Lutheran Satire puts out a humorous, generally benign product poking some passive aggression at those who follow a different Mere Christianity from them. “Frank the Hippie Pope” and “Bart the Patriarch” have made numerous appearances over the years. A more seasonal offering might be the above video, in which two jolly Britons try to pen a Christmas carol with Father Luther. The Anglicans repeat the same opening lines about the cold and seasonal weather in several variations, only to be condemned by the priest from Wittenberg for ignoring that Christ became man “to fulfill the Law for us.” He goes on to patronize hymnody that “list a bunch of elements in the Christmas narrative that aren’t at all central to its theology.” Perhaps if Herr Luther had paid more attention to the history and use of hymns he would have realized those “elements” are how people understand theology.
Christmas, even in our secular age, presents a rare season of the liturgical year during which the faithful can be counted on to sing large excerpts of hymns—even all the verses—without picking up a book. The average church-goer can recall a bit of “Hark! The Herald Angels”, “Joy to the World”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Silent Night”, and maybe “The First Noel.” Carols and hymns are not exactly the same thing, but they are not that different, and during Christmas the liturgical milieu harkens back to a time of more prevalent cultural Christianity, a phrase much maligned.
Hymns have their origin in the days of the Old Testament, the “former observance” as Saint Paul calls it. The psalms and canticles, repeated in the Offices of the Church, are rhythmic, musical prayers derived from Holy Writ. New Testament hymnody emerged separately from the context of liturgical worship, with several Eastern and Western Church Fathers writing hymns for song or recitation, but not for liturgical use, which was a Gallican innovation in the West and still rare in the East. Hymns did make their way into the Office and Mass, alongside motets, and more common songs that would have been called hymns at an earlier time, became carols.
Carols once helped Christians negotiate the liturgical year outside of liturgical services. They belonged to the annual expression of Christian belief within the context of already Christian societies. In the “northern” countries, these carols were most commonly sung during the mystery plays held during the octaves of great feasts, when manual labor was prohibited. While certain feasts emphasize particular themes, a given mystery play could encompass more than what was read in the Gospel at Mass. The Corpus Christi plays, far from focusing on the Last Supper, retell the Incarnation in the same detail as the Candlemas plays from five months earlier. It was in these plays, narrating the action on stage, that enduring carols like Resonet in laudibus or the Cherry Tree Carol, with “Old Man” Joseph, rolled off the lips of the faithful.
Carols served precisely to add flesh and earth to great chapters in the story of redemption, to show forth the humanity of those who beheld Christ’s humanity and divinity. Western hymns and carols never attempted exposition on doctrine, supposing the message clear enough in what was discussed. These melodies and words unfolded redemption in concrete terms that people could sublimate in their own lives even if they could not comprehend the intellectualized theology of the medieval, Reformation, and baroque ages. The aforementioned Cherry Tree Carol, from the York Corpus Christi plays eight centuries ago, begin with old man Joseph wedding “the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.” They enter an orchard with cherries “thick as may be seen.” Mary pleads with Joseph to pluck her some only for Joseph to answer angrily “Let him gather cherries who brought thee with child.” Christ feeds His Blessed Mother by commanding the tree down, which only confounds Joseph further. After the birth of the “heavenly king”, the Virgin asks the Christ Child to tell her “just how this world shall be,” to which Christ answers with the foretelling of His death and resurrection. This carol contains no theology, no doctrinal statements in poetic form composed to teach aspects of the Incarnation to those who would hear it. Instead of explaining teachings to be held, the carol recounts a concrete event to be believed.
This blog has posited numerous times that one of the main points of departure between Greek and Latin music is that the former’s approach is didactic while the latter’s is descriptive and narrative. The Greek liturgy explains what certain mysteries mean in their antiphons at the Divine Liturgy and Vespers; for example, during Liturgies celebrating the Fathers of the early Councils, the kontakion say “The Apostles’ preaching and the Fathers’ doctrines have established one faith for the Church. Adorned with the robe of truth, woven from heavenly theology, It defines and glorifies the great mystery of Orthodoxy!” No Latin text would ever say something like this. We recently passed the feast of Saint Lucy, whose Office antiphons go no further than to mention what she did; interspersed with the singing of the psalms, these texts come across less as lessons than they do as praises of God for His martyr. I daresay the Western approach to hymnody and carols more approximates Saint Lucy than any unique texts sung in the Hagia Sophia.
Despite the Reformation’s evisceration of normatively traditional Christian culture throughout the Old World, the “narrative” Western approach to music remained. The mystery plays died, as did the Mass in some places, but the musical tradition continued in the form of hymns and carols. Most of the great seasonal music we sing at Christmas post-dates the Reformation, but is closer to the pre-Reformation musical tradition than it is to Lutheran Satire’s desire. After all, was not the saccharine (and mediocre) Away in a Manger, so often misattributed to Luther, about “cattle lowing” and the Christ Child waking without crying?
Beyond the pale of commercialism, Christmas remains the last accessible ode to the fading Christian culture. Music is perhaps the most integral part of it, so get out a hymnal and start belting “Once in Royal David’s city stood a lonely cattle shed….”