This past week I was giving a day-long Retreat, whose structure I built around the Eucharist that we celebrated together in the morning, and then around three talks that I gave concerning the meaning of three traditional Christmas carols.
The surprisingly rich insights in these three Christmas carols goes unnoticed by the countless people who, each Christmas season, sing them or listen to them. We sing the words but few think about what those words mean. Consequently, we miss the spiritual insight that each author labors to express – some luminous clarity about the true meaning of Christmas. It is interesting that we love the carols for their music, but are mostly indifferent to the words the music was written to illuminate.
Yet such carols always began with an author composing the words, struggling to get the right ones for the sake of expressing effectively his or her spiritual or theological insight. These words were then “set” to music.
To enjoy the music of the great, traditional Christmas carols, but not to meditate on the words, is to miss the gift of the carol. To do this with Christmas carols is as bewildering a habit as a person who listens to what someone says (the words) but ignores the feelings that saturate those words (the music).
Consider the following instance, when our pondering of some words in a Christmas carol can illuminate something profound about the Santa Claus work of parents on Christmas Eve.
Just in time for Christmas in 1868, Bishop Phillip Brooks (1835-1893), finished the words of a carol that he had been working on for many months. He asked the organist at his Trinity (Episcopal) Church in Boston, Lewis Redner, to compose a musical setting for his carol, which he did. We call his carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” whose third stanza contains the following words:
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven…
The insight contained in these words marks the greatest point of theological depth in the carol. Bishop Brooks is profoundly struck by God’s habit of giving His gifts “silently.” He repeats this conviction twice in a row, as an exclamation, an expression of startled understanding. Why does God choose to answer our prayers, to give His divine gifts, so unobtrusively?
When people come to me for spiritual direction, they often talk about a desire they have that a particular divine favor be granted them by God. They speak of having asked this of God for a considerable length of time. Yet, often I come to realize that God has already granted it them … but they didn’t notice that He had. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” I see people whose faith in God gets damaged, because “God refuses to answer my prayer!” Yet, it may become clear to me that God did answer their prayer, and a long while ago. They didn’t notice God giving them good answer: “so [i.e., “in this way”] God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.” Why does God do this? Why hiddenly, secretly giving?
Consider Santa and his Christmas gifts. Why do parents choose each year to give gifts to their young children so unobtrusively, even insisting that it was not them who gave them their gifts, but Santa Claus? I would suggest that the Santa myth comes closest to the meaning of the Christmas mystery when parents stealthily deliver the well-wrapped packages under the tree during the night – “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” The hoped for gifts that parents choose, and delight, to deliver secretly, when the children did not, or could not, be aware of their arrival, is God-like. What is this delight of parents in acting in this hidden fashion? Does this very delight not begin to explain why God acts as he does? In this aspect, the Santa myth has become most saturated with the divine likeness: the parents, answering the Christmas prayers of their children, give silently – “how silently!” – what their children ask … and right on time.
In the same way, “God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heaven.”