A friend of mine in England recently emailed me this startling note about the history of Christmas carols:
Carol singers going from house to house is a result of carols being banned within churches in medieval times due to them disrupting the service. The word “carol” means to sing and dance in a circle, deriving from the ancient Greek ‘choros’, which means “dancing in a circle,” and from the Old French word ‘carole’, a song to accompany dancing. Carols were introduced to Church services by St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), and the tradition spread through Europe; however the intrusive nature of the singing and dancing led them to be banned from Church…. Carols, alongside other traditional celebrations of Christmas, were banned completely from 1647-1660 by the Puritan government. (The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury)
Apparently, the medieval Church never got the Scripture memo, when the Ark of the Covenant (read: Presence of God) stolen by Israel’s enemy was at last recaptured and restored to His people with a joyous parade of “shouts and the sound of trumpets”:
And David danced before the Lord with all his might (2 Sam. 6:14RSV).
Other translations note “with great abandon” (TMB), “with all his might to honor the Lord” (TEV), and “whirled with all his might before the Lord” (Judaism: The Tanakh).
Christmas, that is, heralds the return/coming of God’s presence among His people in Jesus the Messiah–like the return of the Ark in David’s time. Honoring God with joyous abandon in carols and dance would therefore seem natural for those who worship Jesus, the Son of David (Luke 1:32).
It makes you wonder: Whatever might possess Christians (literally) to believe that singing and dancing to honor the Lord is disruptive?
Certainly–like Jesus among the Pharisees and Holy Spirit moving among us unto today–such joyous celebration can pre-empt and disrupt religion’s ordered script. You can get crucified for doing things like that.
It’s too easy, however, to criticize our medieval Church forebears and uptight Puritans from almost a thousand-year distance. When was the last time you saw anyone today singing carols and dancing with all their might to honor God? I confess that, like most of us, I haven’t done that myself in a let-it-fly way that would meet the original definition of “carol.”
But I’d like to.
So why do we balk at that even today?
A major clue for me lies in the ancient songbook lyrics, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5). That is, we modern, well-provided Western Christians simply haven’t sown enough tears to beget joy. To us, such emotional display can feel weak, and therefore shameful.
Often out of our own childhood wounding, we’ve learned not to reveal to anyone our deepest needs, much less to a God called Father. We just don’t trust this God will listen to our cries and respond to save us. And so we haven’t experienced His overwhelming love, power, and deliverance that would prompt us to dance and sing with all our might.
The best of carols, meanwhile, proclaim the joy of Christmas. They spring from the heart of a Father God who has come in Jesus deliberately to disrupt our most cherished—albeit self-destructive—schemes to control our lives, look good, and save ourselves.
From that perspective, our Western churches still ban caroling—at least, as it was originally defined. Sure, we all sing Christmas carols freely now in church. But how long would we tolerate everyone pouring out of the pews, twirling and dancing mightily with abandon at a chorus of Joy to the World?
Sadly, our largely subdued Western worship betrays the same denial and shame as that of our medieval ancestors. But at least, they were honest about their ordered intentions and kicked the carolers out.
Our modern, more sophisticated sensibilities prefer to eviscerate the experience and domesticate the Spirit who inspires it. We permit the carols, but not the active, heartfelt worship which they, like us, were created to express—and which indeed, defines them.
The spirit of religion has possessed us, even as our forebears. As the entertainer Bono has famously noted, “Religion is what’s left when the Spirit leaves the room.”
Who, in fact, can sing with abandon “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!”? Only those who have sown in tears—that is, who have cried out deeply this past year for God’s saving presence in their lives. The Good News of Christmas is designed for those who have tried to be king of their own lives, failed miserably, and are now desperate at last to receive the King of kings.
But maybe all this dancing with abandon at Christmas strikes you as unseemly and embarrassing, if not shameful. Maybe this past year you’ve managed your life quite well by yourself, thank you.
To whatever extent that’s so, you’ll see the birth of God among us like the Pharisees and our medieval church ancestors, as a disruption rather than a blessing. If you haven’t faced your own hopes and fears deeply, you can’t know, as the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem declares, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” in Jesus even this Christmas, even in you.
If you’ve read this far, however, maybe you haven’t wholly forgotten the longing for joy in your heart and the impulse to express it outwardly. Maybe for too long you’ve told yourself, “It can happen for others, but not for me.”
I can only tell you that the God revealed at Christmas is a God of resurrection power who promises us “the same as the mighty strength which he used when he raised Christ from death” (Ephes. 1:15-20). He specializes in rekindling dreams that have died and in restoring a “joyful and triumphant” heart, as the carol O Come, All Ye Faithful invites.
And so, like that carol, I would invite you this Christmas to give yourself another chance to receive God’s blessing—and discover the answer to this question in Angels We Have Heard on High:
Shepherds why this jubilee, Why your joyous songs prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be/Which inspire your heavenly song?
A good way to do that is to find a quiet place and get real there with “the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephes. 3:14NIV). Tell God openly about your hopes and fears—like Jesus, with “loud cries and tears” if necessary (Heb. 5:7NIV).
Then wait and listen for your Father to respond.
When you’re ready, try singing “O Holy Night”—and listen to your heart for “the thrill of hope” as “the weary world rejoices/For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Just make sure there’s room to dance.
* “Getting Ready for Christmas:
Understanding the Bible from Creation to Easter”
4 cds or mp3 download http://store.abbafather.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=3
1. The Problem with the Creature 4. The Advent of Grace
2. Who Are the Jews? 5. Is Jesus the Only Way?
3. Rebellion and Return 6. What Makes Jesus Different?
7. The Fallout from Easter
At http://store.abbafather.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=1 :
* “Jesus, the Warrior King” chapter in
No Small Snakes: A Journey into Spiritual Warfare
* “Christmas after 9/11: The Birth of Jesus, the Death of Religion” chapter in
Religion vs. Reality: Facing the Home Front in Spiritual Warfare
* Knowing Jesus More Completely:
Broken by Religion, Healed by God: Restoring the Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal, Social Justice Church