“This star drew nigh to the northwest / O’er Bethlehem it took its rest / And there it did both pause and stay / Right o’er the place where Jesus lay. / Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel / Born is the King of Israel!”
I was looking up the words to the “The First Noel.” Like every kid in Catholic grammar school back in the 1950s, I knew the opening verses by heart. But the rest of the Christmas carol was lost to me.
A visit to the internet gave me the above verse. And as an extra bonus, the website I clicked on gave me the writer: Elvis Presley.
Hmmm. Doubting that the good Dominican nuns at Christ the King School in Yonkers, New York, would have us crooning Elvis, I dug a bit further.
“The First Noel” is actually an English hymn from as early as the late 18th or more likely early 19th century. “Noel” is an old English word for “Christmas.” At least that’s what another website told me. And how could it be wrong if it’s on the internet?
I got to thinking about “The First Noel” when I was driving to nowhere a few weeks before Christmas. I had the radio on as background noise to an FM station playing Christmas music 24/7.
They had just finished a threesome of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” “Snoopy’s Christmas” (the Red Baron cried out, “Merry Christmas, Mein Freund!”) and “All I Want for Christmas is You!”
I have no complaints with such stuff, just like I have no complaints whatsoever with the most overwrought Christmas lighting or even the endless refrain of “Happy Holidays!” Because no matter how hard they may try to deny it, it is still Christmas they are acknowledging. It is still the Nativity, still the manger, still the birth of the Savior.
Anyway, I’m driving and humming along to the Christmas silliness when Annie Lennox, of all people, comes on. She’s singing “The First Noel.”
And I thought of old days, old friends and of Christmases past.
I have been blessed in life to have known saints known only to God. They have been siblings, in-laws, relatives, friends, co-workers and strangers. They have taught me over and over again how to live the Faith, and I only wish I would listen better. I try to remember them all year round. I try to remember them particularly at Christmas.
One of my favorite Christmas stories came from a friend. He is a deacon and told the story of a Christmas Eve a few years back when he was asked to visit a hospital to distribute the Eucharist to the sick. It wasn’t an easy call to make, but he went.
One woman lay curled up in her bed, her voice a throaty bit of nothing. She waved him away when he offered her Communion. But when he asked if he could pray with her, she agreed, if he would say the prayers.
So he did, reciting the old traditional Catholic prayers. With each one, she joined in at the end, remembering the prayers of her childhood.
“How about the act of contrition?” he finally asked.
She said OK. And she remembered and joined in. He asked her once more about Communion. She said yes.
He came to visit her again the day after Christmas. But she had died.
Our faith is a pilgrim faith. Nowhere is there a stop sign on the living pilgrimage that says from this day on conversion is no longer possible. I think that’s the subtle message of every syrupy Christmas movie. It might just be the message behind even the silliest Christmas song. And it’s good to have friends to remind us of that.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!
Have a joyous, peaceful and prayerful Christmas!
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.