I've been singing Christmas carols for a couple months now, truth be told. I don't care even the slightest bit about singing 'Silent Night' in October. It threatens some people, you know, though I'm sure you aren't one of them. It seems unthinkable to some folks that Christmas carols can be enjoyed before December 1st. Relax. It doesn't mean I hate Thanksgiving.
I like carols, as I say every year. To me they seem full of magic in a way that startles me anew every October when I start singing them loudly in my car. It also startles other passengers in my car, and even passengers of other cars, as I am capable of singing quite loudly.
My inner elf picks out a favorite carol each year. For whatever reason, a particular song appeals to me and I know that it is my song of the season. My inner elf has a name, and if you keep reading I'll tell you what it is.
This year I've been obsessed with "Oh Holy Night'. It's an impressive carol in that you cannot sing it unless you've calculated just how high you can sing for the 'oh niiiight deVIIIIIINE' part, and then worked backwards. I've had many a tragic singing experience when I just sang my heart out with no thought for my vocal range. When this happens, I'm always worried that someone has placed a recording device in my car to better understand me in my natural habitat, and they'll show it to a room full of doctors in white coats who laugh and write down things in a notebook and all secretly poke fun at me for my passionate yet not so melodic rendition of 'Oh Holy Night' in the key of Way Too High.
BUT! It is still a lovely song, even if I strangle a few of the notes.
I literally (and I mean literally, literally, not the figurative literally nonsense that's going around) can't sing these lines without tears in my eyes:
'Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.'
The words strike me as rather progressive, and sadly, not an accurate portrayal of historical Christianity.
My readers are both Christian and non, and I hear you both roaring at me. Be quiet, I'm talking!
Love, peace, brotherhood...these words get used by people on both sides of the religious divide. For some, they become the hallmarks of 'soft religion', i.e. that horridly dangerous religious pudding that people fall into when they just want to sin and not feel bad about it. Then again, they are the some of the most consistent words written about Jesus.
Whatever your thoughts on Jesus, you can hardly argue about the words attributed to him, that they were radically different for his day and age. They were for the most part kind words, soft words, comfortable words.
I don't think it is a secret that I grew up in church, bled on her steps and cried at her doors. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, yes? I likewise devoted all of my adult life so far to 'the church'. I collected my paycheck there, I went to classes there, I took my children for ballet lessons there, I ate meals there, I even exercised and bought coffee there.
I don't think it is a secret either that really, really bad things happened to me as a child and unspeakable things as an adult. Life is that way, I know. Nobody can expect perfection from an institution. But..um...let's say that I was chased out of church with a stick that was dipped in poisonous acid. Hey! No reason to be negative around the holidays, right?
What does this have to do with O Holy Night? It remains to be seen. But you want to know my elf name, so keep going.
This Christmas carol was written by a Frenchman named Placide Cappeau. He was a wine commissioner who loved poetry, so he came up with these lyrics for his parish Christmas service. Placide decided, no doubt over a lovely glass of wine, that his poem was really a song. He asked a classically trained friend to help with the music, and so our lovely song was born. The musician was Jewish, however, which became a problem when the Church Powers That Be found out. No matter it was already a beloved French carol, it was now suspect and therefore A Dangerous Song. Placide put the nail in the coffin when he changed his religious views.
The song was banned in church, but as that rarely stops the rabble-rousing citizenry, especially the lovely passionate French, it wasn't forgotten.
It gained popularity among American abolitionists during our Civil War. The political issue of their day was, in their eyes, a spiritual one as well. They clung to the song as a source of hope. Like the Israelites waiting for the Savior, they would now wait for the moral tide to turn. The song boosted them during that wait.
Also of interest? This was the first song ever played over the radio air waves. A colleague of Thomas Edison was messing around with radio waves (as one does when one is bored) and broadcasted the song to very surprised newspaper offices and ships around the world. Some of them probably did fall to their knees, as the metal box that used to tap out messages was now playing music.
What do an abolitionist, an inventor, a Jewish composer, and a French wine commissioner have in common? They made people uneasy.
In their own ways, they caused the people around them to question reality, to question morality, to question belief in what was and also what was possible.
