Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”



Waiting for Publication

December 13, 2016

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. Writing is solitary work. I can tell you what I am writing about, but I can’t really share the stuff that preoccupies me: how to knit a subject or a scene in such a way that it becomes a seamless, almost dreamlike reality for the reader. Not even my wife Popie knows what I am doing at that level. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.

While writing is solitary work, it is not fulfilled in solitude. I write for an audience. It may turn out to be small or large, and I don’t usually know which it will be in advance. Actually the size of the audience doesn’t much affect what I do. What matters is that I will have readers. If there were no readers, writing would be something quite different.

While I’m writing, the work is almost a part of me. Then there’s an interim period, while the publisher edits and proofs and designs and markets. Finally, months later, sometimes after more than a year, I see a printed copy. By then I am usually pretty emotionally detached. It’s mine but it’s no longer me. Nevertheless, publication is an absolutely necessary part of the process. It’s then that my work finds its fulfillment in being read.

Waiting for publication is completely passive. I do nothing. I don’t even worry. I know that the book or the magazine article is coming, and I wait with expectation. After publication, the work is mine but it belongs to the world. I can’t get it back. I can’t change it. It finds its life in my readers.

I know it’s hazardous to compare my work to God’s, but I wonder if God’s creative process is something like this. God’s creation begins with the making of the heavens and the earth, but that is just the introduction of the story. God goes on to draw out Israel, in all its dramatic detail: kings and prophets, wars and sacrifice, laws and songs.

Yet that, too, is only the beginning. What God wants to make is his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, raised a Jew, executed as an enemy, raised as King of kings. That is the work God prepares for us, his audience. He intends us not just to read, but to eat—to take into ourselves his amazing work, his actual self expressed in a human life, so that it becomes part of us forever.

Being God is solitary work. But it is not fulfilled in solitude. It is fulfilled when we take Jesus into our lives—all of him. And just as I wait for publication, so God waits to see his work completed, in us.




December 17, 2012

In light of the awful events in Connecticut, I can only offer my post of a year ago, Christmas Dissonance. The message (about Herod) seems more poignant than ever.

More politically: If the US will go to war to take weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of fanatics abroad, how come we are so complacent at home?

Winter Solstice

December 23, 2011

Winter is my least-loved season, possibly because I have poor circulation in my hands and feet. I associate fun in the snow with painfully aching toes and fingers. Short, dark days I don’t like either, nor do I care for the deadly sterility winter imposes on nature.

For all these reasons and more, the winter solstice is a day I look forward to. On December 21, life stops getting worse and starts getting better. Yes, January is also cold and dark, but every morning the sun comes up slightly earlier and the day is infinitesimally longer. We are moving in the right direction, toward green shoots and singing birds, toward long summer evenings.

They say the church set Christmas at the winter solstice in order to borrow the prestige of a pagan holiday. If so it was a brilliant match. Christmas, after all, marks the day when Jesus was born. Before that day, the best we could hope for was to end up dead. Since that day, every day brings us closer to Summer. Christmas reminds me, as does winter solstice, that we have turned a corner.

Christmas Dissonance

December 15, 2011

One of the unacknowledged problems of Christmas is dissonance. The season lifts us with a luminous vision of hope and peace, captured in the words of our favorite carols.

Angels we have hear on high, sweetly singing over the plain.

What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.

All is calm, all is bright.

I grew up listening every Christmas to a recording of Lessons and Carols from the King’s College Choir in Cambridge, England. Piercing boys’ voices lingering in the Gothic spaces of their chapel offered an unearthly hope very far from the flat, foggy stretches of farmland around Fresno, California. Those lovely carols, so removed from my actual life, will always be Christmas for me.

I am not alone in clinging to unearthly visions. Many people treasure some icon of Christmas that calls them out of the ordinary—the lights, the manger scene, the smell of peppermint and cinnamon. By themselves they are nothing, but they stand for something we are unable to name, something we long for.

Yet such Christmas beauty never matches up to life as we experience it. Thus, dissonance.  All is not calm, and all is not bright—certainly not if we turn on the news and hear of wars and economic turmoil and politics. Nor is all calm and bright in our personal lives. Some people actually dread the Christmas season, if they cannot integrate its sweet images into their own internal sadness. People who have lost loved ones, been diagnosed with cancer, been dismissed from their jobs, fallen out of love and marriage, fought with family members, or simply failed to live as they hoped to do, experience dissonance with the Christmas story as we tell it.

