I love Christmas music. Well, maybe it’s more the lyrics of Christmas music that has my affection. My conscience is not offended to hear songs about Santa Claus or reindeer or snowmen or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But, truth be told, my favorite Christmas songs capture, in some small measure, the unbelievable wonder of the incarnation – that the eternal Son of God became a man for us, sinful human beings.
Secular Christmas songs are filled with nostalgia. They recall childhood innocence: shopping with our parents, decorating our homes, exchanging gifts, eating special meals, enjoying the change in seasons, and so forth. As Barb and I were blessed with children we created our own traditions that are being continued to the next generation. The innocence mentioned above is something we all wish to guard for our children and grandchildren as long as possible, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
But according to the Bible, the Christmas story is not set in a context of innocence. The drama of Bethlehem’s manger is set on the dark stage of sin, death, demonic oppression, and aching anticipation. A cursory reading of the New Testament’s birth narratives (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2) makes this dark context abundantly clear. And the best Christmas carols also draw out these shadowy aspects of the Christmas story. Consider these well-known lyrics:
JOY TO THE WORLD
No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.
GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN
Remember, Christ, our Savior
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy!
HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Sins, sorrows, curse, Satan, alienation, death. While certainly not words of holiday cheer by any means, this is the context of the comfort and joy of the Christmas announcement. Bethlehem’s star is only visible against the black sky of sin and death.
Perhaps this Christmas, many of us are experiencing a darkness all our own. Perhaps it is a prolonged struggle with some besetting sin. Perhaps it is the pain of a strained or severed relationship. Perhaps it is the cold reality of a pandemic or unemployment or cancer or death. In these circumstances, if all we had were the cheery, nostalgic Christmas songs, we might be tempted to despise the holiday. Each time we heard those lyrics describing some serene Christmas setting, sheltered from the pains of life, we would be acutely aware that this song does not match our experience.
Thankfully, some Christmas songs are honest. They recognize the depths of our pain and, therefore, the depths of our joy when we hear the announcement of Christ’s advent. And thankfully, Scripture itself is also transparent about our world’s darkness. One of the original Christmas songs, Zechariah’s Benedictus, recognized this darkness, as well as the great light of God’s promised redemption through the incarnation. Zechariah’s prophetic words over his son John, who would be the first herald of this good news, are worth remembering as we prepare room for the light of Christ in our darkened hearts this Christmas:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Pastor Jim Colledge