It is so good to be together on this holy day, singing the songs of the season, just as the angels did so long ago.
For several of the last few Christmases, the harp and I made a trip to the Art Institute near Renfrew Skytrain Station. I would meet my dear friend Byron and his cello, and the two of us would go to see his buddy Adam and Adam’s latest crop of sound-engineering students. For the next couple of hours, we provided the talent for these young people as they practiced their recording, mixing, and mastering skills. Cellos and harps are complicated instruments to mic well, so they got good practice with us.
Byron and I used our first time in their studio to lay down three tracks for an EP we called “A Quiet Quirky Christmas.” We chose songs we knew our mothers would like, and the results were better than expected. Then we were invited again the following year, and chose a few more songs. Finally, late one year, Byron became an uncle. The two of us met that Christmas and recorded the Austrian carol “Stille, Stille, Stille,” which the Vancouver Children’s Choir performed beautifully at our Carol Sing-Along a few weeks ago, for his niece Ember.
I was thinking of Byron and his joy at Ember’s birth when the choir sang that carol, and as I thought of my very dear friend, I also got caught up short by the simple beautiful fact that this was only one lullabye of hundreds that have been penned over the years by human beings to the Christ child.
Some of our best Christmas carols are lullabies to this holy child.
Pause for a moment and think of how amazing it is, that people have written lullabies to God; that the one who made heaven and earth was made incarnate among us and experienced so many of the holy rituals we have around childbirth and babies; that not only did one child many years ago hear his mother sing, but that two thousand years later we gather to sing songs written by those who died centuries after this child did; that in spite of all of the violence and inner weakness of the human creature, we offered up our simple cradle songs and expected they would be received by the one who lived among us as a squalling, kicking, wriggling baby.
And furthermore, isn’t it beautiful that the creator made a sort of musical trade with creation – in exchange for the lullabye of a poor peasant girl, God offered the songs of angels to a pack of rough shepherd folk on the night shift in the hills.
What a trade! It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? God would rather hear the frightened, trembly, ecstatic voice of an exhausted teenage girl than a seraphic symphony. God’s generosity is almost appalling here, trading pearls for stones.
But this is the one who has come into the world.
Anointed One? Yes. Kingly One? Yes.
But more than that: Wild One. Daring One. Reckless One.
Think about it: Why would we write and sing lullabies for Jesus?
Because we say he was a baby, and like all babies he cried and needed to be soothed to sleep.
This is why I take such issue with lines such as “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” or “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he.”
At some point we have to face the truth and ask ourselves, “Who do we really believe God to be?”
One of the most excruciating and beautiful things about babies and very young children is that they are so often explicit about their need for help. They are, to coin a phrase, aggressively vulnerable.
Now obviously a child must be socialized to be independent and conscientious of others’ needs, but pushing them to do so before they are ready or silencing them instead of acknowledging (if not always meeting) their needs usually turns out poorly for everyone. At its worst, I believe the same behaviour underlies all of the worst “isms” of our time – the ignoring and silencing of those who dare to say that to become independent they need extra help from those of us who don’t.
Isn’t it funny that we so often try to be angels, when God chose shepherds where and as they were to receive angels? Isn’t it strange how we are often so flummoxed by our own vulnerability that we try to get rid of it in ourselves and then so often come to realize that our unwillingness to ask for help is what has made us sick or unhappy?
And therefore: Isn’t it wonderful that children are born with this instinct because they are so vulnerable; born with the instinct to demand help while so many of us stumble along unable to ask, or sometimes even resenting the people around us for not being psychic and knowing that we need it?
Last Saturday, I took part in a special outdoor Christmas Pageant at St. John’s Shaughnessy. It was a deanery-wide event which included in-character interactions with those who attended by the intergenerational cast, a petting zoo, music, a hilarious script, and a real baby Jesus, wrapped up in a furry red blanket. Despite the very best efforts of singing angels, gentle shepherds, and the twelve-year-old girl playing Mary, our Jesus, who was clearly very tired, couldn’t get herself to fall asleep and refused to be soothed.
There were two performances of the Pageant and she cried all the way through both of them, from her entrance to her exit and beyond. And not just fussy whimpering: this was the full-on stutter-y wail of an exhausted infant that parents in the congregation today are all wincing to remember.
Having noticed that she seemed to calm down when there was music, I leaned over Mary’s shoulder and sang quietly to her, thinking this might calm her down. Mary joined in the song as well, and adjusted the pacifier that kept popping out of the baby’s mouth.
As we formed a tableau around her toward the end of the performance, the St. John’s choir began to sing the Huron carol, and we joined them. As we sang the line, “The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair as was the ring of glory round the helpless infant there,” I found myself completely overcome. Here barely sheltered from the freezing cold of a rainy west coast December afternoon, among a couple of bales of hay put out for the live donkey to munch, wearing a ridiculous pair of butterfly wings and a tinsel halo, I felt transported in time to a sacred place.
Not a palace and not a soft, gentle, cosy barn. A place not fit for humans to sleep, much less give birth… and yet the place where the Mother of our Lord and faithful, righteous Joseph were dumped because the inn was packed so full of people, staying in Bethlehem in order to be counted in the census and thereby taxed.
A place full of animals, who despite how cute they look in a petting zoo, are just as smelly and obnoxiously needy as any infant.
A place where there was no bassinette, no cradle, no bed. Only a trough. (I sometimes avoid the word “manger” specifically because of the weird baggage it has obtained over the years as so many of us lost our agricultural roots. I’m a city girl and when I hear the word “manger” I think “Christmas,” not “box where the animals eat.”)
A trough, which may indeed have had an animal face-deep in it when the baby was laid there. The Godly Play Holy Family figures beautifully include “the cow who was surprised when she came to her feeding trough, and instead of her breakfast found a little baby in it.”
All of the angels, shepherds, and Magi in the world do not make the barn anything other than what it was.
And that’s where the awestruck beauty of Christmas lies.
God didn’t choose something else.
God didn’t choose something better.
This is a reckless God, who gives us angels in exchange for our lullabies, and undying love in exchange for a cross. God chooses us – and not for our treasure, or our best offerings.
Because we are not always good at knowing our best.
Our best is not Herod’s palace of sumptuous gold, or Caesar’s vast empire of vassal states.
Our best is not a picture perfect Christmas with mountains of gifts and a flawless family dinner.
Our best is an unmarried teenage girl saying yes.
Our best is her betrothed accepting her as she was instead of putting her to death as was his right in those days.
Our best is a babe wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
Our best is the lullabies that we write to the creator of the stars of night.
Our best is aggressive vulnerability – the true gift of a child – because this was God’s gift to all of us.
And it’s Christmas morning…so go ahead and open that gift.
It’s the best one you’re ever going to get.