But that is not the Christmas story as the Bible tells it. Particularly as Matthew narrates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, all is not calm and bright.

It might have been until that point. Yes, there was some difficulty over the pregnancy, and it was inconvenient for Mary and Joseph to travel and find no place to stay. But by the time Matthew takes up the Magi, it seems the young family has settled into a house. We aren’t told why they didn’t go back to Nazareth, but one assumes that Joseph found work in Bethlehem. They must have had relatives in the area. Joseph and Mary and Jesus appear to be a little family starting out life in a quiet village with some sense that they are destined for greatness but no specific idea how.

Then the Magi come to Jerusalem, looking for the new king. This troubles the tyrannical Herod, who spent his whole life worrying about usurpers. According to Josephus he had a wife murdered and two of his sons executed. His other victims were numerous. He was paranoid and vicious, so his response to the Magi sounds credible. He helps then locate the Messiah using Old Testament prophecy, and he sends them on their way with pious pronouncements of his desire to follow and meet the new hope of Israel.

Thanks to some divine warnings, Herod’s plans are thwarted. The Magi elude him, and Joseph rises in the middle of the night to take his family to a far-off land. Jesus starts his life as a refugee, probably no better off than those children whose faces greet us in child-sponsorship advertisements. Angry that he has been tricked, Herod finds a simple solution—kill all the babies two or under who reside in the area around Bethlehem. “The Slaughter of the Innocents” has been a theme of paintings through the ages—but it is not a theme we associate with Christmas. How could those terrible cries for mercy, those wailing, moaning, despairing, grief-filled plaints, go with Silent Night?

A quick reading of Matthew’s version is so awful, it seems to leave no hope. It portrays a more realistic story than our version of Christmas, but the dissonance remains unresolved.

A more careful reading, though, reveals Matthew embracing the awfulness of life as we know it, but telling the Christmas story so God enters and transforms it.

Matthew does this through two Old Testament citations, “fulfilled,” he says, by events.

We usually think of fulfilled Old Testament prophecies as predictions that came true. Typical is the prophecy that Herod unearthed thanks to the chief priests and teachers of the law.  A verse from Micah said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Jesus , then, is born in Bethlehem. Predictions-come-true vindicate our belief in the authority of Scripture, and validate Jesus’ identity as the genuine anointed King of Israel—for his life fits the predicted pattern.

The two prophecies Matthew cites in connection with the Magi, however, are not predictions. The first refers to Jesus’ escape to Egypt, which Matthew says fulfilled Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As soon as you look at the passage in Hosea, you see that it is not a prediction in any way, but a historical reference to the exodus Moses led out of Egypt. Matthew seems to use one snippet as shorthand for the whole passage, in which the nation of Israel is called out of slavery by a loving God only to rebel. God’s treatment of his “son” is full of tenderness, but the “son” gives back nothing but grief. Even so, God declares that his love will win the day. He will not carry out his fierce anger, but will bring his people out of exile. He will “settle them in their homes” (11:11).

In what sense is this passage fulfilled by Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt? Matthew is claiming that Jesus is the new “Son,” the Israel that will finally fulfill all God’s hopes for them. This time, the son will come out of Egypt and remain fully obedient to the loving one who called him. This time, a loving and persistent God will bring his people home. (N.T. Wright’s contention that Israel in Jesus’ time was still in exile, and understood by faithful Israelites to be so, is underlined by this text.)

Matthew’s second citation is even more complex. Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children, he says, fulfills Jeremiah’s words about “Rachel weeping for her children” at Ramah.

This prophetic word is not a prediction either. It is a poetic rendering of the worst event in Israel’s history, when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and took survivors on the long march to Babylonian captivity. Ramah was a town north of Jerusalem, probably a collection point for those defeated and exhausted exiles leaving their homes forever. Jeremiah imagines Rachel—long dead and buried not far from Ramah—weeping over the desolation of her great-great-great grandchildren, weeping uncontrollably and refusing to be comforted. It is one of the most powerful images in scripture, capturing the full dreadful horror of Israel’s nightmare. Matthew asserts that Rachel’s cry is “fulfilled”—filled out—in the cries of the mothers of Bethlehem. And we might add, filled out in the cries of Mary herself as she watches her son executed, filled out in the mothers who waited with their children for the trains to Auschwitz, filled out in the cries of the mothers in Congo whose daughters are raped and sons are murdered before their eyes, filled out in the cries of the mothers in Mexico whose children die in a blaze of bullets fired by the drug cartels. Human suffering can be unbearable, and it goes on and on.

