The Second Day of Christmas: Old, Familiar Carols

I’m spending Christmas in Marseille this year with friends who have made a cozy home here for their family and anyone else in need of one for the season. Eleven stockings were hung by the old French fireplace and we had so many amazing meals in the last couple of days I’m not sure which one was supposed to be “the holiday meal.” Every time I walk into the kitchen someone is frying up lardons and the collections of bottles and candy wrappers hand-carried here from around the globe have mysteriously multiplied. At a civilized 9 o’clock or so this morning-after our host is putting on the coffee before he runs to pick up some fresh croissants for breakfast. The kids are wrapping the dining table in the festive scraps of paper from yesterday in preparation for an elaborate, cooperative painting project received as a gift yesterday

Besides the food and the company and the respite of not having to do anything urgently for the first time in almost five months of transitioning to a new country, I will remember this about this Christmas: I heard the bells on Christmas Day. At odd times, for ten minutes at a time, then again in half an hour, playing no discernible carol, but wild – uproarious, even. Untamed bells tumbling joyous proclamation into the windy streets. The only people out were attempting their business as usual – joggers on the promenade dodging the spray of the normally calm Mediterranean; Muslim men making a point of spending the day off smoking at the café like any other day; older folk navigating an unfamiliar pharmacie de garde to treat their old, familiar ailments; tourists at Notre Dame ignoring the holiday in acts of devotion to their travel agendas.

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

While parts of the church have rediscovered Advent, reclaiming this season of anticipation in the midst of our culture’s frenzy of consumption, for most of us Christmas begins and ends with a flurry of paper, and when the presents are done, it’s over, back to business as usual. This year I’m thinking more about Christmas as a season, the twelve days that began yesterday and end in Epiphany. I’m new to this, so I sincerely hope this won’t be last my last and final reckoning with the significance of the Christmas season, but today it strikes me that it’s about living prophetically into the world’s business as usual.
Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” acknowledges the phenomenon of celebrating a day that changed history, that forever altered the topography of the spiritual playing fields of reality, and finding nothing changed. It’s the same old songs of peace, love and joy sung by people who remain as contentious, difficult and miserable as ever. We sing carols of this miraculous event that revealed God to and with us in ways hardly imagined before and we look forward to doing it again next year. That’s what the church calendar does – takes mind-blowing unique births, deaths, resurrections and revelations and works them into the rhythm of our lives to be remembered, observed, and re-lived again and again. And so Christmas is the season of going back to the fields rejoicing with angelsong still ringing in our ears, knowing that unto us a son and savior has been given. Christmas is the time of pondering in our hearts what all these promises that have come true mean, because there he lies, the Lord of all, bound in rags, and he needs to be fed and changed again. We have come to worship, found it all to be just as it was said, and now it is time to return home another way, knowing what we know now about the dark politics of the place of his birth, maybe never hearing news of the place again. We make our way back to real life listening to those louder, deeper bells ringing that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.”

“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!”

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!”