Rebecca Goldsmith from the Salvation Army asks us to pause this Advent, and consider afresh the meaning of the well-loved carols we all sing during this season.
Do you have a favourite Christmas carol? One that for you seems to signal the beginning of the Christmas season? I must admit for me a carol service doesn’t really feel complete unless I have sung ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. The melody conjures Christmas cheer and the memories it evokes of Christmases past never fail to leave me feeling wrapped in a warm hug of nostalgia. But, after so many years of singing this carol, do I really hear it any longer or do I sing the words by rote, caught up in my own Christmas memories, without truly taking in the truths of what I am singing?
It is true that Christmas carols are notorious for their often-questionable take on the historical actualities of Jesus’ birth – for example, I think we can all agree it is very unlikely that ‘snow had fallen, snow on snow’ or that a night in a stable giving birth to a baby was all that silent! However, this does not take away from the theological truth and wisdom that we can glean from the words of these songs.
For example, my beloved ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ is not just a retelling of the nativity story; it is an invitation and invocation:
‘Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.’
What a prayer that is. How easy it is to sing those words and skim over the depth of their meaning – asking God to purify us and enter our lives.
And what about ‘Away in a manger’? Often thought of as a child’s song, a nativity play favourite, yet these simple words sung to such a simple melody can be a heartfelt prayer:
‘Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.’
If only we could pray this sincerely with a childlike heart this Advent. Be near us, stay close to us, love us, Lord Jesus.
And what of that bleak midwinter, with its mythical snow? The final verse of this carol reminds us of what God wants from us this Christmas season – our hearts:
‘If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can give him –
Give my heart.’
Alongside Mariah Carey and Wham, these songs drift around in the periphery of the shopping centre playlists, are hummed along to with little thought and become background music that accompanies us on our busy to-do list. Between the present-buying and meal-planning and event-organising, we fit them in but don’t always give them our attention. Perhaps this Advent as we prepare ourselves for Christmas, we can take some time to consider the words of these well-loved songs and come afresh to the meaning they have for us.
If you would like a little help with your reflections, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a book that provides 28 devotional readings from different writers, each based on the words of a Christmas carol.
With lyrics of carols old and new featured in full, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel offers the opportunity to reflect on well-loved words or perhaps find a new favourite carol. It is available from SP&S.