The Ghost of Christmas Programs Past

I have been performing in Christmas pageants and programs my entire life – no joke! I probably missed being in them at ages 1 and 2, but not age 3.  My earliest memories include my mother pushing me onto stage to sing at a ridiculously young age. She was in charge of the programs, and she knew my birth father was a professional singer – so, I was predestined to be out there! And doing the same is what I’ll be a part of this Sunday at Tri-State at 9:30 and 11:00.

At my previous church in New Jersey, probably around about the late 1980s, in the midst of a choral program, I had arranged for a person in the audience to stand and shout out in an angry voice something similar to:  “All this cheerful Christmas music is just a waste! I don’t see what there is to be cheerful about. There are crazy dictators all over the world and injustice is something we see around us every day! I’m sick of all this joy, joy, joy!”

Of course, the audience was not expecting this (and I had an uncle in the crowd – who was admittedly a bit slow – ask me the next day, “Hey what was the matter with that guy yelling last night?”)  But, back to the program – I had it planned that I would respond to my planted fellow needing anger management, “You are correct; and you are far from the first to make note of that very problem. Just have a seat and listen to the words of this old song.”

I had chosen a very creative arrangement of the old hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  That song is set to a rather cheerful melodic line and harmonies. But if you know the lyrics, you know that there is a stanza in which the text changes from expressions of joy and light, to a statement of the dark realities of a troubled world … and my choral arrangement set this following verse in a dark and foreboding minor key.  Written on Christmas day in 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War and upon the recent severe wounding of his son – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed within his poem:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

On this sad day of national grief over the tragedy in Connecticut, we can surely resonate with these thoughts! Hate appears to be winning.

But the game is not over yet; the final verse of the poem – of life – of God’s work – is not written yet. Hence Longfellow wrote:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

There is no hope but in God; there is no peace or final justice but in the cross and the victory of Christ over death, sin, and all the injustice rooted therein.

… the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. …  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.