Christmas carols can tell us a lot. Many of today's Christmas carols spring from commercial sources (I'm thinking of the Rudolphs and Frosties here), and tend to reinforce the surface sentimentality of this season as it is currently "celebrated," rather than point to its deeper meaning and power. But it wasn't always so. If we listen to the old carols, we often find that the tension between feasting and poverty, between jollity and struggle, is addressed with remarkable honesty and directness:
Cold winter is come, with it's cold chilling breath,
And the leaves are all gone from the trees,
All nature seems touched by the finger of death,
And the streams are beginning to freeze.
When the young wanton lads o'er the river slide,
When Flora attends us no more,
When in plenty you're sitting by a warm fireside,
That's the time to remember the poor!
(from "Time to Remember the Poor")
God bless you merry, gentlemen, as you sit by the fire,
And pity us poor travelers that trudge through the mire
God bless your friends, your kindred, that live both far and near
God send you a happy Christmas and a bright New Year.
(from a variant of "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen")
These old carols take their cue from the Scriptures. St Luke tells us that Jesus was born of people who were at least temporary refugees; poverty and need surround the infant Lord at each turn: his lowly birth, the message given to shepherds (near the bottom of the economic heap in that era), and the flight into Egypt in order escape the violence of despotic governments and occupying powers (sound familiar?). In the midst of this, Jesus is shown to be the fountain of true hope, true joy, true peace. St Matthew tells us of the Magi's visit, reminding us that the origin of our gift-giving at Christmas is in honoring the Gift of Jesus Christ in our midst—not honoring our status, our obligations, our economy, or ourselves.
The Gospel does not ask us to choose between the joy of Christmas and a frank acknowledgment of the world's alienation from God: it demands that we jump right in, feet first, just as God did in Jesus Christ. We cannot hide in to-do lists, holiday parties, credit-card debt, or multi-thousand caloric binges. We cannot hide anywhere as Christians, because our God did not hide away from us: He came into our midst. He was born, lived, feasted, fasted, suffered, relaxed, served, listened, and struggled with us. More than that, He overcame the alienation from God and our neighbor—an alienation that makes sin seem so logical and acceptable to us in a broken world.
So remember to sing the old carols. Read the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke with an eye to your own poverty ("Blessed are the poor in spirit... for theirs is the kingdom of God"). Experience Christmas as a gift from God, not a production we must mount each year. Let Christ fill our emptiness in this season so that we may have the grace to act boldly in the name of God throughout the year. May Advent, Christmastide and Epiphany be a time of encounter, not escapism; awe and wonder, not sentimentality; fulfillment, not satiation. Remember to leave room for a little holy hunger in the midst of the feast: it leaves space for Jesus in the season of His birth!
Faithfully in Christ,