Today, Father Steve comments on the nature of the various genres of seasonal songs, reflecting upon the original intent of proper Christmas carols: to connect the Incarnation with the redemptive power of the crucifixion, thereby emphasizing the Messianic nature of the Christ child in the manger.
Our production manager at Word on Fire gathered her family together to trim the tree, and to accompany the festive occasion, she asked her husband to put on some Christmas music. He did, but mistakenly entered “holiday” when selecting an itunes radio station, and soon the family was decking the halls to the sound of Madonna’s “Holiday”- definitely not the Christmas song that our production manager had in mind. This story led our team to speculate as to the differences in Christmas songs, noting the distinction of a Christmas hymn (written specifically for a liturgical setting), a Christmas Carol (a folksong that expresses the revelation of Christ’s birth) and a holiday song (the example being Mariah Carey warbling that all she wants for Christmas is “you”). When asked if I had a favorite “song of the season,” I cited the haunting Appalachian carol, I Wonder as I Wander:
I wonder as I wander,
Out under the sky
Why Jesus our Savior
Did come for to die
For poor ordinary people
Like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
The song begs the question of the “why” of the Incarnation even further with this plaintive appeal:
If Jesus had wanted for any old thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
For all of God’s angels in heaven for to sing
He surely could have had it
For he is their King.
In other words, Christ could have had anything, but what he chose was to be born as a man, and in choosing this, he chose to die. The “wonder” of the song is discerned in the startling revelation that the reason for the Lord’s decision to be “born for to die” was because of us. He did this all for us- not because he had to, but because we needed him to do it, an act of generosity that is made even more mysterious by the fact that there was nothing all that special about us that would have made us deserving of such generosity. Being high and mighty is really an illusion. We all are, as the song says, “poor ordinary people.” As to why this particular carol is my favorite is that it not only deftly combines the profundity and simplicity of Christian proclamation but that it does so in such a way that is absolutely bracing. We should all be in wonder about the mysterious revelation of Christ’s Incarnation, not as a sentimental event that is to be situated in a fantasia on winter themes, but as an event incomparably and inescapably important all year round and into eternity.
The best of Christmas carols, which express not only the mystery of Christ’s holy birth, but also the total event of the Incarnation, are remarkably devoid of the sentimentality that has become synonymous with so many songs associated with the Christmas season. In respect to their theology, these carols are often extensions of the kinds of insights that one comes across in the Fathers of the Church who were able to correlate the events of Christ’s nativity to the Paschal Mystery; the wood of the stable foreshadows the wood of the cross and the swaddling clothes represent his burial shroud. We do not arrive at the scene of Christ’s birth and discover an event that can be abstracted from the rest of his revelation- what is presented to us in Bethlehem mysteriously contains within itself the events of Golgotha. This kind of connection between the manner in which Christ comes into the world and the manner in which he leaves it can be seen in some representation of the birth of Christ in which his Mother has placed the Holy Child in a manger that looks very much like a tomb. Such imagery is likely off putting to culture that will broker no opposition to either its insistence on “holiday” cheerfulness or its preference for a religion that must prompt nothing in the faithful other than positive feelings. The fact is that the connection between Christ’s birth and his death is an inescapable consequence of the Incarnation and that so many of the contemporary songs of Christmas are not willing to admit or appreciate this truth is not to their credit.
The Appalachian carol is not alone in its insistence that we consider the totality of the Incarnation as contained within the mystery of Christ’s birth. An even older carol, The Holly and the Ivy, describes the significance of these familiar Christmas decorations as symbols of the passion of Christ:
The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood…
The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn…
The holly bears a bark, as bitter as any gall…
After each of these references to the Passion we are reminded “and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in the morn.” In other words, we are told of the connection between Christ’s birth and his suffering. One can rejoice at his coming into the world as one like us, but one should not ignore what this will mean for Christ- that he will suffer and die.
Another example of this occurs in two carols of Christmas that retain some measure of popularity. The second verse of What Child is This, a verse that I have noticed is often omitted in many contemporary presentations of the song, tells us this:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made Flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
Even more vivid is the description of the third gift of the Magi in the song We Three Kings:
Myrrh is mine, a bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying
Sealed in the stone, cold tomb!
I have heard that references like these in carols that have become over time traditionally associated with Christmas represent the “darker side” of the holy season. The association of these songs with darkness is really misleading. Rather than casting shadows on Christmas, these references actually cast light, revealing the total mystery of the revelation of the Word made flesh. It is off-putting to contemporary Christian sensibilities but the pre-modern Christians who utilized these songs to proclaim and remember their faith understood something about the central mystery of the Christian Faith that confounds so much of modern religiosity. It is not only that our ancient forebears in the Faith were willing to tell the truth of the Incarnation boldly and without qualification, but they were also able to express this truth with a sense that something overwhelmingly positive had been accomplished by Christ’s willingness to not only be born, but also to suffer and die. The delightful retelling of the joys of the Mother of God expressed in the carol The Joys of Mary insists:
The next good joy our Mary had
It was the joy of six
To see her own son Jesus Christ
To bear the crucifix.
More is going on in these lyrics than just an attempt to find a word that rhymes with six. Why would it be a joy for Christ’s mother to see her son bear the cross, an event that to most modern Christians seems a tragic event? The carol acknowledges in this paradoxical association of the cross with joy precisely what the death of Christ accomplishes- it is not a tragic end to his existence, but a new beginning- for Christ and for all humanity. The carol The Holly and the Ivy notes the same joy-filled paradox as it celebrates:
The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir.
The fact that the holly bears into the world testimony to the suffering of Christ is not a truth to be lamented, but something that is recognized as the highest honor and an occasion of joy. Why? Because of a recognition that that the suffering and death of Christ, a necessary consequence of the Incarnation, is not a tragedy, but the occasion of the restoration of humanity in its relationship with God. This is precisely what God in Christ wanted for us when he chose “to be born for to die” and it is precisely this startling revelation that the best carols and hymns of Christmas are willing to present without any equivocation:
Behold him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Earth to heav’n replies!
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.