Gabriel, Mary and Scrooge
The Annunciation by Gottfried Helnwein
Last weekend, for the first time for three years, I had the joy of attending a Carol Service. My diaphragm muscles coped somehow with the exercise – though we had had a bit of a warm-up the night before listening to two volumes of recorded carols! The recordings were shuffled so we didn’t know know what was coming next. It was amazing how quickly the words from a lifetime of Carol Services sprang to mind.
When I don’t know or can’t remember the words, I get out my well-thumbed copy of ‘The Oxford Book of Christmas Carols (OBC)’. My edition was published in 1964, but the collection was first published in 1928. The Preface to OBC offers a history of the ‘typical carol’ which ,’gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in a language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all’.
As I listened to the carols again last weekend, it was the language that posed questions. So much of the language and imagery is timelessly effective even in the 21st century. The plaintive longing of ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ is more appropriate than ever in this year when war, and domination, displacement and deprivation affect so many members of the human family. ‘God of God, Light of Light, lo He abhors not the Virgin’s womb’ Of course I don't understand the simple words describing the event at the heart of the story. They always blow my mind.
Although they are clothed in beautiful music, I struggle with the language of some other popular carols and their oversimplified pictures of what ‘common’ human goodness looks like.
Over the years, in so many darkened cathedrals and churches, I have revelled in the music of single solo soprano voices lifting us to contemplate the deep meanings of the nativity story in Once in Royal David’s City. I love that beginning – but in very short order, I am disturbed.
First there’s Mary described as ‘the mother mild’ and later ‘lowly’ . And in verse 3, the Christian children who are exhorted to be ‘mild and obedient, good as He’. The supposedly good characters in this narrative are milksops!
In the final verse we have a picture of the kingdom of God where the children ‘all in white’ are ‘set at God’s right hand on high, and doing nothing but ‘wait around’! And I wonder who in the singing congregation really aspires to such a state – I don’t! And, in the last few years, I've begun to ask, 'aren't there racist implications in these ‘white’ children?'
Then there is the much loved carol, ‘The Angel Gabriel from heaven came’. I love the lilting music and the elemental description of Gabriel with ‘wings as drifted snow and eyes aflame’ (though once more we find a connection between God and whiteness) Once again we find a pretty passive Virgin as ‘gentle Mary meekly bows her head’.
These word pictures arouse my inner Scrooge who mutters, ‘Bah, humbug!
The Bible story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the passionate ‘Song of Mary’ that follows, suggests that the angel wasn’t the only one who had ‘fire in his eyes’. Somehow, Mary knew that a new world could only be brought about by her son and his friends and supporters who would offer a radical model of how power can be exercised in the world. In the words of another carol, she knew that ‘God today hath poor folk raiséd and cast a-down the proud’.
'Holy' people who submit thoughtlessly or ‘wait around in white’ are just a lot of Christmas humbug!