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Believing Our Songs at Christmas

The best spiritual practice you could perform is to spend the next year simply trying to live the implications of your favorite hymn. My friend, Edward Fudge, once said, “We all sing All To Jesus I Surrender, and we’re all lying when sing it.”

While Christians have spent centuries debating hymnody, one topic left off the table is whether we’re bothering to do what we sing. Edward’s words jammed into my spirit. Every beautiful once-in-a-while, I’ll catch myself in worship and swing back to the insight in Edward’s words. “Am I lying while I’m singing?”

Oftentimes I am.
You are too, I suspect.

O Holy Night

This Advent my ears have been ringing with the haunting words of French poet Placide Cappeau, who wrote O Holy Night. I can never decide which artist’s version I like best, but the lyrics should harass the heart of any Jesus follower. The first verse declares the hopeful truth that a sinful world was encountered by a Savior, a thrill of hope ripped through the world and our rightful response is to fall in worship. The second, and least sung verse from Cappeau, recounts the wise men’s search for the promised king in the promised land. But it’s the third verse that stings:

“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.”

If that doesn’t crash your expectations of Christmas nothing will.

In just a few days friends and family with exchange gifts. We will fly, train, and drive across the country to greet long seen loved one with warm embraces. Our reunions and gatherings have the potential to be as beautiful and touching as Hallmark tells us they should be. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day, we will raise candles, sing hymns, and be reminded that into this dark, corroding world a Savior has come.

For many of us, that’s just the word we need right now. Whether it be wars in places like Syria, the specter and fear of terrorism, the death of a loved one, derailed children, financial reversals, sickness, depression, or any of the thousand other dispiriting miseries which accompany life, a Savior is what we want and what we need.

But O Holy Night reveals to me that at Christmas we get more than a Savior for me. We get a Savior for all.

Not only in Advent do we await a Savior, at Christmas I sing that that Savior is not merely interested in my isolated, insulated salvation. Christmas ties my salvation to solidarity and kinship with the least on society’s totem pole – “the slave is our brother.”

I know this is unwelcomed “good news” in a culture which prides itself on the cultural myth that human flourishing is produced by individual people doing individually well for their individual selves and that all we need to do is get out of the way of individuals. While I’m quite certain that framework may work well for some things, it is does not work well for Jesus. The individual is not at the center of the Bible’s story and Jesus’ work and s/he never has been.

Truncated Gospel

This past weekend I heard a televangelist parade out the tired old trope of “insert your name in John 3:16.” For God so loved ____ that He sent….” I get it. He wanted to make Jesus’ salvation specific and personal. His motives were good. His method was bad. We don’t get to just change the words of scripture when it fits our needs or when we want to sharpen our arguments. And here, not only is it poor interpretation, it truncates what God is up to in the world.

John 3:16 unfolds the cosmic drama for which Jesus was born, that God loves “the world.” The individual is part of the world, but the individual is not an only child. We are all caught up together in an inescapable web of fellowship. Therefore, what Jesus has done for one of us He has done for all of us and what He has done for all of us He has done for each one of us. Christmas is cosmic and those who celebrate Christmas bear witness to a cosmic reordering of our values. Those cosmic values are reflected in living out the 59 “one another” passages encased in scripture – love, be devoted to, live in harmony with, have equal concern for, etc…one another, as well as Paul’s preamble to the oldest Christian hymn, which encourages us to “consider others better than ourselves (Phil. 2).”

No longer are the narrow confines of parochial and particular concerns our only burdens. The load carried by my brothers and sisters becomes mine. No longer are other’s joys restricted to them. We share them. This is the grand vision of the gospel. St. Paul says, Jesus is the firstborn of a “very large family (Romans 8).” As the messenger announced to Jesus’ unnerved parents, His name is Emmanuel, God with us.

So, how can we not care about our brothers and sisters in Aleppo or those living in poverty all around us. How can we ignore the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, those who live without justice, the unarmed dead, and still call Christmas Christmas? “The slave is our brother.” I suppose in a world accustomed to compartmentalization, we can, but we should at least have the integrity to not lie in our singing. If we don’t believe the slave is our brother, let’s not say he is.

So, this weekend my family will solidify our Christmas plans for the children of inmates in our city so they can receive Christmas gifts. We will deliver cookies to widows in our congregation. We will finalize plans to share our blessings with the children we support through World Vision and Compassion International and I will launch my own efforts to raise funds for the sweet, abandoned babies at Neema House in Africa. We decided that the good news of Jesus’ birth isn’t good news if it’s not good news for “the world.”

But please, don’t get it twisted. We’re not angels. We’re neither monks nor martyrs. We just want to sing O Holy Night…and mean it.

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