“Christmas is for the Dying”


Recently I was reading a blog about which Christmas Carol has the best theology (http://blog.livingstonesreno.com).  The author had previously named the three most “theologically misleading” Christmas Carols, in his opinion, to be (1) “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – what he described as “the Diet Coke of Christmas carols – bad taste, zero substance,” (2) “We Three Kings”  –  asking, “Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus?” and (3) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – explaining, “I’m not urging you to read like a legal treatise, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth… Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth…He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world… (and) Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns.  Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light,” but not until then.  “Away in a Manger” got “honorable mention” in this category – as the blogger explained, “we can’t downplay Christ’s humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.”

The author then came up with 16 contenders for the title of what he called “the most theologically rich” Christmas Carol of them all:

Joy to the World
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Silent Night
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
O Come All Ye Faithful
Go Tell It On the Mountain
God Rest Ye  Merry Gentleman
Angels We Have Heard on High
What Child is This?
Mary Did You Know?
O Holy Night                                                                                                                                       
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel

When he was done examining the theology of each of these Christmas Carols, the author of this blog moved four into the “Finals”

O Holy Night –

It’s uncontested redemption line Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth” is chillingly profound.”                                                                                                                                          

Mary Did You Know?  –

This upstart Christmas carol written in 1984 demonstrates theological solidity with its theme of rhetorically asking Mary if she was aware of the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, with the intensity of the song’s Christology building and building throughout.”                                                                                                                        

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

A Christmas Carol of “Solid Christology, featuring the highlight “Hail the incarnate deity.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel –

An onslaught of Christological foreshadowings from the Old Testament.”

And then he narrowed it to just two – “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – for a theological showdown before naming “O Holy Night” as his grand champion.  Personally, I would have gone with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I am struck by the theological depth of this Christmas Carol every time we sing it.

Hark the herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored. Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

As someone was overheard to remark after singing this carol, “There’s a lot of important stuff in there!”  But the theological “thickness” of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was powerfully brought to my attention recently as I prepared for our December “Faiths in Conversation” program with our Jewish and Muslim friends.  The topic was “Death and Dying,” not so much about what we believe happens to us when we die, our specific convictions about the afterlife, but rather about what are the traditions and practices of our particular communities of faith when someone dies?  Of course, that’s a rather artificial distinction since our funeral traditions and burial practices are rooted in our convictions and beliefs, and so in order to talk about our funerals Christians I had to begin by talking about what we believe as Christians that Jesus Christ has done about death, and that brought “Hark! The Herald Angels” immediately to my mind and heart –

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings
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
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Several years ago there was a death in author Madeleine L’Engle’s family at Christmastime.   She wrote about in in her book The Irrational Season (Crossroad 1979).  The funeral for Madeleine’s loved one was on the morning of Christmas Eve, and when the service was over the family gathered in the front room of Madeleine’s home emotionally and physically spent, and the question that was hanging in the air finally got posed out loud: “What about Christmas?”  They were torn. “Is it proper (even possible) to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?”  they wondered.  And finally Madeleine spoke up – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all, yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all; yes!”  (24)

I hope that you will take a look at what I said last Monday night at the Interfaith Conversation about what we who are Christians do when someone we love dies.  I’ve posted it in the “Sermons” section of the church webpage in the “Worship” area (“Faiths in Conversation”).  It was a conscious attempt to explain what Madeleine meant when she said that Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the family funeral “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all… If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all!”

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”


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