Sermon Christmas Morning 2023 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever thought about writing a famous Christmas carol? Few of us ever do, I should imagine, though we do have some famous Christmas carol arrangers in our midst.
But just in case you’ve ever thought you’d like to try your hand at writing a famous Christmas carol, I have discovered this week -- in looking up the origin stories of many of our most famous Christmas carols -- what the secret is.
It’s apparently not imagining in a million years that what you’re writing is going to wind up being a famous Christmas carol. Or even a Christmas carol at all.
Which in some ways seems entirely appropriate to the meaning and story of Christmas!
Because it’s a bit like being a young woman, betrothed to be married, never imagining in a million years that your ordinary body will birth the Messiah.
Or being an ordinary shepherd keeping watch over your flock on an ordinary night, never imagining in a million years that the story of what you were told and where you were sent would still be being read, two thousand years later, on the other side of the globe.
In a funny way, our most famous Christmas carols almost embody the meaning of Christmas – just by virtue of how, like God in a holy night in a stable in Bethlehem, they kind of slipped into our world under the radar… and then filled it.
Connecting with people’s needs and hopes and aspirations in unexpected and kind of spectacular ways.
Consider, for example, the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. Written in fact, just as a poem, by the abolitionist preacher Philip Brooks. Who travelled to the Holy Land just after the American Civil War, suffering from exhaustion, and found himself overlooking Bethlehem by night.
It would never even have been a carol if he hadn’t later needed a piece for his children’s choir to sing. But he did, so it is. And among all the millions who have loved it and sung it since, one was Helen Keller. Who when she met Brooks told him that it was through his words that she’d come to understand how she’d always known God. Because as a deaf and blind child whose “ears could not hear his coming”, as the carol says, nevertheless she knew: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven”.
Philip Brooks actually preached the eulogy at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. But I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if he considered, unexpectedly, that those words that spoke so eloquently to Helen Keller from that poem he penned while resting exhausted in the Holy Land, were some of the most important he ever wrote.
But at least O Little Town of Bethlehem, by the time it was set to music, was intended to be a Christmas carol.
Because Joy to the World slipped into our Christian songbook as a Christmas carol entirely by mistake. And not without a great deal of drama.
Because Joy to the World was actually a rewriting of Psalm 98, undertaken by the hymn writer Isaac Watts – whose hymns when he first began writing them were considered an actual abomination. Particularly by the most traditional of the Scottish Presbyterians who were some of our forebears inside these four walls.
Because Isaac Watts it was who dared to break the cardinal rule of church music in the early 1700s – namely that only the Psalms could be sung, in the exact words in which they appeared in the Bible. And only ever to tunes that would provide as little human enjoyment as possible to sing, lest people start enjoying them too much. And not display appropriate worshipful gravity.
It was, in short, not a very cheerful time to be a Protestant. And Isaac Watts hated that. He wanted to write biblical hymns that people would enjoy singing. So he did. And they did. Which caused Isaac Watts’ hymns to be banned by a great swathe of Protestant churches. Clergymen resigned, organists resigned, church choirs were divided – and all because of Isaac Watts thinking there could be an alternative to boring church music.
But his hymns just wouldn’t go away. They kept bubbling up to the surface like lights shining in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome them. And one of them, just an ordinary rewrite of Psalm 98 never intended as a Christmas carol but simply as a Christianized expression of the Older Testament’s vision of God’s eternal reign –
It slipped into Christmas, because people loved it. Because it was perfect. It didn’t even mention the birth of Jesus – and yet it was perfect. Unexpected.
God slipping into our world in an infant born in a stable, overturning the hegemony of the powerful with the power of individual hearts strangely warmed.
Which, speaking of hearts strangely warmed, it was of course John and Charles Wesley – the founder and chief musician of Methodism – who brought us Hark the Herald Angels Sing. But we should be glad that John didn’t prevail with his opinion that it should be sung extremely slowly and with solemnity… and that Charles didn’t prevail with his initial opening line of “Hark, how all the welkin rings”.
Welkin was apparently an archaic word for “heaven” – but whether the early Methodists also thought it sounded weirdly like the name of a seashell, or it was also a beautifully Christmassy manifestation of locating sacred revelation in the ordinary, rather than in weird bizarre words like ‘welkin’, the rewrite emerged quite swiftly.
And meanwhile the Jacobite Catholics, according to legend, were contributing their own offerings to the century of populism and religious reformation – with coded references to Bonny Prince Charlie apparently hidden within O Come All Ye Faithful, and the entirety of the Catholic catechism cleverly veiled in the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The conspiracy theory – I mean, legend – of O Come All Ye Faithful was that in its original Latin lyrics, the words “regem angelorum” – king of angels – was a clever code for what the Jacobites believed that Bonny Prince Charlie really was. The “regem anglorum” – the true king of England.
And the conspiracy theory of the Twelve Days of Christmas was that it enabled secretly Catholic Britons to instill in their children the elements of the catechism, thusly –
12 points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed,
11 faithful disciples
9 fruits of the Holy Spirit
7 gifts of the HolySpirit
6 days of creation
5 first books of Moses
Faith, hope, and charity,
The Old and New Testaments
And Jesus the Christ.
Neither of these legends has been proven by scholars to be true. But they still both speak to the degree to which Christmas carols themselves have manifested for Christians the meaning and heart of Christmas – of the holy slipping in under cover of darkness, of Godness veiled within and revealed within the ordinariness of our world.
I’ve long adored, even as I’ve recognized the ways in which Canadian First Nations have struggled with it, the locating within the life and land of the Wendat people the story of the nativity in Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. Because that’s exactly what the incarnation is all about.
It’s God born into the world in an infant in a stable in Bethlehem, but it’s God’s birth into the world everywhere. Lurking just out of view, creeping into our vision, revealed within the whenever and the wherever and the now… there’s holiness and it’s inescapable.
There’s holiness and it’s in the ordinary. There’s holiness and it’s in the unexpected.
There’s holiness and it doesn’t need anyone’s plan to write a very famous Christmas Carol – because it’s always just going to slip in under the radar and surprise us.
Like maybe right now. When we join together in singing. Amen.