Note from the Editor: Enjoy this continually rich reflection from our archives. Merry Christmas!
The twelve days of Christmas are upon us at last! Advent, the church’s liturgical season of waiting and anticipation is over and the liturgical police can no longer write citations for early Christmas carol singing. For the past three and a half weeks, Christians following the liturgical calendar, have been singing hymns about waiting, expecting, anticipating the coming of Christ. We have been looking forward to when our hopes will be fulfilled by his arrival.
Advent is so much more than a countdown to Christmas. It is an important season at the beginning of the church year that reminds us we still wait in expectation and longing for the coming of Christ into this world in final victory.
In Advent, we sing hymns filled with expectation about what God will do to restore the imbalance in this world and to inaugurate our Lord’s good and gracious justice and mercy. Advent hymns refer to Jesus’ long ago birth, even as they look forward to Christ’s second coming. Some of my favorites include, “Come thou long expected Jesus” and “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” These lyrics, when read, put the action on God while we wait for God. Our words ask God to appear. “Come, disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” We wait on God because “God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of our life is Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all, the night and day are both alike.” We ask, we cry out, we pray, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” We are the audience, sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for God to appear.
But Christmas is the day where the action changes. Instead of asking God to come, instead of us waiting, we are bid to come. We get ready for action; “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, o come you good people, come to Bethlehem.” It is our turn to move. We participate, we leave our seats and come forward. “Come, let us behold him!” We are the ones spurred into action. There is no more waiting, that season is over. He is born! “Come let us adore him” because “He is true God of true God, light from the light eternal. Christ the Lord.” Theologically speaking, we are the ones pressed into action now!
“Joy to the world the Lord has come!” “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Really? The most wonderful? Joyful? Yes, it is Christmas, the time of “peace on earth and good will for all!” But really – peace on earth? In a day and age of nonstop worldwide news coverage, it isn’t difficult to question the validity of those lyrics when we hear and see news from war-torn Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, humanitarian aid needed; when we are reminded that it is the anniversary of a horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, never-mind the suffering and despair that occur in our own towns and cities.
For some reason, it is easy to get sentimental as Christmas approaches. Despite the slushy mess, there is an often secret thrill to realize that the chances for a white Christmas this year might be above normal if all the right weather conditions converge. We might actually have a white Christmas! There is a collective urge to romanticize things and we Christians have been doing it for ages. Our Christmas lyrics about the nativity are set to the tune of lullabies. Admittedly, there is a baby at center stage.
But many of the lyrics in our Christmas carols do not have the meat and teeth to them that our Advent hymns do. In an article widely circulated among my clergy friends and colleagues, the author criticizes Christmas hymns for not adhering better to biblical themes of redemption and restoration. The author writes:
Christmas hymns focus a great deal of attention on the details of the Christmas story, as is fitting. There are shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph and the baby in a manger, magi from the east. Sometimes the details are inaccurate (we don’t know there were three kings), Jesus did cry when He was a baby. And Christmas seems to elicit some of the worst and most sentimental poetry ever written.
There are places where I totally agree with the author. I wonder what disservice we do when we treat Christmas as the magical, mythical, monolithic moment that is the be all and end all of a romantic idealized notion instead of a holy event grounded in ordinary everyday human reality. Was everything really all calm, was it so silent? We really like to picture it this way. But, it is the nursery that is kept quiet. The delivery room, on the other hand, is bustling with activity and noise from those who attend the mother, and the laboring mother herself.
I am a fan of a program named “Call the Midwife,” a hit show in Britain. It portrays the experience of women, nuns, and young nurses in training, who served the local population of working-class families in 1950s West End, London. It makes today’s mothers cringe at the conditions women gave birth in only a half-century ago. If we are uncomfortable at what it was like for mothers and babies not delivered in a hospital within living memory, can you imagine what conditions were like in first century Palestine for a woman who spent the day on a donkey? Who ended up giving birth in a stable? There is no argument from me, we really do tend to sentimentalize Christmas – even in our hymns!
But there is a place where I want to push back at the author. The themes in our Christmas hymns are classic and timeless for Christians centering on love, joy, and peace. These are divine characteristics and evidence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit when produced in us. “Love came down at Christmas.” Maybe it is out of obedience, habit, tradition, or pleasing someone we love that we came to church to hear the story retold on Christmas Eve. Last night, part of what we did was remind ourselves that “he came to save us all from Satan’s power because we had gone astray.” John, the Evangelist, writes, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
We know that something is amiss with the world. Christmas Eve, oddly enough, confirms it. There is no pretending that life is some scene from Currier and Ives or a television special neatly presented in a two-hour cable channel format. Life is not perfect. And we cannot seem to fix it despite best intentions, efforts, and desires.
