December 21, 2010

The Gospel in Holiday Music and Christmas Carols

In these days before Christmas, at once beautifully enchanting but also haunted by a note of sorrow, commercial holiday music celebrates a nostalgic yearning for intimate fellowship lost.  I distinguish commercial holiday music from Christmas carols.  Commercial holiday music is meant to enchant and warm the heart whether or not someone has faith.   It is commercial because it is on commercial TV and radio - produced for the sake of selling and buying things, especially gifts.  Christmas carols tell of serious things about life, death and the coming of the Living God in darkened world.  Christmas carols are about the Gospel of Christ.  Such songs are not as good at stimulating commercial activity.  Holiday music does stimulate this activity.  It does so by exploring the vestiges of Christian feelings in a post Christian time.   


In making this distinction, I am not attacking holiday music.  It has its place and something for us to think about.  Commercial holiday music helps us call to mind the deep yearning God has sewn into the human heart.  It also suggests many broken ways we attempt to deal with this deep yearning: sentimentality, self-pity, nostalgic preoccupations, insobriety, sensuality, gluttony, judgmentalism, resentment, competiveness, and unforgiveness.  That is why the holidays around Christmas, as beautiful as it may be for many people, is also a time when families struggle to be together.   Despite all our best efforts, at some point, if only for a moment we quickly forget, we discover our real poverty even in the midst of so many things.  We cannot love - at least not the way we know we were meant to.  


The cold and darkness of this season highlight this sense of vulnerability.  We are faced with just how frail and subject to futility our lives actually are.  Primal human experiences, that awareness of things not being the way they ought, that feeling of paradise lost, are overwhelming. All that is good, noble and true feels even more as if it were on the brink.  We feel the need to draw close to one another, to take shelter together, to encourage one another not to lose hope in the face of darkness.


The producers of commercial holiday music know that such dark holes are dangerous.  So these new high priests of our culture also try to bandage these dark feelings with stories geared to entertain, warm the heart,  give a little light or at lest serve as a diversion. The intentions behind this effort are benevolent, for the most part.   But there is a danger: we can easily be enchanted by all kinds of myths holding out the promise of consoling of our unsatisfied and insecure hearts.   But myths are always dehumanizing.  Those who believe them become delusional, out of touch with our real plight, imprisoned in a fantasy.  Only the truth sets us free - only the truth helps us deal with the desire for something more that burns within us.

Besides holiday music, the most beautiful musical achievements in the West for the Christmas Season also consider the restless state of human existence in this dark and cold time of year.  They celebrate the fact that, in the face of all the suffering and evil we see - and all the sorrow that our restless hearts must bear, God created us for joy and has found a way that our joy might be full.  Joy is love possessing what it desires - and in Christian joy, the human person possesses the greatest object of all desires, God himself.  This possession of God is superabundant because in Him, we also possess all our other loves.  This is because He holds even dearer than we do those He has entrusted to our hearts.   How did He achieve this for us?  How did He open this possibility?  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He entered into our poverty, embraced it and made it his own.  

All this points to something beautiful about the mystery of the human person and the possibility of keeping hope for what is good, noble and true alive in him.  The pagans understood this experience, and so celebrated fire and light to encourage themselves in these dark days.  In some ways, our commercial holiday music tries to do the same.  Christians, however, learned to look beyond the world, struggling against the desire to escape,  the desire for the merely comfortable, to search with the eyes of faith for the light of Christ who shines in the darkness, and warms the world with the Fire of his Love.  In fact, what the pagans sought was a mere shadow of  what the Christian finds in Christ Jesus.  

Christ Jesus reveals the truth about the desires of our hearts, not only showing us to ourselves, but also showing how much we are loved by God.  And, He reveals how much God yearns for our friendship - and He came in poverty, in the dark winter of our world, not grasping, emptying himself, humbling himself in love to become a sign of hope, and not just a sign, but also a threshold.  And to prepare to cross this threshold again, we have these final days before Christmas, days of prayer, sacrifice and love.