Here too, however, Matthew is thinking of the full passage. He cites a few lines but for highly biblically-literate Jews the rest of the text will come to mind. For God tells Israel to stop crying. Redemption is on the way.  “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.” (31:20) Israel, God says, is on the road home.

Jeremiah’s words are fulfilled in Bethlehem, Matthew asserts. He means not just the uncontrollable weeping but the promise that puts a stop to the tears. In the very midst of that awful day, God is at work to save his son and redeem his people. Redemption rises in the very midst of suffering. God’s love is unstoppable. Tears will be dried.

Not much has changed in our world since then. Political refugees get jerked around by tyrants. Mothers watch helplessly and weep for their murdered children. It is a story as old as Adam, but in Jesus it finds its fulfillment. God not only becomes human, he subjects himself to human violence. He is a political refugee. He lives in the worst that civilization can brew, and he takes all its medicine. Nevertheless, God’s love lives in the heart of this dreadfulness; it endures and triumphs.

This is Matthew’s Christmas story: “God so loved the world that he sent his own son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life.”

Our glittering version of the Christmas story is not wrong. The carols’ sweet beauty is real, and we do well to celebrate it. Matthew’s version, though, adds realism. It faces the darkness. It embraces the worst of helplessness and sorrow, asserting that God is not absent even there. In fact his love and his promise rise out of the worst that life can offer. All is not calm and bright in this Christmas story, but there is, truly, joy to the world.

Thoughts on Mother’s Day etc.

April 28, 2010

Complaints about Mother’s Day: it’s a Hallmark-invented holiday, it’s unfairly weighted against fathers, it makes non-mothers feel bad.

Well, so what? Mothers have a hard and important job and are often taken for granted, not to mention patronized. I’m very pro-mother. The holiday is something else again. Not being a mother, I don’t have any way to fully grasp how much it matters to some. It was not a big part of my family life growing up, but given my respect for mothers I am perfectly happy to celebrate it in a socially-acceptable way. I can’t say I look forward to it. Or Father’s Day either. Well, so what?

The holidays I believe in are Thanksgiving and Christmas. I particularly like Thanksgiving because there are no presents. The exchange of gifts I regard as mostly a ploy for rich people to increase their personal consumption by agreeing to give each other stuff they would not otherwise feel justified in buying. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Everybody gets to feel generous. What a crock. Generosity is when you give to people who don’t give back.

I’d like Christmas better if there were a lot less giving gifts to each other and a lot more singing of carols, eating cookies and turkeys, and decorating the house. Well, maybe not a lot more. I think we’ve already reached the limit on Christmas decorations. When you have  no more shelf space and no more table space and no more floor space and no more wall space, when your roof is covered with plywood cutouts of cute figures, and when your lawn is the same, and when you have maximized the lights that your house can hold up without a code violation, you can stop the decorating.

There are really two Christmases. One is the Christian Christmas, in which we quietly go to church and remember the birth of Jesus. The other is the celebration of family and winter and… well, just exactly what? That is unclear. Could it be stuff? It’s mostly an excuse to enjoy ourselves. Which is not a bad thing. Especially when the days are short and dark.

But I digress. I like the Fourth of July too because I like barbecues and fireworks. Too bad they are so utterly detached from patriotic feelings. I doubt we will go back to public orations and parades.

Easter I do not regard as a holiday. It is a day of celebration and worship for Christians, and making it into a secular feast (family dinners, Easter eggs, chocolate) is mostly a distraction.

My favorite  day, though, is the birthday. It is that most American thing, a holiday defined by and around each individual. I like that everyone gets one. Whoever you are. Whatever you accomplished, or didn’t.  Whether you had a great year or a lousy year. You get to have a birthday in jail, I believe. Whatever your age. Whether you did anything to deserve it or not, you get a day just for you. Every year. For your whole life.

Compared to that, Mother’s Day seems rather pallid to me.

Herod’s Christmas Massacre

December 16, 2009

I preached Sunday on Herod’s massacre of the children. (Matthew 2: 13-18) I didn’t choose the topic, and for the longest time I wasn’t sure how to preach it. But in the end, I came to believe that Matthew’s way of telling the Christmas story offers an important corrective to our culture’s Christmas. We often experience dissonance between the beautiful, high, lovely vision that Christmas offers, and our real world of difficulty, loneliness, anxiety, violence and hurt. In Matthew, those two come together.

You can listen to the sermon at It begins with a carol, but trust me, the sermon is coming.