If you’ve rushed around to send Christmas cards to family and friends, consider this: In the 1920s through the early 1950s, the Burt family of Michigan not only sent cards but newly composed Christmas carols every year to loved ones. The tradition was started by the Rev. Bates Gilbert Burt, an Episcopalian minister, and continued by his son, Alfred Shaddick Burt. Alfred Burt’s story can be found here.
I know only one of the Alfred Burt carols, a sweet little tune called “Some Children See Him,” and I’m blessed to be able to sing it at my church’s Christmas Eve service this year (a long time ago in a galaxy far away, I studied music at a conservatory). The most popular version on YouTube is one by James Taylor, and while he’s not my favorite artist, the carol itself is worth a listen.
The song expresses in simple terms the universal message of love that the mystery of Christmas brings.
As to the mystery…my son and I had a discussion of preachers this past year, and he pointed out something that stayed with me. To paraphrase, he said that many modern preachers can spend their entire liturgical year quite comfortable with each gosepl or epistle they are called on to illuminate, focusing on the exhortations to live better lives or the parables about loving one’s neighbor. But come Christmas and Easter, they’re confronted with the two huge miracles of the church. To explain and uplift based on these miraculous tales takes true faith that shines through to the most skeptical. Sure, at Christmas and Easter, you can preach on the message of love, as well. I would argue one should. But you also have the enormous mystery of God’s love incarnate. Even I stumble over communicating that story well, and I’m a storyteller by profession.
This year, as in some years past, my husband’s family will gather at my house. A nephew will fly in from Texas. A sister-in-law will drive in from Cleveland. Another from North Carolina, and another from Connecticut along with my father-in-law. My oldest son, meanwhile, will fly here from Europe. And my daughter and her boyfriend will drive up from DC while my daughter-in-law and two grandchilren will come from Wichita, while their dad, our younger son, is deployed again.
This diverse group is composed of agnostics, atheists, Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians and maybe a Deist, too. Whatever their personal beliefs or traditions, most will come to Christmas Eve service at our Episcopalian church. When they’ve attended in the past, my Jewish brother-in-law complimented the rector on his preaching, which he likened to a rabbi’s approach, praise our rector cherished. A Baptist in the crew warned our sister-in-law of the same faith that they “serve real wine at communion,” so she’d not be surprised. When we gather for meals during the visit, we sometimes remember to say grace, and on occasion, it will be a line I remember well from all the days I used to substitute in a synagogue choir: Sh’ma, Yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod.
This great stew of love and faith that descends on our house at this time is, perhaps, a part of the Christmas miracle itself. As David Bentley Hart argues in his excellent book Atheist Delusions, the ancient world was a stew of barbarity into which Jesus brought a message of love to a degree not experienced or understood before. That message has been accepted and preached by many since then (sometimes, yes, imperfectly) and is now a shared part of most people’s life experiences whether Christian or not. Its radicalness is hard to appreciate because most of us don’t live in a savage world. So, yes, Christmas is a miracle feast. But part of that miracle is the huge change that began on that still, quiet night. That’s why my family, regardless of their faith, can enjoy and understand its message, summed up in the end of the Burt carol I’ll happily sing:
So lay aside each earthly thing,
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant king
‘Tis love that’s born tonight.
Merry Christmas, Red Staters!