The Carols Question

Ask any pastor or church musician the dreaded question: “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols starting in November?”  Depending on their level of self-control, you may get an exasperated sigh, an eye roll, or a patient smile.  You may hear something along the lines of being counter-cultural, singing the music of Advent in Advent and the music of Christmas in Christmas.  They may try to sell you on how much great music we’ve got for Advent that we should use.  They may default to the ugly truth, which is that we’ve all been hearing these songs in stores since Halloween and we are SICK of them.

But still we long to sing them, at church.  Why is that?

An easy response would be that we like to sing them with our church community.  I think the reason for that is because we KNOW these songs.  I’ve noticed when my congregation sings a non-Christmas hymn they know really well, they sound just as good as they do on Christmas Eve.  A more complicated response would be the one that says something about how good it feels, which sounds a lot to me like nostalgia.  Our former Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, frequently cautioned the ELCA about nostalgia, which he saw as a longing for an idealized past that likely didn’t exist.

In reality, I think there are two reasons that are more subconscious, that run in the river of our soul:  the way music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings, and the way music helps us to mark time.

Pastor Laura talked with the kids a couple of weeks ago about time.  She described chronos time, which we might call “clock time.”  She pointed out the Advent Wreath as a way of marking chronos time with its 4 candles for each Sunday in Advent, and the Christ Candle for Christmas.  We have watches, calendars, and cell phones that tell us what chronos time it is.  She also talked about kairos time – Biblical time, that is “filled with God’s gracious actions and presence.”  (Keeping Time, pg. 3, Ramshaw/Tieg, 2009).  Time that is full of God and which Jesus makes complete brings a different idea of time, one that doesn’t depend on anything written or electronic.

The music of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – what the church calls “the Christmas Cycle” – marks both chronos and kairos time.  Take, for example, the Advent song “Light One Candle” which is set to a Yiddish folk tune:

Light one candle to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall bring salvation to Israel, God fulfills the promise.

Light two candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He shall feed the flock like a shepherd, gently lead them homeward.

Light three candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/Lift your heads and lift high the gateway for the King of glory.

Light four candles to watch for Messiah: let the light banish darkness/He is coming, tell the glad tidings. Let your lights be shining!

The references to the four candles of the Advent Wreath mark our chronos time.  The second half of each verse, however, exists in kairos time, looking to the prophets as well as to the future when “God fulfills the promise.”

Kairos time is solely marked by the Korean song “Come Now, O Prince of Peace” (ELW #247):

Come now, O Prince of peace, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now, O God of love, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.

Come now and set us free, O God, our Savior/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

Come, Hope of unity, make us one body/Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.

The tune, Ososŏ, is one that is sung by people of both South and North Korea as a prayer for reunification – something that perhaps can only occur within kairos time.

Christmas carols and songs mark both chronos and kairos time, because they speak of timeless themes with both ancient and future applications, as well as of what Christ’s coming means.  The phrase that sears this into my soul is from “Silent Night”:

Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace

The dawn of redeeming grace.  That is a powerful image to carry home on Christmas Eve.

That brings us to the other reason: music brings expression to our deepest joys and longings.  How many people do you know who use the expression “with the dawn of redeeming grace” in their everyday speech?

I didn’t think you did.  Me neither.

But the poetry of hymnody, of song lyrics, captures and proclaims a part of our human existence in a unique way.  One of our former pastors, Ray Hartzell, once told me that the choices I make as a liturgist are more important than the choices the preacher makes in a sermon.  “People take the music home with them,” he said.  “That is the theology that becomes embedded in their lives, so what we say in the hymns matters.”

We Lutherans aren’t generally known for being charismatic in our worship (Bethlehem’s enthusiasm notwithstanding).  But we ARE known for our singing.  Probably has something to do with the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran.  We try to use as many great songs from each season as we can.  Here’s the thing:  Christmas carols might seem like they can’t be sung after December 25th, but that’s not the case.  The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day.  We can sing Christmas songs all through the Epiphany season too.  But just to give everyone a taste, we’ll sprinkle a carol in here and there during Advent, and let that beloved music voice our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

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