Noel, noel, Barney’s the King of Israel

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Midnight Mass

Christmas 2018

I’ve got what might be a new word for you this evening. The word is mondegreen. Anyone heard that word before? A mondegreen is a mishearing or a misinterpretation of a phrase, especially from a poem or a song lyric. The word mondegreen itself was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, following the experience of mishearing the Scots ballad, The Bonny Earl o’ Moray.  The poem song contains the following four lines:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

And laid him on the green.

It’s very easy to mishear the last line of the song to imagine that the Earl o’ Moray has been slain with someone called. Lady Mondegreen. Do you get the idea?

Perhaps the best example of mondegreens in classic comedy is the Two Ronnies sketch, Four Candles. You remember the one? Ronnie Corbett asks for ‘four candles’ etc…

In church we’re also susceptible to mondegreen mistakes. There’s a hymn by Fanny Crosby entitled Keep Thou My Way, which includes the line “Kept by thy tender care, gladly the cross I’d bear.” It’s not too difficult to imagine a cross-eyed bear called Glady, being kept by God’s tender care.

Children too are good at spotting these, often through not understanding the words. In the Church of England Communion service, we introduce the words of the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “As our Saviour taught us, so we pray.” More than one child has gone home wondering why we have a Saviour who is a tortoise.

There are some pretty good Christmas mondegreens as well.

It’s not impossible to hear a congregation lustily singing, Noel, noel, noel, noel, Barney’s the king of Israel. Some people claim to have heard Get dressed, ye married gentlemen or even Arrest these merry gentlemen. And apparently, in one of the bitterest of winters in North East England in the 1960’s, children thought it entirely plausible that the lovely carol Silent Night pictured the Virgin and Child surrounded by Sleet and Heavenly Peas.

The reason why we find these mondegreens amusing is because the words of these carols have penetrated our consciousness very deeply. Often we don’t realise how deep they’ve gone. A common experience for me will perhaps highlight the depth.

One of the tasks of most Christian ministers, myself included, is to take services in residential and nursing homes. We hold services throughout the year as well as at Christmas. Many of the people we minister to in these residential homes have some form of dementia and often it is hard to communicate with them or to understand how they are engaging with what can be quite a wordy service. It is consequently often astonishing and humbling to reach the point where we say the Lord’s Prayer together or we sing a popular Christmas carol to find previously confused and rambling people click into saying or singing perfectly the prayer or the carol.

Such deep familiarity with the words of much-loved prayers and often-sung carols is not the same – necessarily – as believing the words of the songs or trusting in the power of prayer. But it does indicate that these words are familiar and that, in some way, they form the background noise of Christian culture that has shaped the English identity. Indeed, one theologian has described the singing of hymns as the most characteristic and defining aspect of English Christianity. Perhaps more than any other part of the Christian world, English Christians learn what they believe neither primarily from their Bibles, nor chiefly from listening to sermons, but from the words we sing.

But that has now changed. The words many of us learnt as children, words of Christmas carols, alongside the words of familiar prayers, are now words unfamiliar to most people younger than myself. Gone from the popular consciousness are the words that embedded themselves in our cultural psyche and spiritual awareness, however vague that spiritual awareness was. The words of prayers are not taught and known; the carols, if they are remembered at all, are mixed in with Santa Claus is coming to town and Jingle Bells.

The result of all of this is that I think we live in a mondegreen culture, where – come Christmas, indeed throughout the year – we rehearse again the familiar words of the carols and we tell again the story of Christmas – but the message that is heard and the message that is delivered are quite different. Christians may bemoan the forgetfulness of our culture, but the truth is that what we say and what others hear are all too easily vastly different things. We live in a post-Christian culture where the birth of Jesus Christ, the story of Father Christmas and the need simply to cheer ourselves up in the deep mid-winter all seem to have been thrown into the same melting pot.

So if we do live in a mondegreen society, where what we say and what is heard are not the same, then increasingly I believe that Christians are going to have to be more careful, more clear and more explicit about their faith and the message. Christian faith cannot be assumed in our society any longer, any more can a common understanding of the message of Christmas. That poses a challenge, not to those of us who are professional Christians as it were, but to each and every person who at some level considers themselves to be a Christian. So whether you’re a once a year worshipper or are here every Sunday, whether you’re have a strong awareness of God in your life or whether God seems remote from your experience, we’re all facing this challenge.

And the challenge is to become better informed, and more aware, of the significance of Christian faith for contemporary living. We’re all invited to deepen our relationship with and awareness of God and to allow the values and principles to inform and shape the way we live. It’s all too easy for us to think that ‘the church’ should speak out more clearly, as though it were the speaking that really influenced people, especially as I’ve said, we live in a mondegreen culture and what is said and what is heard are two different things. What we really need is not bishops appearing on the TV news, we need ordinary, everyday Christians living out the teaching and example of Jesus in our daily lives, so that instead of getting confused messages about what it is that Christians stand for, or even worse getting it filtered through the unreliable media. Sisters and brothers, ‘the church’ is not about bishops and broadcasters, it’s about you and me knowing God, living out the life that Jesus taught us to live, sharing his love, his compassion, his justice, his forgiveness in all the complexities of our daily life. St John tells us this about Christmas, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It falls us you and me now to allow the Word of God to be made flesh in our daily living. Like a dog, faith is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.

But we need to get the most fundamental truth of all clearly in our hearts. It’s a truth we all forget all too easily. And it’s this. If Christmas tells us anything, if God becoming human means anything it means this: that before the question of whether we believe in God comes to the fore, before the matter of what we can do for God comes to the top of the agenda, something else comes first. And that is this: that God believes in us. He believes in you; he believes in me; he believes in humanity. In coming among us as a human being, God gives humanity a vote of confidence, without ever diminishing the reality of the dark side of humanity. God says to you and me that we’re worth persisting with, that he’s not going to give up on us, and that his love is so vast for us that he will not only enter the world as a lovely baby but leave it on a blood-soaked cross. That’s how much we’re worth to him.

And I think, when we allow God’s extraordinary love for us to really get beyond the rather academic question of whether we believe in him or not, when we experience God’s worth for us, then that can change you and me and it can change the church. The world needs to know the value God places on it; individuals need to know the value God places on them; you need to know the value God places on you. And when you and I know that, truly know that, then our mondegreen culture will once more start to see and experience not a confused message about what Christians stand for, but a clear and unequivocal message that people matter to God. And what a difference that could made in 2019.