LAW AND WAR have hard and sharp edges that can isolate and break and damage and wound. And our misuse of both Law and War – and especially, we might ponder tonight, our vain abuse of religious Law and War – sometimes creates persons we eventually come to think of and to describe as monsters. And some such people are driven thereby to monstrous acts; heinous crimes against humanity like those we’ve witnessed in the past fortnight in Newtown, Connecticut, and in the murder of young people in Afghanistan.
This holy night softens the hard edges. This holy night shows us how we need to learn to live all year round. This holy night is about vulnerability and our learning that we’re not the centre of the Universe. We share the gift of Life with a billion other shades, shapes and sizes of humanity. And our self-centredness and self-righteousness forgets that truth at its peril. For Law and War come back to haunt us. And then we wish we were just kindergarten again. Then we wish for the innocence of a child. We learn that our certainties and our so called sophistication are as useless to us as a papier-maché sword on a battlefield on a rainy day.
Richard Beck is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University – and he’s been quoted today by my fellow-blogging friend and priest colleague Canon David Herbert:
Dr Beck refers to the two carols, It came upon the midnight clear and O Holy Night as “resistance literature”. The subversive words tend to get buried under the sentimentality that is so often Christmas, but they spell out the redemptive good news of the Christmas gospel. Both were written in the late 1840′s.
It came upon the midnight clear is based on a poem written by Edmund Sears in 1849. O Holy Night was composed by Adolphe Adam two years earlier than that. This was at a time of great turbulence. The American Civil War was not far away, and slaves were on their way to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863).
It is easy to get carried away by a good tune and miss the political and redemptive meaning of both these lovely carols, and the Christmas story.
So we sing from It came upon the midnight clear – [the only carol in the Western tradition written, in fact, by a Unitarian: and my favourite Christmas Carol – some will remember that I asked for it to be sung as the Processional Hymn at my Collation as Vicar of Bramhall in May 2006]
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and man at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife,and hear the angels sing.
And from O Holy Night we sing:
Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Richard Beck points out that the theme of emancipation is even stronger in the original French poem, where those four lines are rendered:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle: the Earth is free, and Heaven is open. He sees a brother where there was only a slave, Love unites those that iron has chained.
The theme of redemption is the essential Good News of Christmas. Hope and longing constitute the spirit of Christmas which promises a world turned upside down …
A world where freedom is proclaimed to prisoners, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free.
A world where all that we’ve ever thought of as worthy only of being left “outside” are warmly celebrated and absolutely welcomed on the “inside”.
We must take care that this subversive message doesn’t become shrouded in sentimentality. We mustn’t get carried away by a good tune. We must remember that Christmas carols and the entire Christian Gospel is in fact a redemption song.