Friday, December 04, 2009

Rudolph, the Red-Nose Savior

About sixteen years ago, when I was teaching English at Cradle of Life Christian School in Haiti, a co-worker of mine regaled us one lunchtime with the frustrations of that morning's lesson.

Ruth, who like me was a first-year teacher at the school, had been going over classic Christmas carols with her students and trying to get them to appreciate the wealth of doctrine contained in their lyrics, especially once you get past the first verse. "O Come Let Us Adore Him," for instance, talks about the divine nature of Christ, the virgin birth, and Christ's eternal pre-existence. It sounded like a compelling and thought-provoking lesson, I thought.

Alas, Ruth taught middle school students.

"Look at this line," she had told them as they stared blankly at the lyrics sheet to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." "'Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.' What do you think he's talking about?"

One almost imagines the angels leaning in with anticipation. Spiritual regeneration, the "born again" experience, is foundational to Christianity. Would the students see the connection?

"Reincarnation?" suggested one particularly penetrating student, and a thousand angels wept.

The other middle school teachers and I listened sympathetically. We taught these kids too. I'd had to explain something on the order of thirty-seven times to Georges al Reyes that a sentence that goes on for 93 words counts as a run-on sentence. He had remedied the problem by writing one even longer.

"Maybe," I suggested, "you're setting your sights too high. Why not pick a Christmas carol they're more familiar with? Something like 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'"

"Really," said Ruth. She was already amused, and probably wondering where I could take this impromptu suggestion. I'm sure she knew I hadn't thought it out any further than picking a title at random.

"Well, you have to understand that it's written in code," I said as I stalled for time. "It was written at a time of intense persecution."

"Go on," she said.

And go on I did. I have a bachelor of arts in English language and literature, but I'm pretty sure that on that day, I earned a B.S. as well. The reindeer in the opening lines, I argued, clearly represent the saints and other heroes of the faith. But the writer reminds us that they are not the cause celebre, as he moves on to ask if we remember that "most famous reindeer of all." This is an oblique reference to the heart and soul of Christianity, he reminds us. Do we remember?

The song goes on to share how Jesus (Rudolph) was tormented and reviled, persecuted by his fellows, as prophesied in Isaiah 53 (being denied his rightful place in the reindeer games), but then God (Santa, who also is artistically depicted as an old man with a beard) came and asked, "Rudolph, with your nose so bright" -- my voice rose in crescendo, and students at nearby tables turned to see what I was up to now -- "won't you guide us through the spiritual fog that has enveloped the world?" After this, Jesus (Rudolph) sees his vindication as the reindeer love him, and he goes down in history.

"Interesting," Ruth said when I had finished, her mood lifted by the bizarre conversation we had all had. "And what do you make of 'Frosty the Snowman?'"

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Minx McCloud said...

You crack me up.

And moving on, who is the Grinch? Herod perhaps?

"You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch ..."

I think you've just invented a new game for the post-Christmas dinner lag.

That's when you're all looking at each other and the dissected turkey in the middle of the table. You're all trying to think of something that has not already been said, and suddenly somone pipes up, "Oh, I know! Let's analyze Christmas songs."

And remember, we're talking SONGS, not carols. Everyone knows who Jesus is in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." (Of course, we could discuss who the gentlemen are, I suppose.)

David Learn said...

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is a deceptively merry song about divine judgment. It reminds to watch out and stay on our best behavior, because Santa (God) is always watching ("He sees you when you're sleeping, / He knows when you're awake") and knows the wicked from the righteous ("He knows if you've been bad or good"), and he will judge the world ("So be good for goodness' sake").

The song is frightening, but open-ended; there's time for naughty children to repent. Compare that to "Here Comes Santa Claus," where the imminence of Santa's (Christ's) arrival ("Santa Claus comes tonight") is offset by a reassurance that there's nothing to worry about ("Santa knows that we're all God's children / And that makes everything right"). That might be too ecumenical for some, however.

The most unsettling one I can think of is "Here We Come A'Wassailing," which depicts angry hordes roaming the post-Apocalyptic wasteland and threatening wholesale destruction unless they get food. As the Scripture declares, :Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "Two pounds of wheat for a day's wages, and six pounds of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"