"Why We Continue to Sing"

Eve of the Nativity.B.17
Luke 2:1-20
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

For many of us, the celebration of the birth of Christ would be indispensable without the singing of Christmas carols. Take, for example, the hymn with which we began this evening’s service: O Come All Ye Faithful”. It’s next to impossible not to take in the joy of the season when belting out lyrics such as these: “O come all ye faithful, Joyful and Triumphant! O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!”

Yet, for all of us whose hearts thrill to hear the happy chorus, carols, it seems, can bring out the Scrooge in others. Take Bishop Nick Baines of Liverpool, England. Bishop Baines doesn’t find joy in caroling. In fact, he has some “get tough” words for folks such as you and me who enjoy singing the hymn “O Come all ye Faithful” making the literally true, but spiritually grim suggestion that it be renamed, and called “O Come all ye Faithless” instead. After all, as Bishop Bains points out, it wasn’t the faithful who came out to greet the Baby Jesus, but in his words, “the great unwashed” shepherds and the “pagan” Wise Men who followed the star.

According to USA Today, Bishop Bains is fed up with “nonsense” that makes Christmas seem like “some sort of fairy tale”. He’s even gone so far as to write a book to communicate his point—presumably to the unwashed masses. It’s called Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? In it, Baines cites examples from familiar carols to communicate his point. Take, for example, the beloved carol “Away in a Manger” where we hear that the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. “Who ever heard of a baby not crying?” asks Bishop Baines: “How can any adult sing this without embarrassment?”

Okay…I’ve got to admit that Bishop Baines may have truth on his side in his analysis of holiday hymns. But, I’ll tell you, I’m not about to stop stinging. Nor, for that matter, am I about to apologize for the joyful sentimentalism accompanying these carols. Bishop Baines may wish to dwell in the harsh reality of the world—but these carols also communicate something essential about the season—a mystery, if you will. So…to Bishop Baines, I have this to say: “Bah, humbug.”

What’s more, if the carols might stretch the truth of human rationality—what about the incarnation itself? I don’t know about you, but the real message of Christ’s birth that’s so hard to take isn’t that this baby didn’t cry, it’s that this Child, born to an unwed mother in the backwater town of Bethlehem came to redeem the world. That baby will grow to be a man who will ultimately be put to death by the very world he came to save. Yet the story doesn’t end here. For death prefigures resurrection—and the salvation of the world.

You see, the real message of the birth of this holy child Jesus, past the sentimental coziness of the hymns, beyond the tinsel on the tree and the pudding on the table is something which speaks to the harsh reality of the predicament of our souls. Truth isn’t found in the rational arguments of the head. Truth is found in the understanding of our hearts. We are a people in need of redemption. All is not right with ourselves. All is not right with the world. We are in need of a Savior, as much today in 2017 as we were thousands of years ago. And, what’s more—God knows this, and God has come. God has broken into our world—one filled with limitations, and has lifted us from the depths of what is possible into the hope of what is eternal. And that is worth singing about.

Christmas morning, you see, is a great and glorious gift. We can’t stay with this baby for long. But while we are here—at the very least, let us be joyful. For ours is a joy which looks both backward and forward. Back to the Savior who was born, and ahead to the redemption of the world that is to come. Hans. Reinhold has written “We can keep all our modern, beloved Christmas trappings, as long as we see through them and as long as we know that there is a reality and a future behind those things of the past.”

Robert Louis Stevenson has written a beautiful prayer that I would like to share with you this day:

“Loving God, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and worship of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children, and Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.” Amen.