Singing the Theology of Christmas

Singing Christmas carols is not ordinarily a theological exercise. It is often devotional, very often emotional. Although there is nothing wrong with devotion, and in fact moments of devotion can be important opportunities for acts of faith, hope, and love, still, regarding Christmas, something seems to be missing. What does it all mean?

Dr. Bert Polman, Ordinary Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Calvin College, writes

…If you take a few moments to page through the Christmas carols and hymns in almost any hymnal, you’ll find that narrative and folksy, sentimental lyrics easily outweigh songs with a theological treatment of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation. We’re served with “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and their many equivalents, for better or for worse. The theological profundity of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is rare among our Christmas songs.

After you’re done paging through the Christmas section of your hymnal, I invite you to take a look at the Easter section too—just for comparison. In that section you’re likely to find numerous theological convictions about the resurrection of Christ, relatively few narrative Easter hymns, and no sentimental ones. While you’re at it, recall the kinds of Christmas cards you receive and send out, and contrast those with the Easter cards you may have seen. Most likely you’ll notice a similar pattern there: the Easter cards are far more likely to focus on theological themes than are the Christmas cards.

I believe we could use a few more theologically exact lyrics for Christmas…

I believe that the answer to the issue Dr. Polman rightly raises may be found by mining our largely untapped treasure lore of office hymns. Throughout the life of the Church, great poets, often theologians, have set into verse the theology of learned treatises. In hymns, theology may be sung, may be tasted, may be savored, may be remembered.

The hymn Beata Dei genetrix, written by St. Peter Damian, is sung by the Church at Vespers on the Birth of Mary, and yet the Nativity it speaks of is as much her Son’s as her own. Consider it a Christmas hymn of the theological kind, which tells of the salvation we have in Him, through her.

O Theotokos, Mary blest,

Our human nature’s shining crest,
Through you we have our liberty,
Free children of the light to be.

O Queen of all the virgin choir,

Though David was your kingly sire
Your royal dignity has come
Not from your fathers, but your Son

Remove us from the ancient root.

Graft us in Him, the newborn shoot.
Through you may we become by grace,
A royal, priestly, human race.
O offer holy prayers to win
Release from all our bonds of sin.
We praise your merits to the skies:
May we in heaven share your prize.

Exemplar of virginity,

Give glory to the Trinity,
Whose endless treasure-stores of gifts
Through you our human nature lifts.