We moved this year in February and we haven’t managed to get our sound system up and running so my usual cast of Christmas CDs has languished on the shelf. You are probably as deathly sick as I am of the ten or fifteen songs that get cycled through every Christmas everywhere you go-“White Christmas”, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa”, “Santa Baby”, etc. etc. etc. Why we haven’t been able to come up with any new ones in the last 60 years is beyond me. And of course you never ever hear a song that actually addresses the Jesus part of Christmas-remember Him? All the sacredness has been sucked out of this season and we are left feeling so empty and sad, looking for a feeling that can’t be found outside the wonder of the Story. I know I am not saying anything profound here. But it is profoundly true.
So when I was driving the other day I queued up Handel’s Messiah and was surprised when the opening strains of the overture unleashed a flood of tears and I was overcome with the feeling I had been missing. This story, The Story, is so improbable, so paradoxical, so UNLIKELY, that it fascinates and compels and enchants in a way that all the other symbols and traditions we have attached to this time of year can never do. Nor should they have to.
Consider the line: “‘Comfort ye. Comfort ye, my people,’ saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” That God would speak comfort to us, in our terror-stricken, war-torn ravaged world, where all seems to be on a downhill slide into the abyss-the natural world being daily wrecked by our excesses, our kids struggling to find a reason to have kids of their own, murder, mayhem, injustice, racism, greed, pride, selfishness everywhere, most of all when we look inward. This is so much NOT what I would expect to hear from God. Comfort.
And how does he speak this comfort?
“For unto us a child is born. Unto us, a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
“Rejoice greatly, Oh Daughter of Zion, Shout, oh daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is the righteous Savior and He shall speak PEACE to the heathen.”
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart,
and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd;
and He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
and carry them in His bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Come unto Him, all ye that labour,
come unto Him that are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him,
for He is meek and lowly of heart,
and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(St. Matthew 11:28-29)
His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light.
(St. Matthew 11:30)
These are words that bring life. They are hopeful and gentle and merciful. This is a King who is not like a King at all, to his own peril. He is like a shepherd caring for his flock.
The condescending of God to come to earth is the most compelling idea I have ever tried to understand. I understand the words of a coming judgment, of darkness coming over the earth, of justice and a reckoning that we all will face whether we happen to believe in it or not. On some level we all know it is true. And it won’t be you getting judged that I need to worry about. It will be me. I know my inner thoughts, my hates, my lies, my greed, my apathy and hardheartedness. Thinking that those things will be laid bare between me and the God of the universe should make me tremble. Anyone with a conscience would tremble.
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple,
even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in;
behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
But who may abide the day of His coming,
and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire.
And He shall purify the sons of Levi,
that they may offer unto the Lord
an offering in righteousness.
These are all verses from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. That bears thinking about. Most of the theology we have about Jesus comes from Old Testament prophecies about him, of which there are seven hundred or so that his life fulfilled to a “T”. The New Testament is full of quotes from the Old Testament spoken in reference to Jesus that were fulfilled through events in his earthly life. The two testaments are seamless in presenting a story of a God who never blinks or fails to acknowledge our sins and failures, and never flags in offering mercy, grace and relationship if we acknowledge them as well.
He is not content to leave us wallowing in a blurry miasma of “I’m OK, You’re OK” either. He shall “purify us that we may make an offering in righteousness”. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith, the one that separates us as believers and continually confuses all who have never bothered to seriously examine the faith.
God who is a tender shepherd carrying us around his neck like little lambs, who suffered through life on this broken planet and a horrific death to make us right with him, who calls himself a mother hen gathering her chicks under him, also wants to refine us. This is the paradigm that Handel so masterfully and magnificently expresses in his music, and the “two sides of the story” just really stood out to me this year.
If I know the love of God, how long and high and deep and wide, then I can stand to think about him refining me. It stops feeling like someone wants to crush me and starts feeling like someone wants to free me from the ugliness of sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was arrested, imprisoned and executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, wrote:
“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, THAT THE GOD OF THE WORLD DRAWS NEAR TO THE PEOPLE OF OUR LITTLE EARTH AND LAYS CLAIM TO US. (emphasis mine) The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us, with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us wherever we may be-in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know God’s goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment AND grace: ” Behold I stand at the door…open wide the gates!” (Psalm 24:7)”
I know that the particular brew of listening to Handel’s Messiah and reading these profound words of Bonhoeffer has affected me in a way that it will probably not affect you, especially if the music is not familiar to you, or indeed playing in the background as you read this. I know this post is probably a little boring or simplistic or for a lot of you, something you have thought about many times and heard expressed much more eloquently.
But I am tired. I am tired of the triteness not only of our thoroughly secularized Christmas but also of our bland and repetitive modern worship music, which lacks the paradox, the complexity, and the awe of a Handel’s Messiah. We have drawn away from our image of God all dimensions but one-the bland Santa Claus God who loves us no matter what and wants to give us all the stuff we ask him for.
If you have no sense of the mystery of God, of your utter inability to comprehend Him-and why would anyone be able to comprehend the totally OTHERness of God?- then there is a failure of imagination and of perceiving the truth of the matter. If the Christmas story has become insipid and merely pleasant to you-a side dish to the main feast of food, folks and fun-then I recommend a healthy dose of Handel. This miraculous and beloved oratorio was written in a mere three to four weeks. Audiences still rise to their feet at the opening strains of the Hallelujah Chorus. I have spent an entire week in my car running around doing errands and weeping as its strains filled my car with glory. It has once again restored to me the true wonder of Christmas-that God stuffed his glory into a tiny cell, became so small as to be invisible-to become the enigma that informs every enigma we now encounter, every bit of suffering, every bit of joy. Emanuel. God is WITH us. I will never understand it and I am only grateful when the wonder of it captures my soul, and lifts me up once again.