...Do You Hear What I Hear?
- Sir Lancelot with laryngitis…Silent (K)Night.
- The apartment of two psychiatrists…The Nutcracker Suite.
There are about fifty of these, each more absurd than the last. And some of them are just downright impenetrable, but I’ll spare you those. You can find them easily enough online yourself.
It’s harmless fun, of course, but the exercise is actually counter to the whole point of Christmas. Tonight is not about a story that is available only to the select few. We’re not here because we’re “better” than anyone else, or because we have decoded the meaning of the manger. The story is available to all. From the first to the twelfth day of Christmas, we are reminded that the birth of the Christ child is something that all can celebrate: Judean shepherds. Persian Magi. There are no barriers between us and the child who was born far back in a hay bin.
That’s the gift of the ridiculous email: it takes songs that are deeply – perhaps too deeply – familiar and gives us a new way to hear them. Because let’s face it: our favorite Christmas songs tend to touch on the same things: a baby, Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, angels, Bethlehem, a star, and three kings. The verses may change up the order, but the song essentially remains the same. That has done nothing to shake the power this music holds on me. The danger, however, is that we domesticate the story to the point that we neglect the earth-shattering nature of it.
This year, as my iTunes worked through the familiar litany of Christmas songs, there was one that stood out in a brand new way. It’s of the pop music brand of Christmas music, released by John Lennon in 1971, just a year after the Beatles had disbanded. There’s no mention of the familiar Christmas themes whatsoever; but for some reason, it hit me in the gut right out of the gate: “So this is Christmas. And what have you done?”
A whole year has gone by since the last Christmas. Am I any different this year than I was last year? When next year comes around, will I be exactly the same? Or will the power of Christmas grab hold of me in more than just the emotionally resonant ways, shaking me to the core of my being?
And then the song hits its “of its time” chorus, which sounds awfully Pollyanna nowadays: “War is over…if you want it.” Surely we’re more sophisticated now than we were forty years ago. We know that war is never over. American troops have just left Iraq; and so, for us, that war is over. But “war is over” isn’t just about war being over for “us”; it’s about the end of war. For Iraqis, there is still a war raging. For soldiers battling the traumas of war, the battles are still aflame within. And there are plenty of places in the world where war most certainly isn’t over.
So what does it mean when we say that we celebrate the “Prince of Peace” tonight? Does the adorableness of a resting baby overtake the aspirations we hold as disciples of Christ, that we yearn, to the very fiber of our being, that war is over – not just for us, but for all? Or have we convinced ourselves that this, too, is a idealist’s dream of years gone by?
My prayer for us this night is that the music we sing and the words we proclaim would shake us, would move us, would cause us to tremble like the shepherds under the angel-lit sky. And that this Christmas would be one that would change us forever.