Our daughter Maggie, age 5, loves classical music. Now, please don’t take this as obnoxious mommy-bragging. She has chosen this genre completely on her own. But to balance that statement, I will add that our three-year-old’s favorite song is “Smoke on the Water” and the older boys are huge Weird Al fans. Anyway, for the last several months, Maggie has been somewhat frustrated in her ability to enjoy the likes of Bach and Beethoven due to the fact that her CD player is broken. The radio still works, however, so we often tune in NPR for her as she is going to sleep. Recently, however, we discovered an all-Christmas station and this has replaced Performance Today for the time being.
Listening to endless renditions of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and “It’s Beginning to Look A lot Like Christmas,” I have noticed something rather unexpected about a great number of Christmas carols: Many of them are really, really depressing. Now of course you have many that are upbeat to the point of irritation, but they seem to be in the minority. “I’ll Have a Blue Christmas,” “Pretty Paper, Pretty Ribbons of Blue,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are just a few of the oldies but goodies; there are also many newer, more hip yet equally disheartening Christmas songs out there. Perhaps the people in charge of programming have a rather pessimistic view of the holidays which compels them to disproportionately tilt the scales in favor of the somber, but I’m not so sure. Even more explicitly religious carols are more solemn than celebratory. Maybe we are supposed to be a little sobered by the events surrounding Christ’s birth. Maybe there is more of Good Friday present in the stable than we care to admit.
Of course, there are many reasons why we might try to obscure the more gloomy aspects of the Christmas story, turning it into a Disneyesque, sanitized version of the truth. For myself, I find this time of year horribly depressing already. It’s overcast most of the time, cold but with little snow. Immediately upon returning from Thanksgiving, I hauled out the ole Christmas decorations and after deciding that the tree and nativity weren’t enough to raise my serotonin, I cleared out several shelves of Christmas lights at Dollar General, cooked enough Christmas cookies to feed several squadrons of elves and commissioned the kids to create a wide variety of Christmas crafts. (Nothing says “Celebrate the birth of the suffering servant” like a wreath made out of marshmallows and an M&M Christmas tree.). Now before having done much reflection, I would have said this feverish decorating frenzy stemmed from a great devotion to celebrating Jesus’ birth, but now it seems all about me and very little to do with the person of Jesus. Certainly the circumstances of his birth read more like something out of Charles Dickens rather than any invention of Walt Disney—poor family without shelter; young mother with a reputation in tatters, etc.
My kids love hearing the stories of their births—how we rushed to the hospital for some, how we thought others would never decide to exit the womb, and so on. What would Joseph and Mary tell Jesus about his arrival? How they were tired and homeless, without friends and family in a strange town? How it was obedience to a much hated foreign power that drew them to the place of his birth, not the latest medical technology? Did they understand that 33 years later, their first born son would travel the same road to deliver himself into the hands of that same authority? Of course, they knew he wasn’t just their son. He was God’s. Sent for their sake, as well as our own, He had his own agenda to fulfill in obedience to the Father.
When we sing songs rejoicing over the birth of Jesus, we rarely have in mind the Son of God dying on the cross for our sin. For it is quite a sorrowful thought to see that helpless babe surrounded by filth and poverty because we are incapable (and unwilling) to save ourselves. As we gather together this Christmas to celebrate Jesus’ Birthday let us rejoice in great humility. Let us commemorate Mary’s desperate cries of labor, tears of joy and sorrow mixing into one flow: Joseph’s humiliation and pride as he welcomed God’s son into such a humble backdrop. And may our hearts fill with gratitude and repentance as we ponder the words of William Chatterton Dix’s in one of my favorite Christmas carols, “What Child is This? Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!” Let us remember the miracle of his birth always keeping in mind the sorrow of his death and the victory of his resurrection. What child is this indeed!