In many European cultures, and in America too, singing and listening to carols is a well-loved Christmas tradition. And many Orthodox communities in the West have admirably incorporated some of the best of these carols into their Nativity celebrations.
Often, though, for Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, our knowledge of this rich repertoire does not extend much beyond the first couple verses of a dozen or so of the most famous carols. How unfortunate! If we dig deeper into this great treasure of Christian culture, we will discover much that resonates well with the Orthodox theology expressed in our liturgical hymnography.
“What Child is This,” – a warm though haunting lullaby sung to the English folk melody Greensleeves – is well-known to many. Its three verses depict the Lord of creation asleep on the lap of the Holy Virgin, adored by angels, shepherds, and magi. Its second verse is especially poignant, but many modern hymnals have diluted the strength of the original words. Here is the second verse as originally written by its author, William Chatterton Dix, in 1865:
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear! for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made Flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.
The carol shows that even from His birth, the Lord was already working our salvation: the silent Word is pleading for sinners even while asleep in His Mother’s arms. He was born in a cave, so that He might be laid to rest in a cave after His crucifixion. He left His Father’s throne and became Man not just so that He might preach to us about peace and good will – prevalent themes every year at Christmas time – but so that He might submit to suffering, mockery, and death, and thus gain for us eternal life.
Since the Word of God was born in the flesh in order to die, the holy Fathers have constructed our Orthodox celebration of Nativity to mirror that of Holy Week and Pascha. We began our preparation for the “winter Pascha” with a 40-day fast that is now reaching its culmination in the period of forefeast: a “winter Holy Week.”
The forefeast of Nativity begins on the eve of December 20th, and for these five nights at Compline there is a canon – that is, a string of short troparia arranged in odes around scriptural themes – whose music and text closely imitate the canons sung each day of Holy Week at Bridegroom Matins. The irmoi (that is, the first troparion in each ode) are exactly the same for each of these canons, and the subsequent troparia at Christmas echo those of Holy Week. Here are just two examples:
From the Matins Canon of Holy Thursday, Ode 1, troparion 2:
Initiating His friends into the mystery, the true Wisdom of God has set a table that nourishes the soul, and has mixed a cup of immortality for the faithful. Let us draw near with reverence and cry out: Gloriously has Christ our God been glorified!
From the Compline Canon of 22 December, Ode 1, troparion 2:
The wisdom of God summons the Magi, initiating them as the first fruits of the peoples. He who lies in the manger of dumb beasts feeds them with the mystical food of the knowledge of God. They hasten to the crib as to a banquet, journeying with gifts, led by the light of the star.
From the Matins Canon of Holy Thursday, Ode 3, troparion 2:
“Foolish is the man among you who is a betrayer,” foretold the patient One to His disciples. “He shall not know these things, and being without understanding, he shall not understand. Yet abide in me and be confirmed in faith.”
From the Compline Canon of 22 December, Ode 3, troparion 2:
O foolish Herod, lover of darkness, crying out: “There is no God!” Seeking to slay him who came in the fullness of time, in madness you murdered the blameless infants. The earth groaned in travail at your deed, polluted with innocent blood.
In the carol “We three kings of Orient are,” with its jubilant refrain, “Oh, star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright…” three of the verses are sung in the person of each of the three magi, each explaining the meaning of his gift. The third of these is quite stark in its depiction of the coming death of the divine Infant:
Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume,
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
The gift of myrrh was brought, “as for one three days dead,” as our Orthodox hymnography puts it (Vigil of Nativity, aposticha, tone three), for this pungent oil was used to anoint the bodies of the dead before burial.
Yet, “through the Cross, joy has come into all the world,” and so the carol concludes with triumph:
Glorious now, behold Him arise:
King and God and Sacrifice.
Heav’n sings Alleluia!
Alleluia! the earth replies.
The Lord came to be born – and buried – in a cave. Born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” He was laid in a feeding trough of dumb beasts and has become the eucharistic Food for us His rational sheep. He escaped from Herod as an infant — for His hour was not yet come — but laid down His life of His own will before Pilate. He was born from the Holy Virgin without breaking the seals of her virginity, just as later He would rise from the tomb while the stone was still shut.
These and many other traditional carols, echoing themes found in Orthodox services, help us to avoid mere sentimentality as we contemplate the dread mystery of the nativity in the flesh of the Son of God.
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