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.
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.