A part of the story of Christmas is that God is not happy with the way things are either. Thankfully, God is not interested in leaving us to our own devices. God has another way, a divine way, that challenges the human heart and mind to wake up to what God is trying to do in our midst.
How God announces this event gives us a hint that God’s idea of redemption is much bigger than what our ideas of salvation are all about. Angels, not just one, or two, but multitudes of the heavenly host appear (and I hate to break it to you, but those angels are not sweet little cherubs). “Angels from the realms of glory” are incredibly ferocious beings – so startling, so upsetting that whenever they show up, the first intelligible words out of their mouths are “Fear not!”
Who do they speak to? “The first Noel the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.” Shepherds. Who receives the divine birth announcement? A bunch of farm laborers with absolutely no status, no importance, and no influence on society. They are the invisible people. The basic equivalent of the undocumented workers we know today who gather outside of the local coffee joint in the early morning to find a day’s worth of labor from a contractor looking for extra help on the job site. “Shepherds, who watched their flock by night,” they get the first peek at the baby born to grow up and become the savior of the world. “Let every heart prepare him room,” “Christ our Savior was born this Christmas Day to save us all,” Who gets to hear this message given to the shepherds? All of humanity!
We need to be careful we do not narrow the focus too much on humanity and misunderstand what all else gets included in God’s salvific plan. Listen to the words: “Joy to the world!” “Heaven and nature sing!” “Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia” “Hark!” (there they are again) “angels bending near the earth” heralding God’s gracious birth. In nearly half of the Christmas hymns, there are angels. No wonder we have tamed them over the years. They are so present we barely remember that “shepherds quake at their sight” Listen to their words. They are sharing their own good news as much as giving directions to these farmhands in the field. Listen to what they are saying about this baby, “Glory to our newborn King!” Not just your king, humanity, he is our king too! “He is born and the king of even the angels.”
By the highest in heaven, he is adored! Yes, it is “peace on earth and good will to men, it is from Heaven’s gracious King.” “Join the triumphs of the skies” – all nations get up, rise and sing – “he is King of King and Lord of Lords and he shall reign forever!” If we really listen closely, even the rocks and flowers cry out. They know who their creator is! Nature is singing, too! “Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.”
For as much as angels and the earth rejoice, it is in human form that Christ comes. “Infant holy, infant lowly” good news! “God and sinners are reconciled!” Christ is born this day and we can “rejoice with heart and soul and voice.” “No more let sin and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Christ is human because God desires to be in relationship with his human creation, even though we strayed and are marked by sin and sorrow.
As far as the curse of our human sin goes, that is where Christ’s blessings flow. It is “in the dark streets shining the everlasting light” but it is not just for the little town of Bethlehem on one sacred holy night two millennia ago, it is for all of us.
In the darkest nights of our hurts, fears, rejections, that is where Christ longs to be. That is where Christ’s light goes.
For all eternity, “the hopes and fears of all the year are met” in the presence of Christ’s coming to earth. We do not have to do it alone. Nor does Christ do it alone. This is participatory – remember? These are the “tidings of comfort and joy.”
Comfort is not about making things easier. God’s comfort is about making us stronger, helping us endure the challenges we face – whatever the challenge may be. We participate with God to share the light he has brought into the world. We have received the light of God that shines in this world and we can go to those who keenly feel the darkness, who carry hurts and know anguish, but yet we sing, “Let nothing you dismay!”
The hard truth of this world is that life is not fair, we encounter difficult times, injustices occur all around us. The dark chapters of life’s journey can seem bleak and dismal, long and unending. And that is exactly why the light came into the world – to peer into the desperate darkness – so we can see beyond our own circumstances that seem lonely and suffocating.
As Christians, we bear the light and allow it to shine through us so it may be offered to a world hungry for reconciliation and peace. We offer it to one another when times get rough and the waiting gets long. Sometimes, it gets so very long and can feel very desperate. Our response as Christians is not to brush the wait and darkness aside with simplistic answers and sound bite advice. We are not supposed to solve the problems others face but step into the darkness with others, offering the light we possess that Christ offered us. That is the participation we are called to during Christmas. O come, all you faithful ones.
We are charged with going forward with the Christ light we are given. We will stand in the deep and the dark for others to see and know Christ’s light. We will stand together and share the light with one another. That is good and joyous news!
Christmas is where things change. We no longer wait. We are bid to come forth. We hear the news and it is news we cannot contain within our selves. We tell others, “Good Christian friends – Rejoice! With heart and soul and voice! Give heed to what we say,” “He rules the world with truth and grace. With the angels let us sing – Hallelujah to our king!”
Now it is our turn to sing even as the Christmas angels fall silent. “Repeat the sounding joy to the world – the Lord is come!” So, go friends, “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!”
 Peter Leithart, “How NT Wright Stole Christmas” accessed at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2012/12/22/how-nt-wright-stole-christmas/