Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Singing Christmas Carols in Church

A popular Christmas carol parody by Christopher Gist Raible goes like this:

Gods rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

It's in good humor and it points to something very real about how we approach Christmas as a religion. For example, our UU hymnal changes a lot of words to Christmas carols. One example is "Joy to the World," which, in our hymnal, reads:

Joy to the world!
The word is come:
let earth with praises ring.

A far cry from:

Joy to the world!
The Lord is come:
let earth receive her King.

There are strong reasons for this change, obviously. Unitarians don't believe that Jesus was the Lord or King. That's point one. The second point is that our hymnal did away with a lot of heirarchical language in reference to God. We don't use the whole monarchy metaphor for God.

Yet, of course, were I to put the song in our service with just a hymnal number, the majority of people in our congregation would still sing right over those words: The Lord is come. Why?

The easy answer is tradition. At Christmas time, particularly, people seem opposed to changing traditional words in songs even for sound theological reasons. We'd rather be hypocrits to our beliefs than have our nostalgic Christmas interrupted by the jarring words of modernity. I say we, because I'm no exception. I'd rather sing "O Holy Night"
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

with all its sin and Saviors and angels than sing some sanitized version that strips it of the very majesty that I'm theologically opposed to yet make this song what I love.

But this is a bit hypocritical of me to want the old words. All old words were one time new. And, after all, the words I know to "O Holy Night" are not the original words, either. The original words were in French, and every time songs are translated they lose some of their original meaning in order to fit the verse into the song.

And, of course, even in English songs, there are words that get changed. For example, Lydia Marie Child's song:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
I don't know about you, but we always sang it as Grandmother's house. That's apparently the more common version, but not the original. And I know at least one grandfather who feels slighted by the change.

I understand this longing for the old words. I feel it, too. And yet, if we never give the new words a chance, they will never catch hold. And with songs in our hymnal that aren't Christmas carols, I'm more familiar with the new words than the old. And I beleive this is consistent with hymnody. Words change, because those hymns aren't in there just because we love them; they're in there because they're consistent with our religious beliefs. And for the next generation, the UU words will be their traditional songs. For me, our UU words to "Abide with Me" are the only ones I know:

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; still with me abide.

Until I look up on Wikipedia that it was:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.

And, ultimately, I think that's a good thing. Maybe this year I'll try singing "Joy to the world! The word is come."

3 comments:

Joel Monka said...

I DON'T think it's a good thing. I've long held that if one doesn't like a song, don't sing it. If you sing it, don't Bowdlerize it. To me it's no different from the people who edit Tom Sawyer because it has offensive words in it.

fausto said...

Words change, because those hymns aren't in there just because we love them; they're in there because they're consistent with our religious beliefs.

I have my doubts, but I would like to imagine that the revision from "Lord" to "word" was made, at least in part, the better to conform to historic Unitarian usage. "Word" is the figurative-philosophical name given to Jesus in John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God...." In traditional Unitarian hymnody, it is this precisely sense of "word" that the Rev. William Channing Gannett (of Rochester, NY) invoked, for example, when he wrote:

From Sinai's cliffs it echoed;
It breathed from Buddha's tree;
It charmed in Athens' market;
It hallowed Galilee;
The hammer stroke of Luther,
The Pilgrims' seaside prayer,
The testament of Torda
One holy Word declare.


It would be an ironic shame if that authentic expression of our tradition were not the real purpose of the revision, and the revisionists instead felt that purging "patriarchal" language derived from the Bible and disguising any overtly Christian sense of this most Christian of holidays were more desirable goals than preserving the genuine religious sentiment of the original. It would be a shame because it would reflect horribly misplaced religious priorities, and it would be ironic because (given the religious meaning of "Word") it did not succeed.

Andrew Bethune said...

I am with you in wanting to sing the original words of hymns. Even if I cannot agree wholeheartedly with the meaning of their words, I can still find in them something to enrich the spiritual life within me.

Here last Sunday (Dec 20, 2009) in Cambridge Unitarian Church, England, we sang "Joy to the world" in its (almost) original form. We felt that the Unitarian version in our hymnbook did not reflect the Christmas season, nor do justice to the hymn's author Isaac Watts. The congregation joined in wholeheartedly.

Watts was by no means an orthodox Christian. He devoted much of his life to researching the relationship between God and Jesus, and his conclusions did not accord with mainstream trinitarian Christianity. This aspect of his work seems largely to have been forgotten - which is a pity - but it does suggest that many Unitarians might feel some degree of affinity with him.

We should perhaps also remember that "Joy to the world" is a version of Psalm 98 which was orgiginally written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.

Christian usage has been to assume or imply that 'lord' and 'king' here refer to Jesus - but for the psalmist, these words can only have meant God.

So maybe "Joy to the world" can with honesty be sung by those who do not accept a trinitarian view of Jesus.