Do you remember the Christmas carol “We Three Kings”? Could you sing it all? For a few years growing up, carolling was a little family tradition, and in high school I sang as part of the choir; thus, Christmas Carols and I became intimately acquainted – and I love them. However, I have a complaint: almost everywhere carols are enjoyed – radio, choirs, and even church – they are enjoyed incompletely. Some discretely drop a verse or two; others are thoroughly bowdlerized. If we’re talking mere Christmas songs, such as “Jingle Bells,” my disappointment is somewhat nostalgic: oh, how sad, we’ve jilted poor Miss Fanny Bright once again. But when it comes to sacred Christmas carols, the disappointment goes much deeper, for we are cutting out beautifully articulated theology that ought to form us as Christians. Take “We Three Kings,” for instance:
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Earth to Heaven replies.
The monologues of each of the magi remind us of the significance of the gifts brought to the Christ Child. My personal favourite verse has always been that of Myrrh; this verse does not allow us to forget the tiny Infant’s fate, it does not allow us to mistakenly think of Christmas as joyful celebration that conveniently forgets the truth of our human existence: that it is one of suffering, that we need a Saviour. Of course, it would be anticlimactic without the next verse of triumph, summarizing the entire carol, and reminding us that Christmas is nothing without Easter.
Here’s another forgotten verse. Do you know which carol it’s from? You’ll probably know by the end:
No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
Yes! “Joy to the World”! It’s the apparently discomforting third verse, using words like “infest” and “curse” and, well, alongside such imagery, even “sin” starts to sound a little undesirable! Couldn’t we just leave it at joy and love, Mr Watts? This third verse renders only too vivid our wretched state (another idea we like to exorcise from a hymn, by the way, namely “Amazing Grace”) and total dependence on Christ for more than cozy feelings – for our redemption!
In any case, even abbreviated carols are still lovely and it’s important to remember that we have been given a reason to rejoice and be merry, but the joy will remain shallow if we forget the cost it came at. Moreover, those who are suffering at Christmas may think this holiday has nothing to offer them, since “it’s all happiness and joy.” On the contrary, the Catholic Church always has Christ’s suffering and death at the forefront of her mind, along with His resurrection. And Christmas Mass is still the Mass: the commemoration of the Last Supper. Perhaps today we ought to be all the more aware of the extent to which He entered into our suffering and abject lowliness: a Child, born in less than favourable circumstances, born with a destiny like ours to suffer and die, but a destiny unlike ours inasmuch as, being perfect, His suffering was all the more acute and totally undeserved. One wonders what the various visitors to the stable saw in that Baby’s eyes. What did the eyes of God look like as a baby? Did He know?