I love Christmas music. I confess that I started listening to my favorite Christmas albums in October . . . okay, late September. I love all kinds of Christmas music, both sacred and secular. My conscience is not offended to hear songs about Santa Claus or reindeer or snowmen or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. To be sure, my favorite Christmas songs capture, in some small measure, the wonder of the Incarnation—-that the eternal Son of God became a man “for us men and for our salvation,” as the creed says (recently, I’ve been enjoying this one and this one). But I admit that I love the festivity of the entire Christmas season, including some of its secular trappings.
I’m attracted to this festivity, at least in part, because it reminds me of childhood. I suppose that this is true for many others this time of year. Secular Christmas songs are filled with nostalgia. They recall the innocence of childhood: shopping with our parents, decorating our homes, exchanging gifts, eating special meals, enjoying the change in seasons, and so forth. Now that I have children of my own, I see some of this same wonderment in their experience of the holiday. Innocence is something we wish to guard for our children as long as possible, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Drama in Bethlehem
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:
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.
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!
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. Doesn’t sound much like holiday cheer, does it? But 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 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 songs are more honest. Thankfully, some Christmas songs 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 nascent in Mary womb. 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 (Luke 1:76-79).