One of the things I love about this time of year is the music. There is such a wealth of wonderful Christmas carols, some old, some contemporary: how to pick a favourite? The carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one that never fails to move me. Its haunting melody captures, I believe, the sense of longing felt by the Jewish people down through the centuries as they looked for their promised messiah. Christians believe that promise was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the words of another carol, “The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee [Jesus] tonight,” ( O Little Town of Bethlehem).
I still vividly recall the words to a carol I sang as a child with my school choir at the Christmas choir festival held annually in one of the big churches in my home town:
Winds through the olive trees softly did blow
round little Bethlehem long, long ago.
Sheep on the hillsides lay white as the snow;
Christ came to Bethlehem, long, long ago.
In a sign of how much things have changed in the multicultural West: At their annual ‘December’ concert this year, 285 schoolchildren from the French public schools in Canada’s capital Ottawa and the surrounding area sang a piece arranged especially for them: Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna, which translates into English as ‘The Full Moon Rose over Us’, a number based on a traditional Arabic song purportedly sung to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad upon his arrival in Medina after leaving Mecca. Robert Filion, the choir’s director, said that he had wanted to do a Muslim-inspired piece for some time, but that he had had difficulty finding anything. (I can just imagine, given Islam’s ambivalence towards the performance of music.)
Coming upon this ancient Islamic piece known as Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna, Filion commissioned Laura Hawley to compose a new arrangement. To make certain that what they were undertaking wouldn’t cause offense, Filion and Hawley consulted with the local imams, who obviously gave their project a ‘thumbs up’. And so, in the name of inclusiveness, school children performed a Muslim-inspired song at their December concert. The song has been very well-received–getting more than 600,000 views on YouTube–and is slated to be performed for a second time at an upcoming Christmas concert in one of Ottawa’s churches. Many who heard the piece took it to be a song of welcome to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.
A Muslim-inspired song at a multicultural school concert is one thing, but at a church Christmas concert? Recognizing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, even in song, presents a dilemma to those churchgoers who will be present at the concert. The Jesus of the Qur’an is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels. Muslims revere Jesus, too, but only as a prophet, one prophet in a line of 28 prophets, a prophet who was superseded by their Prophet Muhammad.
The Jesus we Christians celebrate, on the other hand, is called Emmanuel, a Hebrew word which translates as ‘God is with us’. The writers of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was not merely a prophet, but God in human form. In Jesus the Christ, God personally launched a rescue mission to save His fallen creation. This is the Jesus we sing about at Christmas time. God taking on human flesh: That’s amazing. Maybe that’s why there’s so much amazing Christmas music!