Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent Christmas of 1943 in prison where he’d been since April of that year. Most of you know the story — a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, member of the German Resistance movement against Nazism, and a founding member of the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer had been arrested for his involvement in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As Christmas approached in 1943, he wrote the following in a letter to his parents:
This will be the last Christmas carol for the season, and it seems almost odd that I’ve not already added today’s selection to the series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is to me the carol that most proclaims Christmas, the most essential of carols for the season.
The carol comes from the Latin Adeste Fideles, a 1743 hymn by John Francis Wade for text which may date back to the 13th century. Wade was a British exile who moved to a Roman Catholic community in France, where he eked out an income by copying and selling music and giving music lessons to children. The English version, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” was was translated more than a century later by Frederick Oakeley, a British clergyman who felt that his congregation would sing well if only they had good literary texts to sing. Perhaps this carol expresses some truth in his conviction, as it is generally a difficult one for a congregation not to sing with a little extra “oomph.” The original Latin lyrics follow at the end of the familiar English ones, for those who feel compelled to follow along in the original language.
Now that we are past Advent and into the Christmastide season, I can legitimately publish Christmas carols to the list in my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. In the church of that youth, the Christmas carols might carry on for a week or so after Christmas (depending how the calendar fell), but that would be it until December. I’m sure it was the same for many of us, who would begin the carols of Christmas again sometime early in the Advent season. This week I add a carol which it is unlikely that one can pass by a Christmas program without hearing: “Away in a Manger.”
This evening as my wife prepared to go back to work after the holiday, I remarked that this has been a better Christmas for us than last year. “The last two,” she replied. And it’s true. We were sitting in our new basement rec room, surveying the “media wall” I had built, with the new Wii plugged in to the home theatre, complete with brand-new KEF center channel speaker purchased at a Boxing Day sale this morning. We’re looking forward to family time in the space, which has been a lot of work. Just three weeks ago, it was a mess of bare walls, exposed 2×4 framed walls, and an assortment of boxes of excess miscellany overflowed from the storage room. There was more than one night in the last week that I worked until 3:00AM, and my wife got started at 6:00AM the following morning to sand or paint. We were both burning the candle at both ends, actually. We kept telling ourselves it would be worth it, and the end of the project was very satisfying.
This time of year I always remember an old favourite, an alternate account of “the night before Christmas” and naturally I decided to share.
Christmas eve is when we open our gifts as a family — the extended family is tomorrow and the day after. The kids have certainly been enjoying the Wii in our newly-finished rec room. Upon attempting to start the car to go to church, I discovered that we’ll probably be needing a new battery for Christmas as well. That, and the block heater isn’t working, so it’ll be a trip into the shop as well. Arrggh. Merry Christmas….
The holiday season sees my kids and their friends singing versions of Christmas carols that aren’t exactly canon, as we did when we were young. You remember, “Jingle bells, Batman smells…” and “We three kings of orient are / trying to smoke a rubber cigar…” Only now I have to listen to “Dashing through the snow, on a pair of broken skiis / over the fields we go, bumping into trees / I think I broke my head, the snow is turning red…” and others of equal wit.
Today on CBC Radio I caught a bit of a history of “Go Tell it On the Mountain,” which began as a negro spiritual during the slavery era, was popular as a civil rights cry, and now finds life as a Christmas carol. It’s got a clear theme of freedom, and the documentary featured clips of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountain” speech.
Today begins the last week of Advent, and therefore marks our last Sunday before Christmas. During the past few weeks, I’ve been populating our Advent space with Christmas carols, as the church where I grew up (the -of-my-youth part) didn’t really observe the liturgical calendar, so I knew nothing of Advent until much later. One of the standard carols which appears each year is one that we’ve already had to sing by virtue of one of the Christmas gatherings where we were in attendance. Taking some notes from Wikipedia,
Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) is a popular Christmas carol. The original lyrics of the song Stille Nacht were written in German by the Austrian priest Father Josef Mohr and the melody was composed by the Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber. In 1863, John Freeman Young translated the song into the English version sung today. The version of the melody that is generally sung today differs slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original.
“Incarnational” is of course that other word for missional, and the theory behind it. So as I was considering this idea, it occured to me that Christmas is perhaps the chief holiday for missional folk — after all, it’s all about the inauguration of the incarnation of Christ, the sending of the Son by the Father to trod the sod of this earth, as it were.
This got me to wondering, if Christmas is a missional season, what would a missional/incarnational Christmas look like? If we want to walk as Jesus did and engage people missionally, what would that path look like specifically over the holiday season? I know how some churches do this with big programs, but if we’re specifically considering a missional expression of Christmas…. how does one incarnate the celebration of the incarnation?