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The Second Cantata

Christmas I. Which Christmas? Fresh from the battlefields of World War I, the Reverend Eric Milner-White returned to Cambridge to assume the deanship of King’s College in 1918. A son of privilege, Milner-White was educated at Harrow and had read history at King’s before studying for the Church of England ministry at Cuddesdon College. He became a priest in 1909 and had been a chaplain at King’s before entering the war as a chaplain to the 7th Infantry Division. He was with that division during the Third Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, engagements in which well over a half million men perished.

Ypres, Belgium, 1918

Believing that the liturgies then in use at King’s failed to satisfy the needs of the British who had gone through the Great War, Milner-White introduced a service of nine lessons and carols at the college chapel on Christmas Eve, 1918. Modeled on an earlier service put together by Edward White Benson (who later became Archbishop of Canterbury), Milner-White’s “festival” consisted of readings from Genesis, Isaiah, Luke, and Matthew and closed with the beginning of John’s gospel. Between the readings carols were performed by the choir and hymns sung by the congregation. Since 1918 the service has been performed yearly almost without interruption. It was first broadcast by the BBC in 1928 and in the years following it has become the most famous Christmas service in the English-speaking world. For many, Christmas can’t be welcomed without the sound of the solo choirboy beginning the service with “Once in Royal David’s City”, his voice

echoing across the chapel’s spectacular Gothic vaults. So, Reverend Milner-White’s response to a war in which ten million died and twenty-one million were wounded, a war in which the anointed Christian rulers of the British, the Russian, the German, and the Austro-Hungarian Empires and the monarchs of the kingdoms of Italy, Belgium, Romania, Portugal and Greece proudly reviewed troops sent to kill the soldiers and cow the subjects of other Christian monarchs, a war upheld by the prayers and blessed by the benedictions of archbishops and metropolitans and patriarchs, cardinals, priests and pastors, a war for which politicians schemed for two decades to bring about and over which they strategized so that they could blame the other side for beginning, a war governments sustained with lies and through which businessmen grew rich, and a war commemorated by monuments that proclaimed that they killed and

The procession at Lessons and Carols, King’s College, Cambridge University

died “for the greater glory of God”—Reverend Milner-White’s response this mountain of gore and misery was to have a service in Europe’s most extravagantly luxurious chapel, founded by an anointed king, enriched by his successors, supported by those same monarchs and clergy and politicians and businessmen who connived to begin the war, lied to prolong it and grew rich off its profits—all of that--and have a boy sing about “Once in David’s Royal City” in a red robe and white starched collar. Lenin’s response to the war was more honest. At least he knew that the carnage was done by Christendom and that the blood that soaked Europe’s fields was shed because the Christians wanted it shed—the rulers, the parliaments and congresses, the clergy, the

professors, the people themselves. And he knew that it was an act of self-defense to work for the destruction of such a society. So he schemed for its destruction and celebrated its collapse. The Second Cantata is a repudiation of the Service of Lessons and Carols and the Christianity to which it testifies: a Christianity that makes the incarnation of the Saviour of the World pretty, lovely, and tame; a Christianity that does not demand that kings abandon their thrones, that bishops cast off their miters and professors their cowls and people their pride—a Christianity that purposefully lies, serpent-like, whispering gently—like a solo boy--that the beginning of wisdom is not the fear of the Lord, a Christianity that coos “ye shall not surely die.” But we shall surely die. And there can be no wisdom unless there is fear first. Indeed, without fear there can be no Christmas. Apart from Mary and Joseph and the animals gathered at the manager, the shepherds were the first to hear the news of the Incarnation, and they were sore afraid. The Second Cantata is a repudiation of a Christmas without fear. It is a repudiation of the Christmas of Christendom, the Christmas of soft candlelight flickering off choir stalls, boys in starched collars, of gentle carols and elocuted lessons. But it is more than a repudiation of the Christendom of the Great War and its distant train; it is a repudiation of the Christmas of the America Empire and its High Holy Day, the Christmas of deceit and unhappiness. Unhappiness is the foundation of the Empire’s culture. So necessary is perpetual unhappiness to it that should Americans become happy their economy, and the culture they built upon it, would collapse.

