November 30, 2021 Editor

Sing, Choirs of Angels

How a secular education in Christmas carols prepared the way for faith

By Sr. Carino Hodder, OP

December 9, 2020

WN: Quite lovely. Quite heartening.


O, little town of Bethlehem,” said my devoutly Sikh taxi driver. “How still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and . . .” (I chimed in from the back seat, providing the elusive word) – “dreamless – thank you – sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. That was my favorite one when I was a child.”

“You have a good memory,” I said.

“Oh yes, I still know the words to all the Christmas carols. My children think it’s hilarious. But we sang them every year at school, you see.”

I certainly did see. It was Advent of 2019 and we were idling in traffic in the middle of Birmingham, traveling out of the city from the rail station. Seeing I was a religious sister, my driver had wanted to tell me all about his memories of the Christmas carols he had learned at primary school. Within a couple of minutes we were singing along together – after “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we moved on to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night”while waiting for the lights to change. A disinterested observer may have found it a strange sight: a woman in a habit and a man in a turban, in a highly secular country, singing Christmas carols. But I was not at all surprised. After all, the childhood memories of my taxi driver – memories of being a non-Christian child immersed in the music of a faith that was not my own, and shaped by it in ways beyond my understanding – were my childhood memories too.

But thanks to those daily assemblies, I knew that sometime in spring the green blade riseth from the buried grain; the whole year round some benevolent yet unnamed being had the whole world in his impossibly large hands; and come December – perhaps three or four weeks before the Christmas holidays – there would be peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

The result of all this is that I am a member of a generation which, on the whole, professes no belief in Christianity, claims no affinity with it, has no time for its obscure and embarrassing doctrines – and yet nevertheless has an implausible and implausibly deep knowledge of it imparted largely through the songs and carols we were made to sing as children. I am almost certain that if you were to say to any of my staunchly godless former classmates, “Very God,” they would respond effortlessly, “Begotten, not created. O come, let us adore him,” with little notion that, in dredging up their memories of Christmas carols past, they were quoting the Nicene Creed.

In the Parable of the Sower, the seed of God’s word can only take root in rich soil; the rocky and the scorched earth cannot yield the abundant harvest, thirty- and sixty- and a hundred-fold, which the word promises. Would I have become rich soil if not for that music planted in my memory? Who would have considered my seven-year-old self, or indeed any of my classmates at that age, to be potentially fertile ground for the gospel? Our teachers, at least, showed no more interest in Christianity than we did. Whatever was going through their minds as they pressed play on the tape recorder I do not know, but I wonder if they weren’t unwittingly guided by the hand of divine Providence. The adult I am today, the adult who knows and believes, owes more than she can understand to the child who listened, sang, and remembered twenty years ago.

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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