Audio File at the end.
Festival of Lessons and Carols Reflection
December 15th, 2019
Many of us here have come, I imagine, because we love Christmas and the music we sing. I know I do. I’ve loved Christmas music as long as I can remember—when I was a child, we had a five-disk CD Player, that moved from choral music to Mannheim Steamroller. I loved Mannheim Steamroller—now that I’m grown, I realize they are the Velveeta of music—containing everything similar to music, but none of the substance.
But I love choral music. I love the possibilities—harmony, dissonance, surprise, resolution. I love picking out the individual voices, and sitting back to hear the whole chorus. There’s an old bishop, maybe it was Ambrose, or maybe it was Augustine, who said, “He who sings prays twice,” and I suppose I believe that—how good it feels to sing. How good it feels to listen to music, to take part in joy. I love the music we make here at OSA, and I hope you all are enjoying it, too.
Once, a few years ago, we had a soloist here who sang:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on'ry people like you and like I...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that carol this year. I, too, have been wandering and wondering. I wonder if you have been wondering, too. I haven been wondering, principally, about the way my daughters see this world and the way I see it. I have been wondering if they will grow with the same hope as I did when I grew up, with the same confidence in the future that I had as I grew up.
Kids are very similar to choral music. You have to find the right pitch with them, and moods and tunes can change is split second. Things are great when they’re harmony and sometimes to find that harmony you have to pass through some emotional dissonance. It takes constant practice to parent and to be parented, and you have to develop a repertoire.
But the carol, like many of the great carols, is not the work of a famous composer, with busts in the halls of Julliard or Yale. Instead, John Jacob Niles saw a bedraggled and dirty girl once stand forth and sing a few lines—which he made her repeat until he got the notation and the lyrics. The song is by poor, ordn’ry people, who knew more about Jesus’s life than perhaps any famous man:
When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
Every night, one of my daughters goes to sleep in our bed. She never wants to sleep in her own. So every night, while she’s sleeping, I pick her up and put her in her own bed. I know—I hope—that someday she’ll go to sleep in her own room in her own space. But these nights I put her in bed with a prayer. And because I am no longer sure that she will grow up in a good and safe world, I pray every night that she will, and if not, that she will have the courage and guts to face whatever we leave her.
In our country we used to believe that the aim of journalism was to report the truth. It cannot be the case that our president both did and did not ask for foreign interference in our elections and predicate it on delivering military aid; it cannot be the case that the ice caps are melting and that climate change is a hoax; it cannot be the case any more, that both sides are equally valid. At some point we have to stand on some solid ground. At some point, we must trust someone. At some point, the truth will out. Someone said once that the truth will set you free, but I wonder if we’ve fallen in love with thrall of the horserace, and closed our eyes to the wonder of what God intends for us.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sing,
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.
Christians believe that this little child, born in a cow’s stall among the scum and the trash of the world, is the sign of God’s total commitment to this world. That’s why I pray when I move my daughter to her bed. Nothing else has shown me that love for poor or’nary people. But if God loves this world so much, maybe I can have some hope.
This year I’m not here to offer the comfort of nostalgia, or to tell you things will continue as they always have. I’m here to tell you things have never continued thus. I’m here to tell you that I think we’re in trouble. We’re in real trouble. But I’m also here to tell you that the birth of a child is the full demonstration of God’s love for this world, and only God’s love will save us. It’s a real love, a true love. Things can be different, things can change. Things will be different—things will change. But will we?