The Sound of Music

There is a war on Christmas!

But it’s not being fought out there…it’s being fought right here, in the church!  Can you guess what it is? The commercialization of Christmas? The pros and cons of gift-giving? No. The war, the secret war, being fought in the church is whether or not we should sing Christmas carols before Christmas!  Shocking isn’t it?  Now most of you are probably laughing but are you laughing for different reasons?  Some of you are saying, “Well, how silly!  Of course we should sing Christmas carols before Christmas.  It’s the Christmas season!” While others of you are saying, “Well, how silly!  Of course we shouldn’t sing Christmas carols before Christmas.  It’s not Christmas.”  Which camp do YOU land in?

Timeline of singing Christmas carols in church

Regardless of what you believe, you can’t avoid it.

We hear them on the radio, in shopping malls, in elevators; it is such a natural part of the holidays that for many it wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas songs so why wouldn’t we sing them in church?  But did you know churches only began singing joyous Christmas songs only within the past 150 years?  It happened in Cornwall, England back in 1880.[1]  1880!  To think that for nearly nineteen centuries nobody sang a song like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in church seems pretty incredulous.  Christmas carols would be sung in the streets, at festivals, at parties, but not in church.  If you heard music at all, it would be some kind of somber tune, usually in Latin, and about church theology.[2]  Exciting, right?  Sometimes they were celebratory, but since they were in Latin, nobody knew what they meant.  There was a hungering among people to celebrate the life of Christ through music, and so the Christmas carols we know and love sprang to life. The songs we hold as standards – “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – came into their current form only in the 18th century.  In fact, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” one of the most famous and dearly loved Christmas carols ever was originally written in Latin.  That was fitting since the author John Wade was a Catholic cleric and he was used to hearing songs sung in Latin.  It didn’t get translated into English until 1841 and by then the origin of the song had become so muddled it was known in some places as “the Portugese Hymn,” not after the country but after the composer Marcos Portugal.  It’s still known by that name in some places today. 

Disneyland Candlelight Processional

We tend to think of Christmas songs as being inextricable from the Christmas experience.

But when you look at the long history of the church it’s still relatively new.  Still there’s a reason we hunger to sing these songs and that hunger comes from a place deep in our hearts placed there by God.  We are wired to want to praise God and to give thanks for our blessings.  In so many different books of the Bible, we find the people of God cry out to him in song and shout to him in both praise and despair.  These kinds of expression are not only meaningful to God but to the people who do them.  We’re going to read Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus this morning where he writes specifically about this topic.  Tradition sometimes becomes so interwoven into our identity that we mistake what we like for what’s important. We can get trapped in tradition and become more focused on them than on the reason for the season in the first place.  But listen to these words from Paul. Paul is appealing to us to fill ourselves with the Spirit of God, and although he means the Holy Spirit, I don’t think he would object to saying we also need to be filled with the spirit of how and why we are created as children of God. 

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-20

Practicing for Choir Blast

Singing is central to worship.

Singing is central to worship.  Not a controversial stance, I know.  But Paul doesn’t make a distinction here about what kind of songs we should sing or when.  Those are rules that we impose for the “order and structure” of the church.  It’s kind of like praying.  I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they don’t like to pray because they don’t know how to do it.  The thing is, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to prayer just as there are not any hard and fast rules to singing.  Jesus does give us guidelines about how to pray in Matthew 6, what we today call “the Lord’s prayer,” but even then he doesn’t tell us WHAT we should pray but HOW we should pray.  And the way he teaches us to pray has the same message as Paul has about singing that we just heard.  Paul, in this passage, only gives us one guideline.  Only one.  We hear it in verse 19 when he says, “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord…” I love that the authors who put in the verse numbers cut it off right there mid-sentence because it highlights that part.  “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”  If it comes from your heart, then it honors God and that’s the only requirement for what we should sing, a song that comes from the heart.  It sums up what God expects from us in all that we do.  And just as Jesus taught us how to pray, Paul goes on to tell us our singing and praise should always point to God.  He writes, “…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we have those components in place, then we know we are doing it in a way that honor God and we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. 

The only “right way” to sing is with this in mind.

The early church often adopted customs and traditions of the surrounding culture, sometimes to legitimize the position of the church and sometimes to make it more friendly to those they were trying to reach.  Flexibility in our traditions and approach to the Gospel is the key component to being successful in reaching others for Christ.  But that doesn’t always happen. One United Methodist minister was even quoted in USA Today as saying, “You would not sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today on Good Friday…You don’t throw in Christmas hymns for the sake of appeasing people who want to sing.”[3]  But is that something worth planting your flag over?  Is that what’s going to break apart our faith?  In our desire for “order and structure” or to keep things just the way “we like them,” we inadvertently show an unloving side of ourselves, which is the last thing we want to do during the Christmas season.  When I was in high school, I was admittedly pretty good at math.  I had always received “A’s” pretty easily.  So it came as a shock when my first Calculus test got me a C-.  Especially since I got all the answers correct.  Turns out my teacher didn’t appreciate how I did it since it was different than how she showed us.  I showed all my work, but saw the problem differently than she did and so she gave me a bad grade.  She didn’t teach me math.  She taught me that the process was more important than the result.  To do things differently was bad.  That kind of inflexibility, the inability to recognize that there may be more than one way to look at a problem, is often what portrays the church as unloving and out of touch.  If we sing songs during Advent that honor Christ and help us to remember the spirit of the season, can that really be wrong?  Do we have to be so structured that we lose out on opportunities to reach others for Christ? 

There’s nothing wrong with singing Advent songs during Advent.

Or for preferring to sing Advent songs in anticipation of Christmas.  We should honor all aspects of our journey of faith.  Pentecost, Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas are all important times to remember our history as Christians and need to be taught.  But we need to have a willingness to be flexible to reach others for Christ.  We must be willing to show love through our ability to adapt and change to the world around us.  While we should never compromise the message of Christ, we can alter the delivery if it helps others be able to see Jesus in a way that brings them closer to God.  Singing Christmas songs during this season is no more right or wrong than doing it any other way.  As we hold tightly to traditions that offer us comfort and give us order, we may inadvertently be closing the doors around us.  Keep in mind that almost all of the traditions we hold to be inviolate were created by human beings.  Advent itself was created and has changed many times throughout the history of the church.  What we consider tradition today didn’t exist at all in the early church.  In fact, Christmas didn’t exist the way it does today in the early church.  All of it is made up.  But the message of Christmas, that God came to Earth to save us from our sin and bring us closer to him, is the only truth of Christmas we need to hold on to.  For those who believe, every day is Christmas.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carol ; http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml

[2] Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, p. 53.

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-12-13-column13_ST_N.htm

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