Lighting the Christmas Tree at the New York Stock Exchange

The culture of pre-imperial America could be said to be founded upon religious beliefs or broadly humanistic principles and the greatest accomplishments of that culture, the abolition of slavery and the establishment of individual liberties as opposed to the rights of the state, can be seen to have grown out of those two intertwined sources. But the culture of the American Empire is a uniquely “America dream” (a phrase invented by James Truslow Adams in 1931), a dream characterized by happiness achieved through self-actualization and wealth. It is a dream to be pursued. Pursued but never caught. Using techniques of manipulation and persuasion honed by nearly a century of painstaking research, imperial Americans continually prod and push and goad each other into discontent. They tell each other that happiness can be caught by pursuit and is defined by possession. They will be happy, they believe, if they have “that:” the newer phone, the more stylish purse, the more prestigious degree, the leaner thighs, the bigger house, the more beautiful partner, the greater security. They pursue these things and grasp them by purchase. But to purchase they need money. Americans are said to love money but that is untrue. Americans do not love money, they need it because it is the mechanism through which they believe that they can possess happiness. It is happiness that they love, not money, but money is the ether in which the dream floats, it cannot exist with being sustained by money. And so they strive to have money because without it they cannot buy the thing that will make them happy. Yet, when they buy it, they again tell themselves (using those same mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion that prodded them to buy it) that it is not enough, there is some other it, something more, something else, something better; they believe the thing they now have inadequate and happiness lies in the next thing, the better thing, a new thing that requires

purchase. So the thing they pursued and bought, believing that in its possession lay happiness and the fulfillment of the dream, has only increased their discontent. And the Empire flourishes because of her peoples’ unhappiness; indeed the Empire requires her peoples’ unhappiness because should Americans find themselves content, should they

ever be happy, then the ocean of “its” made and marketed to them to bring them happiness—“its” of luxury, of sensuality, of weaponry, of immortality--will have lost their reason to exist. They will find no buyers. And the factories will be silenced and the markets shattered and the culture collapsed. The American Empire requires the unhappiness of her people; it is a civilization of the highest cunning that only flourishes as long as its people are deceived by dreams of happiness that must not be realized. Kronos-like, the American Empire feeds off its citizens, whispering to them “grasp the dream; ye shall not surely die.” And Imperial Christmas is the Saturnalia of that satanic vision. For months, for years, Americans connive before each Christmas how best to entice each other into buying each other’s wares, promising progressions to ever-greater happiness with each purchase. Markets are festooned. Goods are hawked. Carols are sung. Brasses sound and cymbals tinkle. The rush of money through the economy is carefully monitored and celebrated, or

mourned. And every year Americans buy, and decorate, and feast, and make merry, and reach to grab happiness. But with every purchase they find themselves no more happy than they were before. They are no more secure than they were previously. They are no nearer immortality than they were the year before. The Empire’s magi have brought vaporous gifts. When opened they smoke and vanish. Yet the mechanisms of the Empire kick-in again, the wheels of persuasion again grind out the message: “that ‘it’ disappointed, but this will surely not fail, happiness lies here. Buy it. Have it. Be happy.” And so every Christmas the darkness deepens, the wars more guilefully choreographed, the wares more deviously hawked. The people ever more miserable.

Cartier puts up their Christmas decorations; Fifth Avenue, New York City

The Christmas of Lessons and Carols is a mutilated and vapid Christmas worthy of Lenin’s disgust. The Christmas of the American Empire is a holiday of hucksters who sell deceit and spread unhappiness. Neither of these is the Christmas of the gospel. The Christmas of the gospel begins in terror, leads to rejoicing and ends in peace. That is the Christmas of the Second Cantata.

-------M Linton August, 2010

Which Christmas?  

An essay by Michael Linton on his Second Cantata.