Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Some Thoughts on Christmas Carols

Warning, this post may offend your Christmas sensibilities!

Among the Christmas songs we've been playing in our house since Thanksgiving, one of them caught my particular attention. The song, recorded by Randy Travis, presents a rather different picture than what we have come to imagine of that night in Bethlehem:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman crying
In the alleyway that night
On the streets of David's town
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
with tears upon her face
had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
with every beat of her beautiful heart
it was a labor of love.

Noble Joseph by her side
calloused hands and weary eyes
No midwives to be found
on the streets of David's town
in the middle of the night
so he held her and he prayed
shafts of moonlight on his face
but the baby in her womb
he was the maker of the moon
he was the author of the faith
that can make the mountains move

I like this song because I think it more accurately reflects the events of that night. While the song "Silent Night" has become beloved by many, I seriously question whether that night was in fact so silent and whether all was really calm and bright. And despite what another favorite song tells us, did the newborn baby Jesus really not cry? Maybe, but I suspect he behaved much like any other baby, complete with crying and all.

I'm not saying we shouldn't sing all these other classic Christmas songs. I just think that in singing them we must remember that they skew our view of the Christmas event. God entered the world in the most unexpected of ways. The birth of Jesus was full of scandal (a child conceived out of wedlock--do we forget that part, or have we become numbed to the cultural shame this would have brought?) and took place in the most humble of circumstances. We want to picture the scene in such heavenly terms, probably because we have a hard time imagining God coming to earth among such dirty, ordinary conditions. The Scriptures don't give us much detail concerning the process of the birth, but I think it probably wasn't any different than any other human birth. While remaining God he became a complete human and dealt with the realities of ordinary human life. I don't think that God arranged for his birth to be a uniquely beautiful, blissful event. He didn't book him a room at the local birthing center or the Bethlehem regional hospital. Instead he chose to enter the world through the ordinary labor pains of a young woman in a dirty stable full of farm animals. And he did this because he wanted to experience our reality and identify himself with us. Yes, it was a unique event, unparalleled in the history of humanity. It was a divine moment. But it was also a very human moment. This is the amazing reality about Jesus that we must always keep in proper tension: that he was both fully God AND fully human.

I for one find it difficult to sing "Silent Night" wholeheartedly anymore. (I told you I might offend your Christmas sensibilities.) While a lovely song in its own way, I just don't find it to capture adequately the significance of the Christmas event. Of all the Christmas songs that have been written over the centuries, I find it interesting that some of the most popular present the most idyllic view of Jesus' birth. It's as if we feel a need to picture it this way. But I think we do well to stop and reflect on the fact that God's entry into our world came in the most radically humble of conditions. Otherwise we risk creating a Jesus who wasn't really human like we are.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Am I the lost son?

When reading the story of the lost or prodigal son, I have always struggled to really identify with the lost son. While I acknowledge that I sin and fall short of God's glory, nonetheless I cannot picture myself as the son in the story because I cannot relate to the description of his experience. I have not strayed far from home. I have not indulged in wild living. To quote the words of Henri Nouwen:

"It is strange to say this, but, deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn't have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself."

It may seem strange to speak of envying sinful behavior. But for one who hasn't lived a wild life, sometimes I cannot appreciate the depth of God's love because I don't really appreciate the fullness of his forgiveness. As Jesus said to the Pharisee in Luke 7, "He who has been forgiven little, loves little." As long as I look at the lost son and see someone completely foreign to my experience, I cannot enter into the story and appreciate the magnitude of either his lostness or the love that welcomes him home.

Reading Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son opened my eyes to this story in a new way. Nouwen points out that a homecoming such as the one in the story must be proceeded by a "home-leaving." He reminds me that I have a home in the loving embrace of my heavenly Father. But I become the lost son if I choose to leave this home and seek my identity and my home anywhere else. "Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one," writes Nouwen. I can relate to this, because I know that I have done and still do this. How or where I seek this other "home" isn't really the issue. The issue is that I become the lost son because I reject that which God offers and seek to replace it with something, anything, that the world offers. Instead of hearing God's voice which calls me his beloved son, I choose to listen to the voices that tell me I must prove my worth. I must earn the right to be called his son. My fear of rejection, of being unloved and unwelcome, drive me further and further from my one true home. As Nouwen says:

"I am so afraid of being disliked, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father's home and choose to dwell in a 'distant country'."

As I read this I recognized the extent to which I am, indeed, the lost son. I may not have thrown away my father's inheritance in wild living, but nevertheless I have chosen many times to reject it or to exchange it for the worthless garbage of this world. And the world has given me nothing lasting in return. Having understood better that I have indeed left home, like the lost son, I can now better appreciate the process of his return. I hope to share some thoughts on that in the near future.