Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fall on your knees


Join me in a little sing-a-long: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace. ” If you were here at this Mass last year, you might remember that I invited you to do the very same thing and join me in singing that beautiful hymn.

This is a time of year that engages us fully through all of our senses – we love the sights that are all around us, the bright lights and Christmas trees, bows and ribbons and wreathes and wrapped presents; we love the smells and flavors even more, and I’m sure each of us has a special tradition of this time of year, whether it is certain desserts or special foods that we have, fruitcake or Christmas cookies, seven fishes or a roasted goose. But, we love the Christmas carols, I think, most of all. We know this because there are even radio stations that play nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving Day all the way through Christmas.

Christmas songs conjure up so much in us. There are the fun ones – Jingle Bell Rock, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and of course, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (poor Grandma!). There are the sentimental favorites – White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and The Christmas Song (you know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”). And, there are the holy ones, the spiritual ones, that touch us deeply in our hearts – songs like the one we just sang, Silent Night, and so many more like O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, or a more recent one, Mary Did You Know?

But, I think my favorite one of the season, and certainly, my favorite one of this very night is O Holy Night. And, I love this hymn for two, somewhat contradictory reasons. I love it for its sheer grandeur. No other Christmas hymn dares such boldness and lofty greatness. It’s melody builds and grows until it wants to explode; and when the notes and the words reach that triumphant apex what does it call us to? It calls us to tremendous humility – fall on your knees the hymn begs the hearer.

Fall on your knees. Know your smallness and be humble in light of the profundity of this moment of Christ’s birth. Sometimes, the act of falling to our knees is a response to tragedy or cruelty. We fall because we are beaten and broken, because we have nothing left to give.

But sometimes - times like tonight - we fall in awesome wonder. These are the knees of O Holy Night, of this holy night: we are "wonderstruck, joyous, and eve a little wobbly". Fall on your knees, the song commands. Jesus has been born, and even the angels are singing. A thrill of hope; the weary soul rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. This, my friends, is no normal night. It’s a time to humble ourselves and get close to the ground. Oh, night divine.

It’s easy to imagine that dark Bethlehem night, a stunning planetarium sky, the stars brightly shining, the world laying “in sin and error pining.” Amid all this we lower ourselves, trying to find a bit more stability. This reaction seems right. It’s a posture of openness, rather than knowing, because on this night as on that night, who would guess what was to come?

Often, this humility can be lost in the singing. We associate O Holy Night with singers like Céline Dion or Andrea Bocelli, who dramatically build the song to unbelievable heights, a full orchestra behind them. These versions are popular, but clearly not on their knees.

In a 12-days of Christmas series on the history of our most favorite hymns by The Atlantic, which I'm indebted to for the inspiration of this homily, they point out that in 1855, the American Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the song from its original French, which had been composed a few years earlier. The first version referred simply to a “kneeling people,” but Dwight gave the knees greater prominence, translating the line as a more urgent call to action. He wrote in a November 1870 essay for The Atlantic Monthly: “True music breathes and makes appeal…to a holy love and yearning after unity.” A yearning after unity, seems like a subtle nod to the power of music to make us feel humble again; humble in the presence of our God. It calls on the desire – especially of this night – for joy and peace and love; for compassion and forgiveness and healing; for an opportunity to begin again and be made new, just like the newness promised by the remarkable birth of a child in a manger; a child whose birth would change everything; a child who can change everything again and make us new again today.

You know, people don’t often declare whole nights divine, except in a passing, literary way. But, the holiness of that night in Bethlehem was not literary, but literal; it was holy and full of promise. And, my friends, the holiness of this night is not literary either – it too is literal and full of promise. And the Babe of Bethlehem wants to enter into our world and our hearts and our lives as humbly and as powerfully as He did so long ago, if we will only humbly fall on our knees and welcome Him.

My friends, the stars are brightly shining this night, the world lay in sin and error pining, ‘till He appeared and the soul – your soul, my soul – felt its worth. So, fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. This night when Christ was born. O holy night. O night Divine.

Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you His peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment