From Advent all the way through until Candlemas, our liturgy is enriched by carols. In the shopping frenzy Christmas carols are spewed out in shopping centres to such an extent they become ‘white noise.’ Carols are a very rich and beautiful fountain of prayer and now is a time to draw them into the intimacy of our private prayer and meditation. Carols in their unparalleled marriage of words and music, sounding such depths of memory and emotion, can open up depths of heart and mind. Carols are a source of joy.
Carols are a jewel in our crown of spiritual patrimony. Some have origins in the early church, whilst others have their beginnings in the folk songs of many nations. Carols are truly catholic. I often use carols in my own prayer and have encouraged others to do the same. Sometimes I direct penitents to the words of a carol as a penance. Many carols are lodged deep in the memory and enable an approach to prayer that can be part of any place and any moment
Christmas carols can, in the simplest language, express the most profound doctrines of our faith and invite us to dwell in them with love and reverence. Take, for example, lines from ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’:
‘No ear may hear his coming;
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls with receive him,
the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin,
And enter in;
Be born in us today.’
Here is a prayer for renewal in faith and discipleship, and invitation to self-examination and repentance. All this is made possible by the ‘wondrous gift’ that God ‘imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.’
Was there ever an expression of the doctrine of the incarnation as ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten?’ This and other carols, that have their origin in the early centuries of the Church, lead those who pray and praise with them to adoration.
‘O come let us adore him.’ This is a refrain often used in the presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the altar; adoration leads us to the point where understanding breaks down and the leading of the spirit begins. Adoration is thankfulness, joy and hope bound together with love. The carols are brimming over was adoration. The carols remind us to that in our worship and prayer we are one with the angelic host.
‘Christ by highest heaven adored! Christ the everlasting Lord!’ Carols when used prayerfully can open the opportunity for the Lord to renew us in joyful, generous faith and inspire us to ‘resemble thee in thy sweet humility.’
I am aware that in some quarters church people can become po-faced about carols in Advent and the mass carol crowds that turn out to be candlelit. There is, however, something deep and resilient about the Christian Christmas carol that no amount of tinsel can obscure. They are to be cherished prayerfully and sung joyfully as a divine gift, connecting so much of our life to God’s.