Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A "corny" Christmas?

For many years, I have been a committed supporter of NPR, especially in its WNYC variation. My one objection is that the various broadcasters (all of them outstanding, especially Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate) never miss an opportunity to take a pot shot at Christianity. It is really maddening. (I have complained to Brian many times, with no effect.) This morning there was a segment on the "Christmas Jollies," an eclectic collection of seasonal songs put together afresh every year by Bill Adler. This year's cover features a skeleton in a Santa hat "driving" a mailbox as though it were a motorcycle. It must be admitted that once in a while something turns up in the Jollies that can't be faulted, like Pete Seeger's half-sister Peggy's rendition of "Babe of Bethlehem." But on NPR today, Adler enthusiastically promoted his devotion to "Santa Claus, not Jesus" as the center of the story he wanted to celebrate; his project was warmly endorsed by the interviewer. What really got me was his description of most Christmas music as "corny."

"Corny"? What is he listening to? Well, I guess he is thinking about the little drummer boy and his ilk. Admittedly, a great deal of the whole Christmas ordeal is grounded in sentimentality about childhood innocence, cute animals, treetop angels--and paintings by Thomas Kinkaide, God help us, with music to match. Seen that way, Christmas can certainly be described as corny.

It is up to the church to present a radical alternative to a "corny" Christmas. But how are we doing in that regard? Every church now, it seems, has put the children's pageant front and center at services that used to be aimed at adults. The fourth Sunday of Advent has lost its solemnity, having been given over to pageants in many parishes. In place of the once-beloved, formerly ubiquitous "midnight service" that attracted college students, the most popular offering on Christmas Eve has become the late-afternoon "family service" with mobs of children whose antics make a serious message impossible to deliver.

Much as I still love (and still play) the music of the King's College Chapel and the traditional hymns, I find myself drawn these days to the astringent harmonies and bracing words of the older music. One of my favorite CDs is The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music, by the Taverner Consort directed by Andrew Parrott. I never tire of it. For one thing, the selections are full of references to such Advent-y subjects as sin, death, hell, the devil,and the crucifixion. Nothing corny about that! (And the program notes included with the disc are excellent.)

This music takes some getting used to, but once it has taken hold, a lot of the more familiar carols begin to sound a bit sugary, if not corny. "The Babe of Bethlehem" appears, in authentic shape-note form. One of my favorites on the CD is "Nova, nova," which is in the Episcopal hymnal. The refrain is Latin: Ave fit ex Eva. What does that mean? I had to do some digging to find out. A literal translation is, "Ave becomes from Eve." Carrying it further, then, "Ave" is Latin for the first word of the angel's salutation to Mary: "Hail! [thou that art highly favored; the Lord is with thee."] Eve is, of course, the wife of Adam who successfully tempted her husband to rebel against God. The medieval mind loved to play around with language in this way; "Ave" spelled backwards is Eva, or Eve.

All of this is magnificently enacted in the beautiful Annunciation by Fra Angelico, often reproduced on Christmas cards with just the angel's head in detail. But the whole painting tells a greater story. The angel's appearance to Mary is the centerpiece, but up in the lefthand corner is a small but powerfully presented scene of an angel (perhaps the same one?) with a drawn sword, expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Thus the whole story is told in nuce--the fall of humanity, and the divine reversal. Ave fit ex Eva. The story of the original disobedience is to be rewritten in the obedience of Christ, which is prefigured by the obedience of his mother.

Nothing corny about it. It's up to us to offer a more adult, more challenging version of the Christmas story: the one told in the Bible.