At mass Christmas day last year the Communion hymn was The First Noel, one of my top three favorite carols, even when it's sung by a churchful of tone-deaf Catholics, many of them still half-asleep from having been dragged from their beds at an ungodly early hour to watch the kids tear into their presents from Santa, or maybe I'm just projecting.
Probably augmented by relatives from out of town and CAPE Catholics like me, the lines to the wine and the wafers were moving at a leisurely pace, so we had time to sing all the verses.
Did you know The First Noel has at least five verses?
If I did, I'd forgotten it, and I was taken aback by the the third verse.
The reason I love The First Noel, besides the fact that it's such a pretty tune, is that the first noel that the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Yeah, I know, Catholics don’t use the King James version. That’s another one of our mistakes.
Ever since I was a kid Luke 2: 8-14 has been the beginning and the end of the Christmas story for me. I didn't need Linus to teach it to me, but he drove the point home. Jesus, the son of God, our Savior, was born a poor kid, in a stable, and the first people to hear the news were other poor people, shepherds, who, the nuns taught us, were the lowliest of the low on the economic ladder of first century Israel.
Nowdays this of symbolic importance to me, but when I was a kid I believed it was literally the case, that God actually choose the shepherds over everybody else to hear that first Noel---I wasn't an altar boy just for the status and the money. I was a believer with all my heart and in my heart I still feel this as if it is true.
How did the kings get in there? They have their own song. This is the shepherds' carol.
When the congregation warbled in eight different keys into the third verse, I was stunned…and outraged.
It was as if in a song about migrant workers making the best of their Christmas around a campfire at the edge of a vegetable field we suddenly switched to singing about how nice it was that some executives from Citigroup were spending part of their government-financed bonuses buying toys for Toys for Tots.
But, you know, there are many ways to be a Scrooge even if you love Christmas and one of them is to insist that everybody else love Christmas and keep it the way you do. The carol is what it is and has been what’s it been for centuries. The tidings of great joy were to all people. The shepherds heard the first Christmas carol but the wise men saw the same star at the same time. He came for kings and shepherds alike and had the same message for both and for all of us.
Love one another.
If we sing all the verses at mass tomorrow I’m joining right in as loud as I can on all five.
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