The meaning of carols

Sat, Dec 19, 2009, 00:00

Thinking Anew:AN ENGLISH bishop recently dismissed some Christmas carols as nonsense. The Rt Rev Nick Baines, bishop of Croydon, makes the point in his book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?which aims to return to the Christmas story “at its heart”.

He accepts that most carols are tolerable, but they do have limitations. “They try, within the constraints of several verses and an easily memorable tune, to capture something of the story of Christmas or the mind-boggling idea of God becoming human and living among us.”

But for him, some carols lack substance and he is particularly critical of Away in a Manger. “How can any adult sing this without embarrassment? I can understand the little children being quite taken with the sort of baby of whom it can be said ‘no crying he makes’, but how can any adult sing this without embarrassment? I think there are two problems here: first, it is normal for babies to cry and there is probably something wrong if they don’t; secondly, are we really to believe that a crying baby Jesus should be somehow theologically problematic? Or, to put it more bluntly, is crying supposed to be sinful . . . If we sing nonsense, is it any surprise that children grow into adults and throw out the tearless baby Jesus with Father Christmas and other fantasy figures?”

Perhaps the bishop has a point, but his criticism could be more usefully applied to certain doctrinal language and concepts that create problems for modern people and need to be better explained.

However, it is a mistake to spend too much time worrying about the packaging of the wonderful gift that is Christmas. The moment when the man Jesus actually wept over the death of a friend is far more revealing than the non-crying baby Jesus of a children’s carol. It underlines a critical aspect of the Christmas gospel; God with us in sad times as well as good times. And it is this message, this hope and belief, however disguised or obscured that creates in so many the desire to worship.

One of the great invitations to worship is the hymn Adeste Fideles – O Come All Ye faithful. It is heard in churches and shopping centres at this time of year in a coming together of the sacred and the secular. Although written in Latin it has a slight Irish connection. It was attributed by some to the 13th century St Bonaventure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Bonaventure) and by others to King John IV of Portugal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_IV_of_Portugal). However the more likely explanation is given in Companion to Church Hymnal(2005) which suggests that the original text – and possibly the tune – was the work of John Francis Wade, a young Englishman who was living at the English College in Douay, France in the mid 18th century. (Douay was at that time a place of refuge for Roman Catholics who fled from England after the fall of James II in 1688. It also gave its name to a famous translation of the Bible from Latin into English.) Wade’s authorship of the hymn is supported by a number of contemporary signed manuscripts one of which, interestingly, was in the possession of Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare, until the early 20th century.

The hymn invites us to go in heart and mind to Bethlehem to worship, to focus our thoughts on what happened there 2,000 years ago and which has so profoundly influenced human history ever since. Making sense of it all will never be easy but CS Lewis was surely right when he said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Venite, adoremus Dominum.

– GL