“Chains Shall He Break”: Justice in the Music of the Christmas Narrative
BY MICHAEL IAFRATE | December 21, 2016
Christians who are committed to social justice will likely agree with the assessment of theologian-activist Ched Myers that “We have long candy-coated and Disneyfied the Christmas story beyond biblical recognition.” With the help of Myers, Richard Horsley, and others, I have come to appreciate that the nativity stories are not just one more set of fantasy tales in circulation around Christmastime that invite us to consume. Rather, in their fullness, they are a radical invitation to see God present in the world, first among the poor, and to believe in the capacity of everyday people to resist injustice and bring a new world to birth.
[Nativity stories] are a radical invitation to see God present in the world, first among the poor.
I’ve also found new appreciation for much of the season’s music. Though sometimes buried in unheard verses at the bottom of the pages of our hymnals, carols present us with the sweeping epic of Christmas and all of its characters: unwed mothers, self-obsessed rulers, political refugees, homeless people, poor farmers, magicians, death squads, heavenly visitors, and even creation itself. Despite the accretions of tinsel and holiday emotionalism, the stories and songs of Christmas have a unique power to teach us and our children some core truths about Jesus and justice.
The carols we know have often been written and performed in privileged places, and are thus somewhat removed from the radical core of the nativity narratives. And yet, many of them have retained details of that radical narrative which make clear, as Horsley says, that empire and injustice do not simply provide the background of the story, but are indeed some of the major actors and forces against which Jesus, even as a child, stands against. Thus, holiday carols, properly heard, can rightly be counted among the “resistance literature” that is our Christmas narrative.
Holiday carols, properly heard, can rightly be counted among the “resistance literature” that is our Christmas narrative.
The radical gospel content of Christmas music is important to me, as a (fairly!) young parent committed to justice, with a musical family and a young daughter learning a “feel” for the faith as she begins her First Eucharist preparation. As my daughter’s imagination continues to open up more and more to the symbols and stories of our traditions, it is good to be reminded that the stories and songs of Christmas need not remain “candy-coated” but indeed contain within them, in the words of Dom Helder Camara, the “terrible truths [God has] spoken to the rich.” The Christmas stories have a particular “Ignatian” capacity, providing vivid landscapes for our children to place themselves among the characters and experience the real “heart work” of prayer. And if our holiday practices can tune into the way the nativity stories give preference to the poor and to the outsider, these stories can be an important way our families internalize together the values of Christian faith, of which the work for justice is a “constitutive dimension.”
It is my sense that we need to crack through the “candy coating” of Christmas more than ever during the holiday season of 2016, for ourselves and for our children. For the message of Christmas is that “God is with us” even in the darkest of times of hate and oppression, present not just anywhere, but among the small, the broken, the stranger, and the excluded. I look forward to hearing these lessons anew with the bloggers ISN has gathered together.
The old English carol “The Friendly Beasts” tells the story of the animals giving from who they are to “Jesus our brother, kind and good.” The song lends itself to discussions with our young children about serving others from the gifts God has given to us. The shaggy and brown donkey provides transportation to the pregnant mother Mary: “I carried his mother up hill and down / I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.” The cow, all white and red, offers her manger as a bed, while the sheep with curly horn offers wool as a blanket warm, and the doves from the rafters high coo him to sleep. “Thus every beast by some good spell / in a stable dark was glad to tell / of the gift they gave Emmanuel.” In my family we read Tomie DePaola’s The Friendly Beasts: an old English Christmas Carol while listening to our friend Michael’s sung version. We wonder about the gifts we can offer to Jesus our brother, kind and good, who is present with us in the faces of all whom we meet. [Alyssa Pasternak-Post]
The music of Elizabeth Mitchell has colored our family’s days for many years. The authentic voices of women, men, and children, lacking that over-produced sound that often comes with music made for children and families, was a welcome part of my early parenting days, when I was exploring, in earnest, ways in which to give voice to authenticity, diversity, and cultural heritage in our cocoon of young family life.
Last year, at the start of Advent, I purchased a copy of Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook, a collection of songs from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s songbook. It took a few listens before I was on board with the album. It had that same unpolished, homegrown sound of Mitchell’s other albums, but with many more voices–children of various ages, power-singers in their prime, the elderly–and the songs selected were primarily unfamiliar, not traditional Christmas songs.