What is it about the words they loved that caused alarm? I think it is the words that make me cry. 'Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.’ They are alarming words, words that rouse you from your sleep.
If you've ever been oppressed, you know the bitter taste it leaves in your mouth. Not because life is hard, but because sometimes life is so unbearably unfair. Oppression is what happens when you are silenced, when you are dealt a situation that you have no control over, when you are graded by a rubric you can't see. It smarts like sanitizer in a paper cut. It seems small, but the pain is acute.
When I play a game with my kids (never Monopoly, as it is The Devil’s game) it isn't the losing that causes the most tears, but the cheating. When someone stands up by squashing others below them, it rouses primal anger. Losing is hard, but it is something we all understand. Even as we wail about it, we know that for winners to win, losers must lose. Maybe we will win at the next play, we console ourselves. Oppression has no fast fix. It is one thing to work by the sweat of your brow, but quite another when that sweat is whipped from you, mocked, and abused. The humiliation and inherent wrongness cannot be borne.
Oppression is a human evil, we all have done it on the playground or unknowingly by buying into a system of social class. The hard thing to realize is that it frequently happens in the name of Christ.
If you want an example, go read about The Crusades. Need another? Slavery in America. Still more? Ask if your local church supports programs for the poor, for the fatherless and the widow. Chances are they'll direct you to the state programs, all while bemoaning the fact that the state programs exist. The State shouldn't take care of the poor, they say, The Church should! But as The Church doesn't have the funds...well...go fill out paperwork for Uncle Sam. But before you go, here…you can have a cup of dried soup and a pamphlet about Going To Hell In An Outfit-Coordinating Handbasket.
In the movie, The Help, Hilly tells her maid that she won't lend money for the maid's son to get into college. Hilly says it is 'the Christian thing to do', because 'God doesn't give charity to those who are well and able.' God helps those who help themselves, right? Right? That sounds like the message of love and peace.
Most of us smarted at that scene, because it was so heart-breakingly unkind. But what about the more socially acceptable versions of Hilly's words? Do they fall from our lips onto the ears of someone who needs our help?
I read A Christmas Carol most years at this time. It always strikes me that if Scrooge's words about poverty and social justice could be posted online today, they’d get lots of favorable press. ‘Send them to the prisons where they can work, take away their food and let them die...then we won't have to worry about them anymore!’ I’ve seen versions of this across many media sources. Scrooge gives an eerie echo of our 'Christian' culture in the South when he says that he already supports programs for the poor with his tax money, so why should they expect any more out of him? After all, they are poor of their own choice, as he is rich by the same manner. If they want to be better off, let them do what they will to become so.
The Chains that bound Marley are the same Chains that 'he shall break'! It isn't enough to throw money at someone who needs it. It wasn't enough that the Emancipation Proclamation set people free. The law gives the order, hands out the money. But until the chains are broken, really broken, there's no change made. How long were slaves free before people of color were allowed to drink from the same fountain as whites? How long does a single mother receive food stamps and government housing before she realizes that she is the same quality of person that lives in Belle Meade? How long do we live alongside Muslim and Buddhist before we treat them as equals, made in the image and likeness of the Christ we claim to follow? Did that last sentence bother you?
During the reign of slavery, it was very gauche to suggest that black people were, in fact, people. Same as white, inside and out, deserving of all the liberties we afford ourselves. It just wasn't proper, and many an old Southern biddy shook her head at the liberalism that had come into the world. 'What is this world coming to?' You can hear her say, 'In my day, nobody questioned their elders. If it was good enough for them, it's good enough of me. Give me that old-time fanaticism! Now, tell the slaves to bring my dinner.’
During The Crusades, you would be killed for having ideas of religious tolerance. It was Christianity for all men, if we rape and murder and pillage and plunder your entire kingdom to the ground. All in the name of Christ. Oppression is supposed to cease in the name of Christ, because his law is love and his gospel is peace. Instead we use that name to bend others to our will, to oppress and enslave. We help make the chains, just like Marley said. We lock them into place and applaud the wearer for knowing their place.
