Christmas Cracker #2- Discernment about Words

It’s that merry season of good tidings and cheer, when ye olde carolling chestnuts deck our halls with boughs of holly on a cold and frosty morning.

Here’s a yule log-tide plea to keep Christ central amongst all the celebrations and carol medleys that make up the bulk of our Christmas invitation services. I managed to miss Jesus out from the first sentence of this article completely, but I still reckon it brought out that Chrissy tingle.

I’m at that stage in the year when I’m looking for carols and musical items for Christmas, and it’s as tricky as ever. There are plenty of carols that sound lovely, and do the shiver-up-the-back candle-lit oooooooooh effect. Creating the effect isn’t the problem – that’s the easy bit. All you need is candles (unless you’ve issues with health and safety), the play-over to Hark the Herald and a couple of sprigs of holly. The hard bit, and most important bit, is choosing songs with theology that we pray will grow in people’s hearts once the effect has worn off with the New Year hangover. We want guests to go away with as rich an understanding as possible of what Christ came to earth to do. It’s part of making the most of every opportunity, and what an opportunity Christmas is. Therefore, it’s worth working hard to find carols that are clear about Christ – his purpose for coming to earth, and his glorious character – God in human form.

We need to take care over the carols in every Christian meeting when we sing, even if we’re organising a kids’ nativity play. Singing about donkeys is fine, but when we’ve only got about 10-15 minutes to present the Creator and Saviour of the world, I’m sure the donkey would be happy to take a back seat. Sorry to be an Eeyore.

As I’ve been looking through some of the Christmas material that I used to sing as a chorister, I thought it might help me see things a bit more objectively if I engaged personally with some of the theology in the carols.

Here’s how I went with, ‘I saw three ships’ (an English traditional carol):

“I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning.”
“And what was in those ships all three?”
“Tell me.”
“Our Saviour Christ and his lady. (Actually, other manuscripts cite that it may have been Joseph and his lady who I saw in those three ships rather than our Saviour Christ.)”
“Either way, I’m starting to struggle with this now.”
“Pray, whither sailed those ships all three?”
“Don’t tell me – Bethlehem?”
“O, they sailed into Bethlehem.”
“I said don’t tell me.”
“And he did whistle, she did sing on Christmas day in the morning.”
“What happened to the donkey?”

I hope that wasn’t too much of a humbug moment, and I’m sure that there’s some deeply hidden theology that my small mind has completely missed, but there must be a difference between poetic licence and making things up.
And even if there is someone out there who understands absolutely what’s going on in this song, the point is that there are much better, clearer carols out there.

If we help out with sorting music for Christmas, it’s really worth the effort finding those which are the most excellent, rather than ones that we can just about get away with. There are no short-cuts here. It’s just a case of engaging our minds and carefully examining the words that we’ll expect hundreds to sing over the next couple of weeks

If you are the main preacher at your Christmas services, don’t just leave it up to the musicians to pick the music. I’m just like any other musician in my temptation to plump for show and effect over clear content. Keep us in line and keep our Saviour Christ clearly and faithfully central.

Richard Simpkin

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