Christmas music and the Incarnation

December 19th, 2018

Christmas: Festival of the Incarnation

“The art, music, pageantry, and popular forms that developed around the incarnation do not represent a fall from some ‘golden age,’ but rather take seriously the material world in which God has come to engage us. Christmas has been celebrated not only as the church’s holy day, but also in sometimes heartfelt ways by ordinary people who do not consult theologians,” writes Ronald Myers in a review of Donald Heinz’s Christmas: Festival of Incarnation. Myers suggests that the Incarnation — the doctrine that God, in the person of Jesus, came to us in human form — can be celebrated through popular culture as well as the culture of the church.

Obviously, we sing about the Incarnation in traditional Advent and Christmas hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Joy to the World.” These songs and other carols reflect the Nativity story from Matthew and Luke as well as passages like John 1. All of these together proclaim the near-scandalous idea that God came into the world as a baby born in an animal stall and continues to dwell among us.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this proclamation also invites us to find evidence of the Incarnation in Christmas songs that don’t use religious language or tell the Nativity story. Writers of these songs seem to heed poet Christian Wiman’s caution against the overuse of God-talk. Wiman writes, “The casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety.”

God with us

Some Christmas songs convey the profound meaning of Christmas without ever mentioning the birth of Jesus. Instead, these songs showcase how God’s presence continues to manifest on earth through acts of love, compassion, peace and justice. As a result, they are also celebrations of the Incarnation.

John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” recounts the World War I truce during which British and German soldiers sang carols and exchanged valuable items like brandy, chocolates, cigarettes and photographs of their families. In McCutcheon’s lyrical retelling of the event, Francis Tolliver, a fictional British veteran from Liverpool, recalls the lesson he learned: “The ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame / and on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”

Another song in this vein is Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Christmas Dinner,” a parable about the power of human compassion and connection. Set in an unnamed city that could be either Victorian London or 20th-century New York, the song tells the story of a “cold and shivering” orphan boy wandering the streets on Christmas evening. Though the boy looks through many windows where people are feasting on “turkeys and ducks and geese and cherry pies,” he’s drawn to the home of an older woman sitting alone at an empty table. The boy offers to share with her what little he has for dinner, and she responds in kind. Their shared compassion and generosity speak to a kind of abundance that money cannot buy.

On their website, Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine, a husband-wife duo known for “reality” Christmas music, shares the background for the title song of their album Blood Oranges in the Snow. When his family moved to Montana, his parents sent their children to a boarding school in Canada. He says, “Getting home for Christmas was an adventure that would have made Laura Ingalls Wilder lose sleep at night.” He remembers snow in headlights, mountain passes, delays at border crossings, and “all the while knowing that there was the glow of home waiting for us, and however imperfect, it did tug at the deepest places of the heart. Isn’t that the most basic underpinning of all human longing — trying to arrive at a place called home?” “Blood Oranges in the Snow” is a song about this memory and the power of hope, persistence, and most of all appreciating the sacred in the ordinary.

An unnamed child

Other songs hint at the identity of the newborn Jesus but don’t name him specifically. The “one tiny child” in “There’s Still My Joy” could be Jesus, or it could be anyone in whom Christ’s love dwells. The song, written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Matt Rollings, is more of a snapshot than a story in which a grieving person brings a discarded Christmas tree to the shore and finds solace there. Although the chorus may seem disconnected from the story, it’s actually the main character’s affirmation of joy: “One tiny child can change the world / One shining light can show the way.”

On the other hand, “Peace Child” is more direct about the identity of the Christ Child and suggests that he is born into both the violence and beauty of the earth. In the last verse of the version sung by the Indigo Girls, the song turns into a prayer: “Be your dream born alive / Held in hope, wrapped in love.”

God’s presence in the world

When we think about it deeply, we discover that the Incarnation calls into question our tendency to try to divide the world into the sacred and the secular. God isn’t born into a sanitized world but into the real world with all of its complications and hang-ups.

Through these “secular” Christmas songs that remind us of God’s presence in the world beyond our church buildings, worship services, and religious language, we’re reminded of how Jesus came to us and lived in this world as one of us. Without saying so, these songs are all about the power of the Incarnation and remind us that God came to us and continues to dwell among us.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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