Throughout this strange December—strung with news of bombings and shootings; campaign bickerings; and quiet, solemn tragedies closer to home—hope burns on in the bright-edged realism of the Christmas carols.
Yes, at about the second week after Thanksgiving, the tunes begin to drone, no matter which just-released celebrity adaptation is being played. Saccharine versions of “Silent Night” and glitzy ones of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” fade in and out of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “White Christmas.” The Christmas vision of these other songs rings as hollow as department store deals and Hallmark holiday movies, where “meaningful” gifts are purchased in minutes, lifelong conflicts solved within hours. The radio’s harmonies clash dissonantly with the notes of our lives.
But to listen past the hymns’ familiar tunes and attend to their words is to hear descriptions of an utterly other Christmas vision—one which, like Advent, dwells in darkness as it awaits light. In the first days of December, we acknowledge that we are captive, in lonely exile, under Satan’s tyranny, beneath gloomy clouds of night, within death’s dark shadows, next-door the depths of hell; from here comes the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
And it is into this dark world that “the Light of light descendeth / from the realms of endless day” as all mortal flesh keeps silence.
Christmas points towards Easter as the Church points towards the Second Coming: there—just ahead! almost within sight!—is the Resurrection, the Judgment, the final Victory; and we rejoice in anticipation. But Christmas itself tells the story of God entering into our suffering, taking on our flesh, coming to dwell among us. The long-expected Jesus has “Come to earth to taste our sadness, / He whose glories knew no end”; Immanuel left “riches without number” to be “born within a cattle stall.”
In contrast to the sleigh-riding, secularized Santa stands this manger-cradled, crying Christ. One comes to grant our wishes; the other comes to break our bonds and heal our souls.
These twin themes of deliverance and healing run through so many of the carols. We are those “beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, / who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow.”
But “Hark! a voice from yonder manger, soft and sweet, doth entreat: / ‘Flee from woe and danger. Brethren, from all ills that grieve you, / you are freed; all you need I will surely give you.’” “Light and life to all He brings, ris’n with healing in His wings,” for He is “Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth . . . / dear Desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”
Or, as one of the old monkish hymns says so beautifully,
This flow’r, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God; from sin and death he saves us and lightens ev’ry load.
In a kind of advertisement-aided escapism from these realities of sin and death, the Christmas season stirs up our craving for perfection—often a rather shallow perfection, captured in exquisite Fontanini creches no less than Norman Rockwell paintings. But the stable, like many a family gathering, was a last-ditch effort, a hastily-pulled-together, patched-up event filled with sorrow and dirtiness and pain. And Jesus came to the stable, as He comes to each of us, because of these very things.
If this strange December reminds us of our bodies’ weakness, death’s nearness, sin’s bitterness, the Curse’s endurance—then this year of all years, we come prepared to Christmas. For at Christmas He comes to be God-with-us, finally to deliver and heal us, that we might be with Him.
This strange December, let us sing.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
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,
O tidings of comfort and joy.