But as I continued to listen (with my children, who were immediately hooked), the thread of a theme began to emerge. This album gives voice, primarily, to the experience of motherhood, embodied in Mary, and the communal experience of Christ’s birth. Motherhood and community. The bedrock of my experience of adulthood. Two aspects of Catholic life that are often explored in a very one-dimensional manner. This is not a “Catholic” album, but it tells a story that is essential to the Catholic narrative I want my children to hear–the full, wide-ranging story of what it means to be human, to understand the visceral, tender, veracious human experience substantiated through Mary and the community of believers, and in our lives as parents and in community with others, who bring a vast range of lived struggles and joys. [Kelly Swan]
“O Holy Night” didn’t particularly appeal to me until I began to record a folky Christmas album for my friends some years back. Most versions I had heard, inside churches and out, seemed terribly overdramatic and pious—certainly not material for reflection on racial and social justice. But in the process of flipping through hymnals and trying songs out on guitar and banjo, I heard the melody, potential arrangements, and the lyrics afresh. The third verse jumped out at me: Truly he taught us to love one another / His law is love, and his gospel is peace / Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother / and in his name all oppression shall cease. I recorded the song with my sister, and it’s been a favorite ever since. I especially like renditions by Sufjan Stevens, Josh T. Pearson, and this one, performed by Patti Smith at the Vatican.
With words penned in the mid-19th century by a French non-Christian socialist poet and translated into English by Unitarian minister and abolitionist John Dwight Sullivan, the song communicates not only the holiness of the incarnation but its politics as well. This is not some incarnational abstraction of “God becoming man (sic)” or of a generic love and peace entering the world. It is rather what Jon Sobrino calls the “scandalous” encounter of God and humanity: “a nearness of the mystery of God and a special nearness to the poor and oppressed.” It is this holiness I want my daughter to encounter and to become as she enters into the stories of Christmas each year. And it is that chain-breaking incarnation of which I want our family to sing, in a time when police violence against people of color continues with heightened arrogance, when the phrase “Black lives matter” still generates resentful anger among white Americans, when Native communities still struggle against colonialist environmental racism, when Muslims and immigrants are captured by the suspicious gazes of xenophobia, when queer sisters and brothers wait in hope for equality and dignity, and when so many are shackled by deepening economic anxiety and homelessness.
In the darkness of this particular Advent season, may each of our families find ways to incarnate the scandalous mystery of God in our lives and help this weary world to hear these liberation songs anew. [Michael Iafrate]
The ancient Advent hymn “Creator of the Stars of Night” expresses our deep hope in Christ’s work of healing and reconciliation. I am drawn to the version found in the Saint Helena Breviary from a community of lay and ordained Episcopal women. The poetic words reflect the monastic tradition of contemplative prayer, trained theological and liturgical nuance, and the expansive and inclusive language that is a gift of women’s ministry – a gift that I hope to share with my daughters.
Much of the hymn sounds familiar, such as its opening lines: “Creator of the stars of night / creation’s everlasting light / Jesus, Redeemer, save us all, / and hear your people when we call.” But it differs from the ancient form in two notable ways. Rather than references to virgin mother (virginis matris), as in the translation “proceeding from a virgin shrine,” it simply names Mary and recognizes the world as so in need of the reconciliation that Christ brings: “The son of Mary you were born / into a world with conflict torn.” Secondly, replacing the traditional masculine doxology with more cosmic language, the hymn moves us from recognition of creation’s need for Christ to enduring praise of the eternal God: “To God who was before all days / Who is and is to be always / laud, honor, praise and glory be / this Advent and eternally.” [Alyssa Pasternak Post]
Michael Iafrate is Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and served as the lead author of CCA’s “People’s Pastoral,” The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. He is a West Virginia native, a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University (’99 and ’03), and is completing a dissertation in theology for the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches and in the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology, edited by Tom Beaudoin (Liturgical Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Music, Theology, and Justice, edited by Michael O’Connor, Christina Labriola, and Hyun-Ah Kim (Lexington Books, 2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician.
Resist injustice and bring a new world to birth – that’s exactly what Jesus did and is doing through so many in these modern times.