The Incarnation is the Reason for the Season

November 21st, 2010

I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning during the Nativity Fast, getting the book cart ready for business. Up on the stage in the hall, the Sunday School children are preparing for the annual Christmas pageant and practicing carols. Unfortunately, that is not where they should be, nor is it what they should be doing.

Today is one of the 12 feasts of the Church. As such, the children should be in class (or in the Church for a sermon), learning about the feast. In most parishes, this would be the case, thankfully, but for those that are most interested in looking like Western churches, this time is spent learning predominantly Protestant carols in preparation for the annual Christmas pageant.

So, what could possibly be wrong with Protestant/Western Christmas carols? Many (especially the older ones) range from simply cheerful to majestic. The lyrics are generally devoid of theological error. Of course, I’m not talking about Rudolph or Frosty, but rather O Come All Ye Faithful, and What Child is This.

A couple of years ago, 9.West blogged on the subject of Protestant Christmas carols. He was responding to an episode of Issues, etc., that found fault with many Christmas carols for not focusing sufficiently on the cross. At the time, I responded with a criticism that Protestant, and, in particular, Lutheran, theology is too focused on the cross. As a result, their understanding of other aspects of God, and His relationship with us, have become atrophied. My focus was on the resurrection, but as I sat there listening to the Protestant carols, I realized another aspect of Protestant theology which was weak, and this weakness is the reason I have a problem with spending time teaching Orthodox children Protestant carols. This is especially true when this time is spent during time that would otherwise be devoted to teaching them about Orthodoxy. Protestant carols generally do a bad job of expressing the incarnation. Frequently it isn’t mentioned, and when it is, no attempt is made to engage the mystery of the incarnation at any level.

Let’s look at some of the hymns the kids were practicing the morning that I first started working on this entry. The selection of carols is “O Come All Ye Faithful,” then there is “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Little Drummer Boy”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “The First Noel”, and “Angels We Have Heard on High”. There is one question I think we should ask in two different ways. The question is, “is there anything about singing this that would cause an Arian to feel he has gone against his faith?”. The two ways in which this should be asked is first with regard to the first verse (which is pretty much all that will be sung at this pageant), and secondly with regard to the entire carol.

For Silent Night, I’m not sure anything, anywhere in the song demands an understanding that we’re discussing God when we’re discussing Jesus. The closest might be the third verse, but that really doesn’t pass muster. For Joy to the World, the Little Drummer Boy, Angels We Heave Heard on High (one of my all time favorites, I’ll add), and The First Noel, you have the same problem. Again, the last verse of The First Noel can be argued, but its not terribly clear. O Little Town of Bethlehem gets pretty close, if you’re willing to wait until the last verse. The phrase, “o come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel” makes it relatively clear that this song might be addressed to God. Which is good for the song, but in the children’s case, they won’t learn this verse because they never go that far. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing hits the nail right on the head, no question about it, in the second verse, “Offspring of a Virgin’s womb, veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.” Finally, after all of these carols, we get to one which unambiguously proclaims the incarnation, which is, after all, the point of the holiday.

Compare this to a couple of Orthodox hymns, or carols from Orthodox countries:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
hath shone forth the light of wisdom upon the world;
for therein those who worship the stars
have been taught by a star
to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on


O Lord, glory be to Thee! (Troparion of the Nativity, Tone 4)

Today the Virgin giveth birth to the Transcendent One,
and the earth offereth a cave to the Unapproachable One.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
the magi journey with a star,
for our sakes, a young Child is born, Who is Pre-eternal God! (Kontakion of the Nativity, Tone 3).

One of my favorites, from the Royal Hours on Christmas Eve:

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a
mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from
His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;
the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!

Finally, the following, a traditional Greek carol:

Good evening noblemen,
may i sing at your mansion,
this day celebrating Jesus’ holy birth,

that Jesus is being born today
in the town of Bethlehem
The skies rejoice
the whole nature is happy

In the cave he is being born
in the horses’ trough
the king of the skies
and maker of everything

Again, I don’t have anything against Protestant/Western Christmas carols. Many are very pretty, and I’m sure they serve Protestant/Western theology just fine. However, the Orthodox think the Incarnation is extremely important, hence our hymnography. As Orthodox, I don’t think we should be wasting the limited amount of time available to us to instruct our youth in the Orthodox faith with hymns that are not designed to do that at all.