This piece was originally published at the Credenda/Agenda web site in 2009. Being in a Grinchy mood and of a generally Grinchy disposition, I thought it worth re-presenting.
Several years ago, when The Passion of the Christ was making headlines, I realized that N. T. Wright has spoiled every Jesus film. Once you’ve read Wright, you realize that none of the movies get Jesus right. Pharisees and scribes are reduced stock villains with caricatured Jewish features. Pilate has to make an appearance, and Herod, but we are given no sense that first-century Israel was the powder keg that it actually was.
No film ever gives us what Wright says we should be looking for: a “crucifiable” Jesus, a Jesus who does something so provocative to make the Jews murderously hostile. In the movies, Jesus is a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi. Why would anyone want to hurt Him? Maybe because He’s so annoyingly precious; but that’s not the story of the gospels.
Just this year, I had another realization. N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas too.
Wright made me see the fairly radical difference in tone and content between Advent and Christmas hymns. Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets. Advent hymns are about Israel’s desperations and hope, and specifically hope that the Christ would come in order to keep Yahweh’s promise to restore His people, and through them to restore the nations.
“How lovely shines the Morning Star; the nations see and hail afar, the light in Judah shining. Thou David’s Son of Jacob’s race, My Bridegroom and my King of Grace, for Thee my heart is pining.” Comfort, Comfort Ye My people is a virtual paraphrase of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort ye My people; speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, bowed beneath their sorrow’s load; speak ye to Jerusalem, of the peace that waits for them; Tell her that her sin I cover, and her warfare now is over.”
“Wake, awake, for night is flying; the watchmen on the heights are crying; awake Jerusalem at last;midnight hears the welcome voices, and at the thrilling cry rejoices; come forth ye virgins, night is past.” The refrain O Come, O Come Emmanuel tells is all: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Advent hymns are about Israel. They are deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. How many Christmas hymns mention Israel? Many refer to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, but Jerusalem?
Christmas hymns focus a great deal of attention on the details of the Christmas story, as is fitting. There are shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph and the baby in a manger, magi from the east. Sometimes the details are inaccurate (we don’t know there were three kings), Jesus did cry when He was a baby. And Christmas seems to elicit some of the worst and most sentimental poetry ever written.
When the Old Testament is mentioned at all, Christmas hymns tend to reach back to Adam. Jesus is the “Second Adam from above” who has come to “efface Adam’s likeness.” Jesus is David’s Son, but how many Christmas hymns mention Abraham? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has not happened. Christmas hymns do not seem to fulfill the longing expressed in Advent hymns, but some other longing.
What did Jesus come to do? Listening to Advent hymns, you’d think He comes to restore Israel, comfort Jerusalem, bring light to the nations, to do some global geo-political restructuring. Listening to Christmas hymns, you’d think He comes to do something quite different. He comes “to free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.” He will “stamp His likeness” in the place of Adam’s. “He hath oped (oped?) the heavenly door, and man is blessed forevermore.” “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” All true enough – but where is Abraham? Where is Israel? Where is exile and the fulfillment of Israel’s longings? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has been bypassed. It’s as if Jesus was born just outside Eden, immediately after Adam’s sin.
Christmas hymns do occasionally have their political themes. We sing of the angels marking the birth of the “newborn King,” Joy to the world is full of the language of rule and re-creation: Let earth receive her king; the Savior reigns; He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. But they have been largely de-politicized, and their politics is detached from the specific historical circumstances of Israel. The newborn King could be a king from anywhere as far as the Christmas hymns tell it. That the world greets the king of Israel is hard to see.
Biblical Christmas hymns are very, very different. They are explicitly rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, exile, and the longing for return. They are overtly, even uncomfortably, political.
What does Mary sing about? Not about oping heavenly doors. She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him, His generosity to the poor and hungry, His hostility to the proud and rich, the help He gives to Israel. She sings about the fulfillment of the Lord’s determined covenant mercy. And she talks about Abraham, for all this is done to fulfill what He “spoke to our Fathers, to Abraham and to His seed forever.”
Zacharias? The Lord comes to accomplish redemption for His people, to raise up a horn of salvation in the house of David – a King, and a king from David’s line, a king who is going to deliver us from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. The coming of Jesus is a sign that the Lord has “remembered His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our Father.” Day has dawned, and light has shone in the darkness – but the darkness is specifically Israel’s darkness.
What does Simeon sing about? When he takes the infant Jesus into his arms, he blessed God: “Let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” And what is that? Access to heaven? Forgiveness of sins? No: “the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
The angelic hymn to the shepherds should be understood in that context. Peace on earth is not some lefty pipe dream. It’s the promise of peace for Israel, and therefore peace for the nations.
Now, those sound like our Advent hymns, not our Christmas hymns. And they sound like the kind of Christmas hymns that N. T. Wright might have written. As it turns out, Wright is no Grinch. He didn’t steal Christmas. What he stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas. But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle. Good riddance, and Bah humbug.
I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.