Hundreds of thousands of Australians will sing Christmas carols this month at services and events organised by Christian churches.
It is a great point of connection for churches and the community and many of the carols are deeply spiritual songs that proclaim core Christian truths such as the deity of Jesus.
And while for many Australians it will be the only time in the year that they actually give voice to the faith they hide in their hearts, there is a discussion among church leaders as to what carols are actually appropriate.
The decision not to sing Jingle Bells at a Christmas service may seem fairly obvious; whether to sing Away in a Manger may not be as clear.
‘Some carols have odd or misleading lyrics, such as “no crying he makes” from Away in a Manger. This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation: Jesus entered into our suffering. We don’t sing that carol, but have instrumental arrangements of the melody,’ writes Tom Jennings, director of worship and arts, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the US.
On the other hand, perhaps it would be good to use the song because of the joy people gain from it and then use that line to discuss what it means that God became one of us… Then there’s this comment:
‘…sentimentality is perhaps the single most dangerous feature of our Church and culture – and the sentimental air is never thicker than at Christmas. The Incarnation is messy, dirty, and resonates with the crucifixion. We need a new wave of carol writing that can gradually swill out the nonsense and catch the piercing, joy-through-pain refrains of the New Testament.’ Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology, Duke Divinity School.
Sounds good – except would the whole argument be lost on the mums, dads and kids coming along for their once a year involvement in church? After all our new, theologically correct and comprehensive carols were sung, would someone put up their hand and tentatively ask for Silent Night?
What is worthwhile discussing is how the Church thoughtfully and creatively engages with a season which presents a unique opportunity to share the love of God, the inclusiveness of the church and the powerful spiritual reality of the Christian faith.
Don’t hide the Spirit behind sentiment; don’t hide the love behind law; don’t miss the mercy inherent in Christmas – be merciful as part of what you do.
Recently I criticised an American movie website for appearing to go too far in an attempt to find culturally common ground at Christmas as I believe people who are not part of the church are more interested in the purity, innocence and uniqueness of Christian worship at Christmas, rather than more commercial shallowness.