I’ve been thinking a lot about music during this Christmas season. It’s not just because Offspring #3 is playing at Carnegie Hall (a concert last night and another on Friday; I wish we were there). And it’s not just because my wife’s organ playing in our Christmas service on Sunday afternoon was as glorious as ever, if not more so. At least since my teen years, when I made my share of it, the music of Christmas has been my favorite part of the season.
My favorite hymns, carols, and performances thereof have varied somewhat over the years – though mostly in the sense that my list of favorites has multiplied. Even now, after more than half a hundred Christmases, I am still adding favorites. For example, last year an old hymn, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” made the list. I now have four different recordings of it on my iPhone, and I like them all. (See below for a performance on YouTube.)
This season, bits of text more than whole songs have had me pondering. I’ve long appreciated Christmas hymns which celebrate but also look beyond the (mostly) sweet story of the Savior’s birth. For example, “Once in Royal David’s City” looks to a glorious future (again, see below for a video):
And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.
Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895)
What has struck me most of late is the breadth and depth of some carols’ sense of the Savior’s grace. Redemption from sin is by itself an incalculable gift, beyond our capacity to conceive, let alone repay. But if we’re to take these hymns at their word, his grace and power extend further – to changing our fallen nature, making us fit to dwell with God eternally.
In other words – to quote a great hymn that isn’t focused on Christmas – it’s not just “Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.” It’s also “Changed from glory into glory, till in heav’n we take our place” (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley, 1707-1788; again, see below).
That new favorite I mentioned, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” has these lines:
Teach, O teach us, Holy Child,Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
By Thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble Thee,
In Thy sweet humility.
By Christ’s power and grace alone are we redeemed from sin. And by his power and grace alone can we gradually come to resemble him. That this is even possible is part of the wonder of Christmas. (See below for a performance.)
One of my earliest favorites among the Christmas hymns is “Away in a Manger.” Where we often read and sing “take us to heaven,” a variant nearly as old (perhaps 1899?) reads “fit us for heaven.” (See below.)
In truth, I find this whole prayer beautiful – and I find it to be my own, as it is surely countless others’ – but it is not just childlike sweetness. The last line reaches toward our endless future, where, literally by the grace of Jesus Christ, he will have transformed us into fit companions for him and our Father forever:
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.
Every Gift a Symbol
In attempting to suggest both the infinite scope of the real, universal Christmas Gift – which only Deity could give – and to show that we’re already aware of it, at least in the words we sing at Christmas, I find myself drawn to one more thought: Every gift we give is a symbol of that Gift.
I’m uncertain how to rate the moral severity of getting caught up in symbols and wholly losing sight of what they symbolize, but as an intellectual transgression it is grievous indeed. That we sometimes ponder and analyze a symbol without seeing beyond it is a dispiriting thought indeed — especially at Christmas.
Those who wish Christmas to be a secular holiday may make of it – for themselves – whatever they choose, I suppose. And we probably should resist rampant commercialism on its own merits at this season. (Is there any season when we shouldn’t?) But in my Christian view, every gift we exchange at this season is a symbol of the Gift who was born of Mary at Bethlehem.
By our Christmas gifts we remember him, celebrate him, worship him — and, we may hope, point others to him. I was thinking today that, if we do it right, our Christmas gift-giving is almost a sacrament.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a joyous new year!