I look forward to Christmastime. I like much of the seasonal music. In these weeks of possibilities, in my mind I sing Christmas hymns, carols, and songs, and I sing them perfectly on key. However, in reality I do not sing them aloud because no one can recognize anything I vocalize. Only dogs want to harmonize with me.
One that I love is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It contains the marvelous verse: “Peace on the earth, good will to men/From heaven’s all gracious king/The world in solemn stillness lay/To hear the angels sing.”
(When I recently said, Peace on the earth, good will to men, a listener who I assumed knew neither the song nor the Bible story accused me of being woke. The woke version, however, would say, “Peace on the earth, good will to people of all gender identities.” See if you can work that into a hymn.)
I am unsure, however, about the inclusiveness of the blessing. My Bible acknowledges that some authorities have the angels saying “peace, goodwill among men.” But this version has it: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’” I find this ambiguous. If God were pleased with all men, this is inclusive. But the granted peace might only have been given to a subset of humanity that had pleased God.
The song’s refrain, of course, refers to the Biblical story that begins, “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, watching over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them.” (The shepherds were not washing their socks by night as many Sunday School children think.) That angel announces that the Savior has been born in Bethlehem and is lying in a manger. The shepherds hurry off, find the manger, and spread the angel’s words.
This leads to the many creches I have seen. Always in a creche is a manger with the baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph are nearby and a little further away are the kneeling shepherds along with sheep. (We should pay more attention to the sheep because they were celebrating the first Fleece Navidad. I have seldom seen a dog in the countless manger scenes, but a German shepherd would not be inappropriate. Naples is known for its creches, and all sorts of figures are placed around the baby, including representations of historical figures and relatives of the creche’s owner. Even so, I found it strange that I could buy a tiny representation of Maradona to place in mine. I did not do so.)
Almost all creches include the Three Wise Men even though the Bible tells us they were not outside around a manger. Those men first go to Herod and tell that signs reveal that the king of the Jews has been born. They want to know where to find Him. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” An assembly of chief priests and scribes say that it is written that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. Led by a star to the City of David, the wise men “going into the house [Italics added] they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
(The Three Wise Men followed the big star. Were they the first groupies? Yes, I know that the Bible does not say that there were three wise men. That number is merely assumed from the number of gifts. As kids, we liked to sing, “We three kings of orient are/Puffing on a royal cigar/One was loaded and exploded/ We two kings of orient are.” That passed for Sunday School humor among us.)
The Bible does tell us about the manger. Joseph and Mary had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where her labor began. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” A song I sang as a kid begins “Away in a manger/No crib for a bed/The little Lord Jesus/Laid down His sweet head.” That hymn always seemed insipid, and it is not one I replay much in my head. I only learned as an adult another song relating to that same Biblical passage, No Room at the Inn. It is now a favorite, both for its infectiousness and its layered meanings. I have heard the gospel song with varying lyrics from different artists, and now each Christmas season I make a point of listening to it. This year I heard on YouTube renditions, both good, from Mahalia Jackson and Ann Murray.
Mary and Joseph were away from home because: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. . . . .And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” Luke 2: 1-5.
(I don’t know if this census included any controversial citizenship questions. The passage says “all the world.” I have a strong feeling that the Mayans and the Japanese did not enroll. Of course, this passage is one of many that demonstrate that the Bible cannot be taken literally, Walter Lippmann said, “You and I are forever at the mercy of the census-taker. That impertinent fellow who goes from house to house is one of the real masters of the statistical situation. The other is the man who organizes the result.” (concluded December 23)