A shameless lover of Christmas carols, I have found support for my sentimentalism in a most unlikely place; an essay by Dr. Lewis Thomas, one-time dean of New York University School of Medicine. He notes that the human faculty for language is rooted in a specific collection of neurons in the left hemisphere of the brain. This corresponds with a similar center of neurons in the brain of a song bird. It is there that the bird’s song is “recorded,” that is, if the bird learns it as a nestling. If the bird hears the proper song at that stage it will have it in mind for life. It can then add its own arpeggios so that it is the song of the species and at the same time the bird’s own recognizable voice””“perceptively different from the song of all his relatives.” But, according to the dean of medicine, if it does not hear the song as a youngster, the collection of neurons cannot compose the song on its own. Sadly enough, “what comes out later when it is ready for singing and mating is an unmelodious buzzing noise.” The song isn’t instinctive. The urge to sing is instinctive, but not the song. The little bird must first be sung to if it is to know and sing the song.
I think of this fascinating fact as we draw closer to when we shall sing again the Song of Christmas. Like the brain of the song bird we cannot nor did we compose this song on our own. It was a song sung to us. Sung to the human race, to our species, by angels. They sang it to the shepherds out in the fields near Bethelehem on that first Christmas night. It is the song of the Savior, the God-Man Jesus Christ. We did not create it, for Christmas was not an idea of the human race. In our sinful condition we could never have composed it. We tend to want to save ourselves””to find a way out of our problems by our own ingenuity and effort. But we never get there. All we produce in our attempts to save ourselves is the “unmelodious buzzing noise” of human pride and striving. The truth of the matter is that we are saved by God’s grace or we are not saved at all.
There were many who were striving to save themselves when the Angels first sang the song of Christmas to the shepherds. Caesar Augustus tried to bring peace to the world by the power of the Roman Empire””by its unique blend of politics, statesmanship and military might. Among the Greeks, the intellectual sophisticates of the day, it was the aspirations of culture, science, art and thought that promised from year to year a salvation for humankind that never came. The Priests in Jerusalem sought salvation by the sacrifices offered daily in the temple. The Scribes and Pharisees tried to deserve God’s favor through their religious perfectionism, by keeping the demands of the Law. But religion then, as it too often does today, brought only conflict to the individual’s conscience and from there to one’s relationships with others. Instead””from politics, culture, and religion””there came only the unmelodious buzzing noise we hear all too often in the world around us today.
But, to certain poor shepherds the song was sung; they, in their everydayness, represent all of our race, the entire human species””existing somewhere between animals and angels””to such the angels came. And the Glory shone around them and the song of salvation, the song composed in heaven (to be lived out on earth) for our species was first sung”¦. “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will come to all the people, for unto you is born this day, in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Of course the shepherds””just as you and I would have done, for this is hardly a story of their virtue but of God’s grace””ran with eager steps to Bethlehem. It was God’s grace-filled invitation that sent them breathless across the fields.
After the angels departed, and the glory that shone around them had given way to the normalcy of the night; after the shepherds returned from the stable, the night song of the Savior, once heard, was never forgotten. Sure, the night was still dark; the air cold; the duties still needed to be done. The wolf and bear still lurked in shadows of the glistening moon. Nothing had really changed, and yet everything was different. I remember. For that’s how it was for me when Jesus Christ came into my life as a college student some 38 years ago. Nothing had changed, and everything was different. It has been that way for me ever since. The Song of Christmas, the song of Salvation, the hope of Jesus the Messiah, once heard, was never forgotten. And like the song of the songbird, it can be heard in the darkest of nights, and on the coldest of mornings.
I have heard it myself in the waiting rooms of hospitals. I have sung it as I have walked before a hundred caskets”¦leaned my ear near to the beds of the dying to hear it whispered in the last breath of the faithful. It is why the trees, and lights; the eggnog and the parties are only a preparation. For perhaps you’ve noticed, as one preacher has put it, “the hurt of life does not become suspended, magically put on hold until the festive days are done.” And he is right. It is not only priests and preachers who live with these things. You too find yourself going from a divorced friend’s loneliness to another friend’s wedding; From hospital room to holiday party; From toasting champagne to tossing dirt on a coffin. And among the glow of Christmas lights are a score of grieving memories for each of us””grief and worries that trouble our hearts even while we are digesting the evening’s dinner. Yet that is why we gather for the Christmas Eucharist. To sing again the song that the Angels first taught our race to sing. The song that announced the Savior was born. Born in a stable; “ right between the mystery of the angels and manure of the cattle.” (J. B. Shepherd) In that very intersection where we so often live our lives. That is where the song was first sung to our race; and once the Angels had sung it, it is now ours to sing. It is the reason we will gather on Christmas Eve: singing the song of our Savior; experiencing anew the birth of his grace in our lives.
You can hear it again this Christmas season. Hear it in the words of the Gospel; in every poorly crafted, but faithful sermon. It vibrates in the strings of the harp; in reed and brass and flute. In the chords of carols and anthems. Once you have heard the melody, like the young song bird, you will never forget it. You may add your own arpeggios; your personal witness to his salvation. For each human voice is unique and like no other. God made it that way. Just as he also made your voice to sing the song that heaven composed for our human race””even when you sing with wounded voice. His birth and his cross are the only things that can keep us from singing again that old unmelodious buzzing noise of a fallen and sinful world. It may be your instinct to sing. But this song, composed in heaven, sung first on earth by angels to shepherds, lived out from crib to cross by Jesus Christ, shall be passed on person to person and sung again soon in a thousand thousand churches around the world; sung by voices all around: wounded or angelic: it is the same song they sing”¦The Song of Christmas.
–First penned to the Diocese of South Carolina in 2009 but well worth a rereading I think