The Christmas message in a non-Christmas song

Photo by Curtis Johnson

At the "Christmas with Cantus" concert the other night, one of the selections was not like the others.

It wasn't what you'd consider an ordinary piece of Christmas music. It never mentioned Bethlehem, or Mary and Joseph, or Jesus. It didn't even refer to snow or sleigh bells. But it evoked themes of Christmas all the same.

The song's title is "Would You Harbor Me?" and thanks to the crystalline way Cantus has of enunciating a text, every word by composer Ysaye Barnwell was clear.

"Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic, convict, or spy?"

The nine members of Cantus stood in a semicircle beneath the crucifix that hangs from the rafters in the chapel at the University of St. Thomas.

The song didn't last long, a little less than three minutes. But that was plenty of time to ponder the role that the dispossessed and persecuted play in the Christmas story, and to connect the dots that lead from there to today's politics. The song seemed to make a direct appeal to those who would use fear to generate votes.

"Would you harbor an exile or a refugee, a person living with AIDS?"

This Christmas season, governors are vowing to bar Syrian refugees from their states. Presidential candidates are talking about keeping Muslims out of the White House or even out of the country. With all that going on, this non-Christmas song becomes vividly appropriate. Depressingly appropriate.

All of the people mentioned in the song have been persecuted at one time or another, and some are being persecuted right now, somewhere around the globe. But in the St. Thomas chapel Friday night, the ones who seemed most present were the refugee, the exile, the Muslim.

Maybe they're not the demographic most likely to attend a Christmas concert in St. Paul in 2015. They were present all the same.

(Classical MPR is a media partner of Cantus.)