If love and peace make you uneasy, or have no place in your religion, you should consider the idea that you aren't interested in Jesus, the Christ. This is fine, by the way, and its your right as a human to explore the vast philosophies and structures of thought that fill the world. Keep exploring until you find the one that suits you. Don't be afraid of exploring the options. The only thing to be gained by holding on to something you don't believe is self-oppression. Break your chains!
Don’t just grudgingly allow that Muslim group to build a mosque in your town. If you believe in religious freedom, believe that it is their religious freedom to build their house of worship. Nobody asked you to attend their services and prayers. But what you must do, what you cannot ignore, is that they are your brother. They are your sister, and your neighbor, and it should be your joy and privilege to recognize them.
I frequently think about what today’s progressive issues are. If I’d lived during The Crusades, would I have wielded a knife against the Infidel? If I lived during the time of slavery, would I share a meal with a black child? Would I have turned away from a public beating? Would I have heard Galileo give his treatise about the sun, or would I have closed my ears to his obvious heresy? Would I do what the vast majority of people did in that time, in that place, facing that difficulty?
We confuse tolerance and acceptance with approval. They are not the same thing. I don’t approve of cigarette smoking, because I think medical studies conclusively show that it is harmful to the body. But I have to tolerate the idea of it, because I’m not in charge of other people’s lungs. I have to approve at least in concept, the right of others to smoke, even if at their own peril. I won’t smoke, I’ll try to keep my kids from it, but if I say that people don’t have the right to smoke, I’ll need to admit that we also shouldn’t have the right to Oreos or too much television or even gas in our cars. Suddenly my idea of tolerance will broaden.
You have conviction? Good. Use it wisely. You have passion and belief in your cause? Wonderful. But if your convictions and passion lead you in the paths of hatred or war, you should stop using the name of Christ. Especially during this time, when the fabric between Heaven and Earth grows especially thin. All people feel the otherworldly magic of Christmas. Don’t deny them, or yourselves, the carol singing and the tree trimming and the Santa visiting. We experience the unspeakable love of Christ in ways that make sense to us. If its singing, we should sing. If its giving, we should give. If someone doesn’t believe in Jesus, the closest thing they have might be Old Saint Nick. Don’t despise the presence of love and peace in the word, no matter what face it wears. If you believe that all love comes from God, delight when you see it in the world. Delight when you see someone drop money into a Salvation Army bucket. Delight when you see a child laugh on Santa’s lap. Delight when your unreligious friend wishes you the compliments of the season. If the source of the joy is the same, why should you feel threatened? All things that give love and peace will in time point to the source. Believe in the source, and trust that the methods are used for a reason.
During this time we are reminded ‘Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace.’ What a beautiful song that gives us a gentle nudge, alarm bells to our sleepy soul, to remember that Christ came to love. To love. The action of love and the employment of peace are especially important at Christmas. They are the only things that break chains, both seen and unseen. If you want to make a difference in the lives of those around you, remember that Christ came to love. Christ came to give peace. He came at Christmas, and the mark left on the world is still felt at Christmastime.
Break chains by choosing over and again, day after day, to see love and peace in the world. Where it is lacking, supply it. Where it is needed, give in abundance. Where it is forbidden, stand high and sing, ‘Chains shall he break! For the slave is MY brother!’ and watch as the world struggles against her chains. Cappeau broke chains by suggesting that we have them. The composer broke chains by creating beautiful notes to accompany words he didn’t even believe in. The inventor dared to imagine impossible things. The abolitionist cared to dream of equality. They broke chains because in the presence of love and peace, chains have no place.
People get mad when you try to break chains. I’m not tooting my own horn, mostly because I hate that phrase. But I think I was chased out of church because I tried to break a few chains. I wanted to ask questions. I suggested…or insisted…that The Church is often in the business of selling chains. I set off alarms, and the sleeping weren’t pleased. Their response made me feel oppressed, silenced, and judged by a rubric I couldn’t see. In the end, the only rubric I need to concern myself with is the law of love and gospel of peace.
I pointed out a few chains to Scrooge. You might call me the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. That isn’t my elf name, though. It’s Mistletoe Ivysocks.