COMMENTARY: Carols Bear the True Meaning of Christmas

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.)

(UNDATED) Home again after a two-week business trip. Now it’s time to catch up with the Christmas season.

I start with my favorite Christmas music, mainly Windham Hill renderings of familiar and not-so-familiar tunes, all presented simply and gently. In a way, I suppose, it’s my small rebellion against the over-orchestrated drivel heard at the mall, where “O come, all ye faithful” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” are placed on the same plane as seasonal mood-elevators, and Handel’s majestic Easter (!) chorus “Hallelujah!” celebrates the rising of credit-card balances.

But grumpiness passes quickly. The Christmas music I love strikes deep, like warmth beside a hearth or holding a lover’s hand.

The morning air in my study seems rich with echoes: family celebrations stretching as far back in time as I can remember; the annual joy of hanging the golden pear that was our first ornament as a couple; sitting in a peaceful pew while the organist starts “Veni, Emmanuel” with a single reed stop; serving food and distributing gifts to children at a housing project; sitting with a friend while she weeps at the dawning of her first Christmas as a widow; placing the bread of life into the hands of God’s beloved; and kneeling, spent, at my celebrant’s station as the choir sings “Congregation, Arise.”

Even now, the memory of that Christmas Eve anthem unstops my tears. For so much has been lost. By me, by everyone whom I love, by all of us. Life is about loss. Life is a pouring out. Life is a letting go.

The gentle carols catch the sadness of that passing, the depth that comes from remembering the absent, from seeing scenes that won’t happen again, from yearning for that which never did happen.

This soft morning seems rich with pathos. Not the maudlin sort, but real feeling and a sense of connectedness. It is possible to see the world in many ways, but if we are to be honest, we must always see the sadness and the unfairness.

If we are to see with anything approaching God’s vision, we must see the losses, see the mindless extravagance, see the disparities, see some laugh while others sit desolate, see some feast while others starve.

The sadness and unfairness are always with us. Most of the time we cannot bear to open the door to them. Christmas seems to unlock our hearts and allow us to turn the handle.

I don’t think it is guilt that drives charitable giving this time of year, or clever campaigns by list-wielding “development” teams. It is pathos, it is connectedness, it is the awareness that life is fragile, we are in it together, and our most basic human instinct isn’t to grab, but to share.

When the penitents asked John the Baptist what they should do to welcome God’s in-breaking kingdom, he gave them a simple commandment: share what you have.

Be human, be as God made you. Be like Adam, who gave his substance for Eve, and be like Eve, who gave her freedom for Adam. Be like Abraham and Sarah, who gave up their home. Be like Moses, who gave his life for the lost and ungrateful. Be like the widow who gave her last bread to Elijah.

Be like the Messiah who came as suffering servant, not as conquering hero. Be as extravagant and foolish as he was, not one of the prickly who measure out their affections in well-defended teaspoons, who cannot imagine giving everything, who guard their hearts against disappointment.

The music today reminds me that the kingdom of God is a soft and gentle place, as far from the noisy, acquisitive mall as love is from hate.

The kingdom of God is where the fragile gather to share, not because they are larger-than-life heroes, but because life is larger than they, and in the end we need each other, and if we are to arise, it will be with aching hearts and joined hands.


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