By Barbara Falconer Newhall
It’s Advent, the traditional time of (quiet) preparation for Christmas. This Sunday in churches around the country, congregations will be reading the Magnificat — Mary’s song in praise of God and God’s generosity and justice. They’ll also be hearing that odd desert wanderer, John the Baptist, testify to the Light that was to come.
As for me, every year, as my Christmas tree twinkles its lights at my children, my husband, our next-door neighbors and the occasional UPS agent bringing packages – I like to think that, like John the Baptist, I’m witnessing to the Light that is on its way.
And as I haul the Christmas tree angel, the tinsel, the plastic Santa and the fake pine boughs up from the basement, part of me clings to the idea that in decorating my house for Christmas I am, along with Mary, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.
But it is a feeble witness. Lots of people put up Christmas trees each year – my daughter’s Jewish godmother, for one, the atheist I interviewed for my book, Wrestling with God, for another. You don’t have to be a Christian to do Christmas these days.
I string the tree lights and tinsel; the pine needles prickle the backs of my hands. I wrap the fake pine boughs around the stairway railing. I pull out the Christmas stockings my mother painstakingly needlepointed for her grandchildren when they were small.
And I listen to a CD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir belting out Christmas carols.
Not “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Not “White Christmas.” Not “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Not the watered-down stuff you hear at the mall these days.
But carols with some backbone: “Silent Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,”
Just as John the Baptist wasn’t afraid to speak truth to the cultural authorities of his time – the priests and the Levites – these carols speak their truth to me, to my household and to our surrounding culture:
“Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from Thy holy face.”
And, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity.”
Kids don’t sing these carols in school any more, and it’s the rare merchant who will play something so explicitly, viscerally Christian in their store.
But I’m free to play them in the privacy of my own home. My family likes the old carols; they sang them as kids. But they mostly ignore the lyrics.
The lyrics are too intense, my husband (who was reared by a couple of Berkeley agnostics) might complain. Too heavy, my upbeat, self-sufficient son would say. “Too much God stuff,” my daughter, a beginner Buddhist, might declare.
Too intense? Too heavy? Too much God?
Or too much to hope for?
Here are the Bible passages if you’d like to look them up: “And Mary said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . . ’” (Luke 1:46). Also, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him . . . ” (John 1:6)