I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:15
Christmas carols... I don’t know about you, but I have rather mixed feelings about them.
On the one hand, some of them are really good - their words are meaningful and convey solid teaching, and their tunes too are attractive.
Others, though, are schmaltzy and sentimental, and bear very little relation to what Christmas is about. They sometimes even contain false ideas - my all-time non-favourite is “Away in a manger”, with that line about “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. Every time I’m expected to sing that, I want to stand up and shout out, “What do you mean, no crying he makes? Of course he cried! He was a human baby as well as the Son of God! Needed to have his nappy changed too, just in case you’re interested.” (Anything to enhance the Christmas spirit, you understand.)
But my main problem is twofold. First: we only get to sing Christmas carols for a very brief period of the year; once Christmas is over we pack them away, so to speak, with the tinsel and decorations, and it’s a whole year before we sing them again. And second: when we sing them, we sing them even more mindlessly than usual, precisely because we know them so well. When was the last time you ever seriously thought about the words you were singing?
All right, enough of the grumpy stuff. I do in fact want to make a positive point: that our songs and hymns can nourish our souls in wonderful ways if only we can learn to focus on the words and take them to heart - “singing with the understanding”, as Paul puts it. I’ve got space for just two examples...
First, O little town of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893).
True, there is a little bit of sentimentality here, but in the main it’s good stuff. I find the third verse especially helpful...
How silently, how silently/ The wondrous gift is given!/ So God imparts to human hearts/ The blessings of His heaven./ No ear may hear His coming;/ But in this world of sin,/ Where meek souls will receive him, still/ The dear Christ enters in.
The essence of the gospel is there: our world is fallen and sinful, but salvation is offered to us, as a gift, purely by the mercy and grace of God. All he asks is that our “meek souls” should “receive him.” Humility, repentance and a childlike trust - it is these that open the door for God himself to enter our lives.
Second, From the squalor of a borrowed stable, written by Stuart Townend in 1999.
All right, the experts will tell you (and no doubt rightly) that it probably wasn’t a “stable” at all, that it probably wasn’t “borrowed”, and that it very likely wasn’t “squalid” either; but let’s allow a bit of a nod to the story as traditionally told.
In fact this lovely song isn’t strictly a Christmas carol at all, because although it starts with the birth of Jesus, the remaining verses take us right through his earthly life and finish with him crucified, risen from the dead, and “standing in the place of honour”. Yes, you can sing it all year round! - but I wonder how many of us do?
Every verse is full of meat, and worth reflecting on. But for me perhaps the most powerful words are the ones that speak of Jesus as “filled with mercy for the broken man”. It then goes on: “Yes, he walked my road and he felt my pain....” I love the sheer simplicity of that. Just ten words, each of one syllable, yet somehow they convey perfectly that Jesus came to share our earthly troubles and to suffer not just for us but also with us.
I said earlier that one of the down-sides of the carols is that we know them so well that we sing mechanically without noticing the words. But it occurs to me that there is perhaps an up-side too - because we don’t have to look at the words, we can close our eyes as we sing. And this can give us a stronger focus and help us not to be distracted. And that, in turn, may help us to pray with a deeper intensity.
Go back to “O little town”. The final verse is a prayer direct to Jesus: O holy Child of Bethlehem,/ Descend to us, we pray!/ Cast out our sin and enter in,/ Be born in us to-day./ We hear the Christmas angels,/ The great glad tidings tell;/ O come to us, abide with us,/ Our Lord Emmanuel!
Words worth treating as a prayer? I think so! Words worth closing your eyes for? I think so! Here’s a suggestion: next time you sing those words, close your eyes and sing them as if you’ve never heard them before.
Lord God, thank you for the men and women who, over two thousand years of Christian history, you have gifted with poetic and hymn-writing talents. Help me to value and appreciate them, and to benefit from what they have written. Amen.