Zampogna

Christmas carols are not always noted for their theological depth. On the whole, they’re not supposed to be. They are light-hearted reflections on the mystery of Christmas meant to be sung in popular settings.

There are, however, some Christmas carols that are deceptive in their simplicity. Underneath the contemplation of the poor baby in the cold, or the shepherds in the field, or the relative value of gold, frankincense and myrrh, sometimes we can find a profound theological reflectio

Alphonsus de Liguori

One of my very favorite carols fits this bill. It is a simple song, originally written in the Neapolitan dialect by a Roman Catholic bishop in the 18th century. Alphonsus de’ Liguori, the founder of the Roman Catholic order of the Redemptorists wrote this beautiful carol while staying at the Convent of the Consolation in southern Italy. The original lyrics were written in the Neapolitan dialect and the song was traditionally accompanied by the zampogna or bagpipe. The carol was rewritten by Pius IX in standard Italian.

The lyrics are simple and direct and yet very profound (translation from http://www.mamalisa.com/blog/tu-scendi-dalle-stelle-you-come-down-from-the-stars-an-italian-christmas-carol-with-2-videos/)

Tu scendi dalle stelle                        You come down from the stars   
O Re del Cielo                                        Oh King of Heavens,
E vieni in una grotta                          And you come in a cave
Al freddo al gelo                                  In the cold, in the frost.
E vieni in una grotta                          And you come in a cave
Al freddo al gelo.                                 In the cold, in the frost.

O  Bambino mio Divino                    Oh my Divine Baby
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,                    I see you trembling here,
O Dio Beato!                                          Oh Blessed God
Ah, quanto ti costò                            Ah, how much it cost you,
L’avermi amato.                                 Your loving me.
Ah, quanto ti costò                            Ah, how much it cost you,
L’avermi amato.                                 Your loving me.

A te che sei del mondo,                    For you, who are of all the world
Il creatore,                                            The creator,
Mancano panni e fuoco,                   No robes and fire,
O mio Signore.                                      Oh my Lord,
Mancano panni e fuoco,                   No robes and fire,
O mio Signore.                                     Oh my Lord.

Caro eletto pargoletto,                     Dear chosen one, little infant,
Quanto questa povertà                    This dire poverty,
Più mi innamora,                                Makes me love you more.
Giacchè ti fece amor                         Since Love made you
Povero ancora.                                   Poor now.
Giacchè ti fece amor                         Since Love made you
Povero ancora.                                   Poor now.

This is such a beautiful carol! I am always especially moved by the endings of the two refrains. “How much did it cost you to have loved me?” Love always has a price; that price is your whole self. And God, to show his incomprehensible love for us, became a human being and, in taking our full human nature, also took on the pain of death. Such a price! These simple and beautiful words put us directly into the presence of the pure love of God. He has given us the gift of himself and that gift cost him his life. How much do we spend on a gift for God?

Nativity Icon

We see this same truth expressed in the Icon of the Nativity. The truth is not expressed explicitly, but impresses itself on our hearts as we stand before the icon. The image has a strong vertical and a strong horizontal axis. These axes form a cross upon which the whole icon is based. And the bars cross directly over the child in the manger. This is not simply a representation of a poor human family; this is the proclamation that the suffering of the child in the cold cave is an anticipation of what he will suffer on the cross out of love for us.

The second refrain is similar: “How much does this poverty make me love you because love made you poor now.” God’s emptying of himself, as St. Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Philippians (2:6: who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.), is, again, the cost of love; God’s love for us is so expensive, that there is nothing left for comforts or wealth in this world. He has reduced himself to become a little baby shivering in the cold for love of us. If such profound love does not inspire a greater love in us day after day, how cold and mercenary have we become?

The carol also makes it clear that the little child that we are contemplating is, in fact, God himself. No superficial warm and fuzzies here! The sentiment is echoed at the end of the Kontakion for the Preparation for the Nativity: who is willing to be gazed upon as a young child who before the ages is God. The profoundest theology is always expressed in the simplest phrases!