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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Singing Christmas Carols for the Revolution - An Advent Sermon


For someone who every year around this time says to anyone who will listen, “I don’t like Christmas!” I have a lot of Christmas music in my collection. It’s almost embarrassing. I have Christmas music of nearly every imaginary style and variety: classical, folk, rock, dance, swing, punk, country, rap, hip-hop, blues, bluegrass, gospel... I have Christmas music sung in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and …I have sentimental Christmas music, humorous Christmas music, and angry Christmas music. Lullabies, symphonies, chants, hymns, ballads… Christmas music played on guitars, pianos, hand bells, computers … One might begin to suspect that my professed disdain for the holiday is a bit of hyperbolic affectation – an exaggeration.

And maybe it is. Maybe there is somewhere in my two-sizes-two-small heart, hiding behind the piles of unwashed socks a warm and glowing appreciation, a fondness, even, for the holiday. Especially for the music. But before we get all lovey-dovey and start standing around “heart to heart, and hand in hand” to sing down in Whoville (Geisel), let make this very clear. Even if I do have an extensive collection of Christmas music, I think that most Christmas music is meaningless fluff at best–and garbage at worst.

Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon used to say that 90% of science fiction is crap. But, he continued, that doesn’t really tell us much about science fiction as a genre because 90% of everything is crap. The same is true of Christmas music. There’s a lot fluff, and noise, and silliness, and–yes- crap that could be forgotten and we’d all be better off.

If those winter songs–like “Jingle Bells” and “Over the River and through the Woods” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland," which are not specifically about the Christmas holiday–were to disappear, I wouldn’t miss them. I don’t dislike them, exactly, but they don’t add anything meaningful to my appreciation of the Christmas holiday. I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone.

If I never heard another song about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and magic snowmen ever again I wouldn’t feel the slightest twinge of sadness. “Up on the Rooftop,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and "Frosty the Snowman,” are all but unnecessary. Throw them out.

And if those overly sentimental, sappy, saccharine, emotionally manipulative songs like “Christmas Shoes,” and “Billy’s Christmas Wish,” were miraculously removed from humanity's collective conscience and memory, I would give eternal praises to God Most High.

I’d cut out all the wassailing songs, and the biblically inaccurate songs – “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” would be on the chopping block. How exactly are those thee ships going to come sailing into Bethlehem which is not on any body of water? I’d toss out that beloved carol, “Away in a Manger” because I’ve always disliked the line “no crying he makes.” Seriously? A newborn baby in a room crowded with people and animals awakened in the middle of the night and he’s not bawling? Out it goes.

“But, but, but…” I can see the objections forming, I can already hear the complaints. You’ll say I’ve gone too far. That I’m throwing out the baby (the baby Jesus!) with the bathwater. Maybe I’m exaggerating again. Maybe I am speaking in hyperbole, because even if I were allowed to scissor out all those songs that I don’t like or appreciate, there are Advent / Christmas songs that I would fight – fight – to keep. I would keep the profound carols, the True-with-a-capital-T songs, the revolutionary and subversive Christmas songs.

We don’t often recognize the transformative power of Christmas music, or the subversive nature of some our carols – probably because we’ve buried them under an avalanche of songs about curly head dolls ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") and Christmas Hippopotamuses. But these are powerful songs that deserve our attention; they are Christmas carols of the revolution.

Music, done right, is potent and dangerous. Music makes people in positions of power and authority nervous. The American supported military dictator of Chile from 1973 – 1990, Augusto Pinochet, had the folk singer Víctor Jara arrested because of his music. Jara was one of the first of many, many thousands who were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned by Pinochet’s government. Jara was arrested and tortured–his hands were crushed so that he couldn’t play the guitar any more. He was finally executed, shot and killed–because his songs were subversive. His music threatened those in power.

One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was “Vientos del Pueblo” (Winds of the People):

“Now I want to live
together with my child and brother,
in the new world that all of us
are building day by day.
Your threats do not intimidate me,
you masters of misery.
The star of hope
will continue to be ours.” (Jara)

Last week I quoted from the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”  with those striking lines: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail and right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men!”  (Longfellow)

This is powerful stuff. This is revolutionary, if we will hear it.

