Christmas Shoes. No wait, that’s a lie. Jingle Bells, Holly Jolly Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Christmastime is full of seasonally saccharin sweet songs. Is this really how people feel about Christmas? People like the decorations and snow (if we see it in the south) and sweaters, but does singing Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer really put people in the Christmas spirit? OK OK, I’ll admit to liking Sleigh Ride and Mr. HeatMiser.
There are even songs from Christendom that are lyrically good, but seem to wear on the ears. For whatever reason, Mary, Did You Know? seems to catch a lot of flack on social media. Call it terrible, but I’ve never even been a fan of Silent Night. As a Christian, what could be more appealing to listen to than Silent Night? Joy to the World and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing are not even favorites of mine. At this point, you’re probably thinking… You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch.
And you’d be right. I am a mean one. I get sour and rail against commercialism, then engage in it. I get overwhelmed by life in general, by my own poor decisions and life that just happens. Sickness, snotty noses. This year I’ve been especially bad and grumpy. I fed and pruned genuine bitterness in my heart towards those singing Christmas songs and putting up their trees and lights before Thanksgiving. When the Bob Cratchet’s of the world have asked for the proverbial sonic lump of coal for the fire (which sounds a lot like That’s Christmas To Me by Pentatonix), I’ve given a Bah! Humbug! This season, I have been so gloomy that I have even lost desire to do things that I would normally enjoy doing, like hiking and exploring the outdoors. In past years, I’ve loaded up my iPod and listened to Christmas music the entire month of December leading up to the 25th. Not this year. My wife and kids love Christmas, the season, the songs, the decorations, the lights, the food. I have been like Jim Carrey’s version of the Grinch: “self-loathing at 2’o’clock.”
So why rail against Christmas songs that sound like they were taken out of a holiday version of Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph? Because I feel like people are whitewashing their attitudes, building a veneer against what they really feel like. Don’t let me fool you. I can suck it up and smile, but heart business is dark business. My heart business is a cold cynic. This world is a cold and broken place filled with pain, frustration, suffering and death. As morbid as it sounds, to be restrainingly honest, there are a lot of times I’d like to just curl up and die with it. I’ve not been pleasant to be around. I have had all the tender sweetness of a sea-sick crocodile. How the Grinch is described really is fitting for me: Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots. What does this have to do with Christmas, or songs, or anything like that? In the words of Jesus Himself, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Cue the best Christmas song.
I like this Christmas song because it sounds sad. It’s the best song because it relates to a sad world. It relates to me in my brokenness. In many ways, it’s the cry of my heart.
What do you know about Bible history? The nation of Israel, God’s chosen people to whom He revealed Himself to over and over again, is driven into exile because for the umpteenth time they didn’t follow through with their end of the bargain when they said, “God, I’ll never do this again if you get me out of this mess.” They had spend years building a temple where they could worship and relate to God, and that place has been destroyed, and they were driven out of their homeland. They blew it. The prophet Isaiah, among other prophets, has foretold of a child named Emmanuel (which means “God With Us”) that will make all that is wrong with the world right. In their exile, we can imagine the nation of Israel singing…
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel
O come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadow put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel
This is where we live. It’s where I live, at least. A Christmas song just does not seem appropriate unless it is brimming with hope-filled sorrow, like a single light against an infinite background of darkness. But that’s what Christmas is, isn’t it? It’s not Santa Claus. It’s not shopping. It’s not snow. Tullian Tchividjian tweeted
recently that “Christmas is the beachhead of God’s campaign against sin and sadness, darkness and death, fear and frustration.” That is the truth. I don’t have any hope in my being a good person, and probably by this point you don’t have any hope in me being a good person either. My only hope is that God inserted Himself into this world in the form of a baby who would grow up living a perfect life and die a scandalous death and be buried in a grave that could not hold the innocent when He was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven as ruling Sovereign of all existence. The Bible says that if I trust that Jesus has done this, His life and death and resurrection and glory will be credited to me, and my sin and fear and anger and faithless hopelessness was credited to Him in a brutally crushing crucifixion and God the Father’s rejection. His righteousness, mine. My sin and unrighteousness, His. Jesus, rejected. Me, accepted. Scandalous.
This is the Gospel. Jesus is the Gospel. He isn’t an accessory to a good life. He is all I have to hang onto. I’m not a good and decent person, I’m an undeserving grace-getter. In several places in the Bible, God’s endgame is revealed. One selection that has been in front of me this past week is Isaiah 51:11 ESV And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. This is the day I long for. This is not my experience now, but as I remember the Gospel, the day I long for enters into the day now. Because I know Emmanuel has come, and like those in exiled Israel, hope in the day when He will return and bring His ransomed to Zion with singing, I can translate that joy not yet received into the here and now. I know the bad news, I remember the good news, and the light of anticipation can pierce the darkness. It can even pierce the veneer of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. My heart says, “Why?” Jesus says, “Because the day is coming when death will breathe its last breath.”
There are days I forget the Gospel. Many days, in fact. There are days I forget that Emmanuel has come, and those are the days I suck it up and smile through a plastic veneer, at best, or am miserable to be around and take it out on those around me, at worst. On those days, may my inward groaning coax my heart to sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. In that, there is rest for this weary and anxious heart.
Should you be in the mood to listen to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I offer you a few of my favorite versions of the song. Thanks, internet.