One of the wonderful things about both the Advent and Christmas seasons is the abundance of beautiful hymns and carols. They’re made more special by the fact that they can only be sung once a year! But even so, we can still be overly familiar with some of the more common carols and maybe miss out on the power behind the words. A few years ago I began praying and journaling with the words of my favourite Christmas carols, and realized that they’re more than just festive songs. They really pack a punch theologically and reveal the truth of the birth of Christ. So here I’m sharing 7 of mine and our teams’ favourite Christmas carol quotes, with some reflections on what they have meant to me.
I can’t write a post on Advent hymns without including O Come O Come Emmanuel, which was a hymn sung every night in Advent in my childhood. It used to give me a slightly terrified thrill to hear it; the words are so militant. But as I’ve got older I’ve appreciated the words more. As a child I couldn’t understand why God needed to be so strident and powerful and destroying death and freeing people from tyranny. It was all a bit scary. As an adult, I understand. Aren’t there times in all our lives when the grave feels very real, and we feel we are truly going through hell? It has been these times when I have needed God’s power, so infinitely more than my own, to sweep through the battlefield of my life and pluck me up and out of the mess. And for that now, I praise Him, for doing what is completely beyond me.
I first came across the carol See Amid the Winter’s Snow when I was living in England’s small, but perfectly formed mountains in an area called the Lake District. It was my first experience of true silence at night; cold, deep winter silence muffled by snow, and stars at night that hung across the mountain tops brighter than I’d ever seen in my city childhood. During this time I attended Daily Mass in an old chapel that used to be a stable. It truly drove home the scandalous paradox of the nativity. God, who was powerful enough to plan the mountains around me and the masterpiece of glittering sky above me could humble Himself to restrict Himself to the confines of a tiny baby and the poverty of a stable. Both my own experience and that of the lines from O Little Town of Bethlehem showed me that God gives in silence. He will not shout above the noise of chaos. Instead He will quietly reveal Himself in humble ways. We need to ask Him to help us step out of the noise and find Him in the silence.
I love the words of Of the Father’s Love Begotten. We can forget sometimes that we are here because God loves us! Do we really believe that? Or have we tied ourselves up so much with worries and anxieties that we forget to remember we and the entire world are begotten by the Father’s love?! And that everything: our fears, mistakes, regrets, the mess of the world, are bookmarked beginning and end by the Father Himself. That’s not to devalue the sufferings of the world, but it is to acknowledge that we never ever should despair. There is no force of evil that can destroy totally. Death is never the end.
The pleasing thing about this quote is the way it’s belted out at the top volume at this particular part of the melody, which always makes it enormously satisfying to sing. But more than that, what an image! It is as if God folds up His glory and quietly slips into earth to be weak for our sake. But we know that’s not the complete image. Because while God lays His glory by, we still know its power is there. Who else can be ‘born that no more may die’? And so, knowing this power and glory – now contained for us in a tiny host – we still find ourselves falling at His feet to worship. Or do we? Do we forget that we are created to worship, that in our souls is a restless longing to seek something bigger than ourselves? And if we don’t find it in God, we will search for it in other unsatisfying ways. Reflect on these words and remind yourself of the glory of God and the gifts He has given us!
When I first learned that God is outside time and entered into time to be with us through Christ, it was a eureka moment for me. So I love the image here that everything the earth has ever suffered, ever been through, ever hoped for, people from the beginning of time to the end of time, are all met together in that one moment of God-made-man. It reminds us again, not to despair, no matter what state the world is in. Indeed, Bethlehem is, as we know, not the the sweet little town of the carol. So many places in the world have dark, dark streets where God’s peace is not known. But as this carol shows, God holds all these things together, like many threads that He brings into his Hands. He does not – and will not – leave us to our own tangled mess. He patiently works through those threads of time, working with us, not against us, to eventually untangle what has been made wrong. As Pope Benedict XVI so eloquently put it, “God is a God that writes straight on crooked lines.”
Can you believe I only heard of this hymn for the first time this year?! Now I’m coming across it everywhere. ‘When half-spent was the night’: Christ came into our darkness, but of course, could only come about through Mary, who stands with us too in our darkness. This hymn reminds me of a wonderful image of Mary summed up by Venerable Fulton Sheen: “God who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of men.” Mary is our surest, easiest way to Christ!
No one knows who wrote this 15th century English hymn, but it is very beautiful. “Blessed be the time that apple taken was” refers to the same circumstances of the felix culpa, the happy fault of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that leads to the salvation of humanity by God. It’s a Christmas hymn that points us directly to Easter, to remind us that the birth of Christ is only the beginning – important, but not fulfilled until the Cross and the Resurrection.
So as you attend Mass in these last Sundays of Advent, and indeed, over Christmas itself, try to pay closer attention to the words of the hymns you are singing. What stands out for you? Does it give you a new insight or experience of an age old story?!
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