I think also of the French carol, “O Holy Night” usually reserved for the soloist to make it a ‘special’ performance piece. But it is a song of social justice and revolution:

“Truly he taught us to love one another,
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
(Cappeau)

This is an insurrectionary song. This is a song of protest and power. Or how about this all but forgotten song – “Masters in This Hall”?

“Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we clear,
holpen are all the folk on earth,
born is God’s son so dear.
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud,
God today hath poor folk raised
and cast a-down the proud.”
(Morris)

This is revolutionary. This is dangerous. And political! But it’s absolutely biblical.

Earlier we read Mary’s song from the gospel of Luke (1: 46 – 55) and we sang two different versions of it: “Canticle of the Turning” (Cooney) and “My Soul Gives Glory (Magnificat)” (Mueller). It is (in nearly any version) my favorite of all Christmas songs.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(Luke 1: 46 – 55 NRSV)

In her song, Mary celebrates not just (not even primarily) the spiritual aspects of the salvation that came to the world in that first Christmas. Her song is an exuberant celebration of the material salvation of the poor and lowly ones – it is a celebration of political revolution where tyrant kings are overthrown the wealth of the richest citizens is redistributed to the poor.

This song, if it were really being read, and sung, and heard, would spark outrage in our churches. Wealth redistribution? Political revolution? These are not the Christian Christmas values we’re accustomed to singing about. Give us Silent Night lullabies and songs about shepherds in the fields (though those songs would unsettle us as well, if we paid attention to them.) Give us songs about Santa and going home for Christmas. We are uncomfortable with Christmas protest songs.

Mary’s Magnificat (so called because of the first line in the Latin translation, “Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum.”) is a rejection of the very things our culture, our country, our world desires: her song is a rejection of wealth and power. It is a rejection of war and empire and conquest. It is a rejection of political rule by sword, and rifle, and jet fighter. It is the overthrow of economic systems guided by principles of greed and self-interest. Mary’s Magnificat is a revolutionary Christmas carol.

Ernest Cardenal, in his collection of comments on Gospel passages by members of the peasant community in Solentiname, Nicaragua, records the following exchange during a discussion of Mary’s Magnificat:

“I asked what they thought Herod would have said if he had known that a woman of the people had song that God had pulled down the mighty and raised up the humble, filed the hungry with good things and let the rich with nothing.

“Natalia laughed and said: ‘He’d say she was crazy.’

Rosita: ‘That she was a communist.’”
(Brown 85)

God’s inclination towards the poor, expressed in Mary’s song, is not isolated to this particular passage; a divine preference for the poor and oppressed runs through the entirety of scripture. (Guitierrez 275) But we very often soften this focus. We hide this message under a pile of worn Christmas platitudes and warm nostalgic feelings. But Mary’s song snaps us back to the biblical message. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

“I will bless the Lord at all times.
His praise ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the Lord
for he hears the cry of the poor.”
(Foley)

If our Christmas is centered in Santa Claus, and gifts, and nostalgia, if we are singing only of beautiful snow falls, and wassailing, and precocious little drummer boys, if we are not singing songs of revolution and justice for the poor and the oppressed, then we have completely missed the reason for the season. Do we want to, as the slogan says, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Then our Christmas should be about lifting up the poor and feeding the hungry. Our Christmas should be about bringing down tyrannical powers and toppling corrupt economic structures. Our Christmas should be about making peace and putting an end to war.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first, the lowly lifted up and the high and mighty brought down. The poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.  

This is Christmas! Merry Christmas, and Viva la revolución!

 


Brown, Robert McAfee. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes.
Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press. 1984.

Cappeau, Placide. “Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)” Translated John S. Dwight.

Cooney, Rory. “Canticle of the Turning.”

Foley, John B. “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor.”

Geisel, Theodore, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Random House. 1957.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1977.

Jara, Joan. "Without Knowing the End." Victor:An Unfinished Song. History Is a Weapon. Web. 

Longfellow, Henry Wordsworth. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Morris, William. “Masters in this Hall” ca. 1860.




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