If ever we come close to living real life with a soundtrack, it is during Christmastime. For some folks this may be a part of the magic of the season. You know, not being able to go anywhere without hearing either “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” or “Jingle Bell Rock.” For others January 1st can’t come soon enough, when it will be at least another 330 days before they ever hear “Santa Baby” again. However, when it comes to the songs we sing in our Sunday services during the Advent season, do we approach them solely with the same nostalgic fondness or bitter reproach? Either way, we miss the point.
Our Reason for Mourning
Of course, there is a power Christmas hymns have in leading us to reminisce… opening presents as children, going to the local church’s Christmas Eve service with our grandparents, or looking at the crazy neighbor’s synchronized light show. This is because music can, and often does, evoke strong memories within us. Have you ever heard a song come on the radio or pop up on your shuffle, and immediately your mind takes you back to where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing when you first heard it? If so, then you’ve experienced firsthand the poignant effect music has in jump-starting our memories. Christmas hymns are no exception, and depending on the song and the individual, may have some of the strongest memory-summoning capabilities. This is not a bad thing. Remembering good times past with family and friends is a part of what makes the uncertainty of the future a lot less scary. The Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians…
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:3-6 ESV)
However, those of us who get caught up in the magic of the season’s sounds must take heed. As the nostalgia sets in, let’s not pretend everything is right in the world. In fact, if we are willing to look around and within, we’ll quickly notice much that is not at all right in the world. Paul himself, in his opening remarks to the church in Philippi, acknowledges that there is work left to be done. In fact, our fond memories of “yuletide carols being sung by a choir” should cause us to notice the effects of sin’s curse (both in the world at large and in our individual lives). In dreaming of the good, we should wake up to the evil.
Our Reason for Rejoicing
Now there is a possible second category of people who can’t seem to join the fun. You’re not a Scrooge or the Grinch, and you may not have a particular distaste for Christmas, but nevertheless you find it hard to catch the allegedly contagious spirit of the Christmas season. This could be for a variety of reasons: lost loved ones, relationships ended or never started, distance from friends, or sickness in family members. Unfortunately, while our communities adorn the street lights with wreaths and angels, our hearts are dark with depression. While our church sings, “Tidings of comfort and joy,” we feel restless and gloomy. Our problem is not that we fail to notice the evil in our world, it is that we see too much of it. And feeling like we should be happy is one of the primary reasons we are not. Herein lies the danger for us: we recognize the work left to be done, but fail to remember “that he who began a good work… will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Our Reason for Singing
For both parties, both jolly and glum, our Christmas songs must be approached differently… that is to say they shouldn’t be treated strictly as either welcome reminders of good times or painful reminders of bad times. Instead, if we are choosing them wisely, the rich poetry and memorable melodies of Advent hymns should place us, yet again, into glorious scene of the Nativity. There we will encounter the King of Kings being born, despite the infanticidal antics of a lunatic tyrant. There we will encounter a weary Israel sigh with relief, as the burden of longing is lifted at the coming of the Promised one. And there, in the humble arrival of the God-man, we will encounter a foreshadowing of His humble departure. Take the second verse of “What Child is This,” for example:
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians 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
In His coming we are both reminded of the fallenness of our world and assured of its eventual restoration. In His coming we are both reminded of our once hell-bent hearts and assured of the salvation Jesus Christ afforded for us by His life, death, and resurrection. Maybe some of us need to more frequently recall the pattern “in which [we] once walked” (and toward which we still so often lean), or maybe some of us need to more frequently recall how God has “made us alive together with Christ.” This is the beauty of Christmas hymns when we let them serve their purpose: they meet us where we are… maybe to take us down a notch, or maybe to lift our spirits a bit. Either way, we find true comfort not based simply on fond memories, and lasting joy despite the pain of reopened wounds. So as we gather to sing with our church families this December, let us together mourn over the thorny brambles of Eden’s curse and rejoice at the prospect of a promise like this:
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
Merry Christmas music!