Franke: The Soaring Music of Christmas

December 17, 2021

by Mark Franke

The human race is at once an intellectual one and a sensory one. Both capabilities serve to enhance our appreciation of the world and the people around us. Our better natures take substance when these act in concert.

There is no better time to experience this than Christmas. Christmas sights, smells and sounds are unique to the season. 

I have young grandchildren and they don’t get hung up on the intellectual difficulties of understanding the doctrinal issues of an Incarnate God and a virgin birth. To them it’s simply Baby Jesus in the manger. It is only adults who try to rationalize this miracle into the tightly constrained and limited box that is the human mind. 

Whether child or adult, we all can sense the difference of the Christmas season as we progress through Advent in preparation for what is the most significant event in human history. The parament colors in our churches change to Advent blue. Decorations begin to appear in businesses, at home and along our streets. Lots of lights, sometimes to the extent of garishness, never cease to thrill the young child in each of us. Festivals of lights abound.

Yet it is the music that sets this season apart. Christmas music provides a sensory experience all its own. No, I’m not talking about “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer.” Whoever wrote that song has a lot of explaining to do. 

Think about the traditional Christmas carols. Of course the lyrics are unique to Christmas but even the music is set apart for this season. Are any of the traditional Christmas carol tunes used at other times during the year? Can you imagine the quiet chords of “Silent Night” being the background for a karaoke session at the neighborhood tavern?

No, Christmas music is written for a specific purpose by devout musicians under religious inspiration. Johan Sebastian Bach is arguably history’s greatest composer and not only for the sheer volume of his work. Listen to his oratorio for Christmas Day and you will experience the divine surrealism of heaven on earth. And George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah score simply cannot be heard without one’s spirit soaring with the song of the angels. And he wrote that in two weeks?

Listening to Christmas music is one thing and a very good thing at that. It is even better to experience it in a place for which this music was written to be performed. 

Envision the gothic cathedrals still found in many of our Indiana cities such as my hometown of Fort Wayne. Think of the soaring space rising upward to the vaulted ceilings and high, stained-glass windows filtering brilliant sunlight through prisms of color. Our medieval forebears, many of whom dedicated generations of their labor and craftsmanship to build these monuments to God, knew exactly what they were doing. Read Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” trilogy to get an insight to the faith of these people, serf and peasant and lord all united in service to God. 

OK, I realize that human nature is what it is, so the motivations of some may not have been pure. Yet look at what they produced. I have toured some amazing churches in Europe, built over centuries and rebuilt as needed after each war. Even in a now secularized continent, the native citizens are proud of their cathedrals and reverential toward them.

Unfortunately, we all know what Christmas has become. Merry Christmas has given way to Happy Holidays so as not to offend non-Christians and secularists (although they all line up to get a paid holiday off work every Dec. 25). The 12 days of Christmas, Dec. 25 through Jan. 5, have been replaced with a pre-Christmas retail sales period which seems to start earlier and earlier each year. It is simply appalling how quickly Christmas and winter-season commercials are replaced with spring-oriented ones. Could Valentine’s Day advertising please not start until at least the day after Epiphany?

Still, the faithful will survive this secularization of the most holy day of our calendar. It remains an official federal holiday with the name Christmas Day at least until our new political masters get around to purging it with something woke acceptable. I await Joe Biden’s Christmas message to the nation, but perhaps I would be better served to tune in to Queen Elizabeth’s message to her British subjects. That’s a sad commentary about “one nation under God.”  

Santa Clauses, evergreen trees and LED lights notwithstanding, Christmas is in its essence a religious observation of an event that changed the world. It is a day when transcendence and imminence meet — when eternity and time coincide. Human intellect and emotion are unable to fully absorb this. That leaves only belief, which is enough. Just ask a young child.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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