Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Carols #1

Of all of the sub genres of church music, I find Christmas carols the most interesting for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, the gospel is all about contextualization, but many theologians and many churches try to ignore that.  They'll talk about trying to recapture the shape, style, and government of the Early Church, forgetting that there never was one early church and neglecting that the cultural differences would make it unworkable even if there had been.  Incarnation is all about context.  Jesus was born a boy in a very specific time and place with a very specific cultural setting, politics, and economics.  His ministry becomes universal only because it is so contextual.  The same continues to be true now.  We see this most clearly in Christmas music.

Europeans moved the holiday to the middle of winter both to coincide with the shortest and bleakest time of the year and with pagan holidays that happened at the same time.  One of my favorite carols is In the Bleak Midwinter.  Now, how much more European can you get than that?  "Snow had fallen, snow on snow..."  "Water like a stone..."  Jesus was born in a place where the weather just doesn't look that way.  Still, the image works both for the setting of the singers, northern Europe and North America,  and as metaphor.   Here's a video of me playing this song in Santa Barbara at the Cambridge Drive Concerts Songs on a Midwinter's Night (sorry for the lighting and for the clam in the first verse) -  another place where the weather doesn't fit at all, but the metaphor still works.

My favorite Christmas carol is Some Children See Him, one of the Alfred Burt carols with lyrics by Wihla Hutson from 1951.  I blogged about the way this song reflects contextualism back in '06.  Here are the lyrics.
Some children see Him lily white,the baby Jesus born this night.Some children see Him lily white,with tresses soft and fair.Some children see Him bronzed and brown,The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.Some children see Him bronzed and brown,with dark and heavy hair. 
Some children see Him almond-eyed,this Savior whom we kneel beside.some children see Him almond-eyed,with skin of yellow hue.Some children see Him dark as they,sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.Some children see him dark as they,and, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different placewill see the baby Jesus' facelike theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,and filled with holy light.O lay aside each earthly thingand with thy heart as offering,come worship now the infant King.'Tis love that's born tonight!
Those words reflect my understanding of incarnation more deeply than any song I can think of... and in that reflect the gospel in the deepest of ways.  More than once, it has brought me to tears.  Some Children has been recorded by a number of people but my favorite recording by far is by Stacy Sullivan.  She changes the rhythm a bit and moves the melody some but I don't think does any violence to the song and makes it a bit more accessible for most folk.  Unfortunately I can't find a video of her but you can purchase the MP3 at Amazon here.  It is a gorgeous rendition of the song.

In a few days, I'll be back with some thoughts about Christmas music and gender.

No comments: