One of my favorite parts about Christmas? The music. I love Christmas music. I love how it has this certain sound that labels it as such before you even hear the lyrics. It’s . . . bigger somehow. Fuller. Richer. Especially sacred Christmas music–I mean, I love “Rudolph” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” too, don’t get me wrong. But Christmas hymns are their own kind of beauty.
Which is why I laughed out loud when I learned the history behind our singing of them–a history that, fascinatingly enough, dates back to a rather famous heretic named Arius.
In the early centuries of the Church, there was a lot of debate, discussion, and outright war among Christians as they tried to wrap human minds around divine truth. I get it–we still have those same problems today. And one of the leading controversies centered around how it really worked that Jesus was both God and man.
Did He really exist eternally in heaven with God the Father? What does begotten mean? Was that baby born to Mary really God, or was it just the human nature born that day and the God-nature was imparted to Him later?
Trying to imagine GOD–the infinite, eternal, omnipotent God–being helpless chafes against how we otherwise understand Him. And this was a real stumbling block in those first centuries, when there was no single teaching on the matter.
Arius was the primary voice of a sect that believed Christ was not fully divine until His baptism, when the Spirit descended. That, they said, was the moment when He received a divine nature. Before that, He was just a man. They further believed that Jesus was not one with or equal to or co-eternal with the Father, but rather subordinate to Him like angels, a created being like we are.
At first, this argument was subtle and the differences more an interesting conversation than a cause for a rift. But it soon became a raging debate. Church leaders took sides. Politicians who had converted took sides. And as it was agreed that a council must be called to determine what the Church would teach, each side began their campaign to sway public opinion.
The Arians started writing songs. Hymns. Songs and hymns about how Jesus died as God but was not born as God. And guys, these songs were catchy. People started singing them as they went about their daily lives. Which meant that people were teaching that theology, whether they realized it or not. These songs were, quite simply, propaganda. And it was working.
So his opponents began doing the same. They began writing songs about how Jesus was born as God. Expounding on the miracles surrounding His birth. Emphasizing that He came to this earth as BOTH Son of God and Son of Mary.
Interesting side note–the man we now know as St. Nicholas, then Bishop of a town in modern day Turkey called Myra, was present at the council at which this was debated. There’s a story (whose truth can’t be verified) that he became so enraged at Arius’s argument that he actually struck him. Santa Claus hitting the anti-Christmas heretic. Too funny, right??
Anyway. Back to verifiable history. 😉
Up until this point in history (this debate raged in the early 300s until Arianism was eventually ruled a heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325), Christmas was celebrated as a holy day, but it was given no more special attention than days like His Baptism, Transfiguration, etc. The highest of holy days was Easter, 100%. THAT was the day and week that Christians around the world really gave special attention to. But in order to emphasize this now-official understanding that Christ was fully human AND fully God from the moment His earthly life began, the holy day of Christmas was elevated to a level nearly as important as Easter. More songs were written to try to overwrite the catchy little ditties the Arians were still singing, and which were still pulling people away from the truth. It slowly began to move from being a solemn day of reflection to one of celebration, a grand feast.
It wasn’t long after the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas died, and he was soon named a saint. Stories began to emerge about people he had helped anonymously, money he had give secretly. Miracles were still happening as people asked him to intercede in prayer for them. His feast day was established on December 6, and to honor his memory, people began leaving anonymous gifts for each other and calling them “from St. Nicholas.” As time wore on, the feast day of St. Nicholas and the holy celebration of Christmas began to intertwine, thanks to their proximity, in part. But given how ardent St. Nick was about Christ’s birth signaling the coming of God among man, I imagine he smiled down from heaven over that.
And I like to think, too, that the angelic choirs continue to sing their own glorious songs of Christmas as the world celebrates this miracle. The one they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will!” must have been pretty catchy too. Have you stopped to wonder how we know what they sang to those shepherds?
It’s because the shepherds remembered. The shepherds followed Him. The shepherds were part of that earliest church, and they told Luke about that night. They told him the song the angels sang. That song has always, since those earliest days, been memorialized in the liturgy of the Church. All my life, I’ve sung Christmas songs that remember those words. And now my soul gets to soar with them nearly every week of the year, because the “Gloria” is part of every mass in the Catholic church, other than during Advent and Lent, when it’s removed…so that it strikes anew with all its glory when it’s brought out again on Christmas and Easter.
So sing of Christmas, my friends. Sing we now as those who fought for truth in the Church’s teaching sang then. Sing to teach the people who He is. Sing to remind your own heart. Sing to remember the glory.