Within the last year I learned of a UU tradition of linking Christmas with dedicating infants and young children. Our theology, however diversely we articulate it, teaches us that the divine spark lives in all of us, and so the birth of each child is an opportunity to celebrate incarnation.
This past Sunday we celebrated a Rachel Sabbath, which focuses on improving maternal health and universal access to family planning. Our middle hymn, from Singing the Journey, was “For So the Children Come:”
The chorus began: Each night a child is born is a holy night: A time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping. Each night a child is born is a holy night.
Cool, I thought. This must be what some UU congregations sing at Christmas when they’re dedicating babies.
But then the narrator read the words to the first verse: For so the children come, and so they have been coming, always the same way they come, born of the seed of a man and a woman.
My heart fell into my stomach. Always the same way they come? Born of the seed of a man and a woman? How did these words that sound like a bumper sticker on a right-winger’s car find their way into a recently-published UU hymnal?
I recovered a bit during the second verse, but then came the third: Fathers and mothers–sitting beside their children’s cribs–feel glory in the sight of new life beginning.
Sure, this image doesn’t have to read as exclusively one father and one mother at each crib. But after the first verse’s jolt, it felt that way.
I spoke to our minister about it after the service, and she said that she’d noticed the language, too, as we were singing it.
In 2005 when Singing the Journey was published, one writer could say, without irony, “This is an impressive piece of writing even now, but especially for the time in which it was written. There isn’t a phrase or a sentence that seems out of date, even today.” He was speaking of the same Fahs text, this time used as a reading in the older Singing the Living Tradition hymnal.
Five years and four months later, some Fahs’ words are now outdated in congregations where children do not always come in the same way. Where members have wrestled painfully with the fact that it’s not as simple as “seed of man plus seed of woman.” Where our children our children often have two moms, or two dads, or one parent, or adopted parent, or foster parents, or live with their grandparents, etc.
The times they are a changing. How do we invest our resources in these changing times? In printed hymnals, expensive to produce, expensive to replace? Or in more flexible formats, ones that allow us to pivot, and move in a new direction when old words are hurtful rather than helpful?
I’m not against hymnals. Far from it. I love the comfort of familiar words sung again and again over time, gathering memories as we sing them. I guess I’m arguing for sustainability–and not just saving trees by not printing hymnals. We need to invest in media that reflect our living tradition, that support our singing along the journey into the future.