By Shane Scott
The tree is up, the lights are out, and Christmas music is on the radio! This is my favorite time of the year. At the same time, I realize that there is a lot of religious misinformation associated with this holiday – much of it found in songs. I love Christmas music, including the great hymns that have been unfortunately relegated to seasonal status, yet there are some “Christmas carols” that make the real story of Jesus sound like a fairy-tale. I am completely happy to allow for poetic license in songs; that is how lyrics evoke emotion and stir the imagination. But many Christmas carols paint such a rosy picture of Jesus’ birth, a scene of unrelenting joy and peace and beauty, that the story becomes too unrealistic, totally irrelevant for a world that is filled with pain and conflict and evil. When that happens, the miracle of the incarnation can easily be relegated to the same bookshelf as Mother Goose and the powerful message of the coming of Jesus is muted.
Consider these lyrics –
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
I think I know what the writer of this hymn (Joseph Mohr) was getting at. I think he wanted to paint a picture of humble serenity. Jesus certainly entered this world in humble circumstances. And these lyrics are designed to elicit a sense of reverence and awe at the wonder of the virgin birth.
But all is not “calm and bright” in my world. My world is filled with anxiety and conflict and darkness rather than serenity and peace and light. If I am led to believe that the story of Jesus took place in a world where all was calm and bright, then what possible relevance could that story have to the tough realities of my world. This is the “fairy tale” quality of Christmas carols that I fear can undermine the message of the gospel.
The Birth of Jesus Was Not Calm and Bright
“Calm” and “bright” are the last two words I would use to depict the birth of Jesus in the gospels. How calm could Bethlehem have been when Jews from all over Palestine were pouring in for a census commanded by the emperor (Luke 2:4-5)? Bethlehem was a small town back then (as it is today). To be inundated with so many travelers would have created lots of chaos and confusion in a small village, the very picture drawn for us in Luke 2 – a town overbooked with visitors (2:7).
How calm do you think Joseph and Mary would have been traveling the ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem so late into her pregnancy? What a difficult journey that must have been (and remember, they had to do it on foot or horseback). And once they got into the little village there was no place to stay. Though the text does not say so, the reference to a manger indicates they had to bed down where animals were kept, possibly a stable. And in those crude accommodations Mary went into labor. What a nerve wracking way this must have been to end the long trip.
I have to wonder how Mary and Joseph would react if they knew centuries later we would be singing about how “calm and bright” that night was! It was a painful, stressful, busy night for that family.
Just as there is a tendency for Christmas carols to make everything much cleaner and neater than it really was, those traditional songs typically fail to point out the very real emotions of worry and concern the family of Jesus felt. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Messiah, she did not immediately start singing “Joy to the World”! Luke 1 says this: “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God’” (1:28-30).
She was “greatly troubled,” and Gabriel had to reassure her not to be afraid. Now, to Mary’s credit, once she heard the promise of God, she did break into song – that’s why she is a true heroine of the faith. But as much as she was a heroine she was human, and she journeyed from fear to faith like we all must.
Her husband had to make that same journey. In Matthew’s account, when Joseph found Mary with child before their marriage was consummated, he was troubled enough to put her away. But the angel of the Lord came to him and said: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). “Do not fear.” That tells me Joseph (like Mary) wasn’t always calm and needed the reassuring promise of God to graduate him past his fear to faith.
I can’t relate to fairy tale heroes, but I can relate to people who are troubled when life turns upside down on them, to people who are gripped with anxiety and need the promise of God to drive away the worry. That isn’t the way many Christmas carols tell the story, but it is the way the Bible tells the story, because it isn’t make believe; it is real life.
The World of Jesus Was Not Calm and Bright
Our world is not always “calm and bright,” and neither was the world into which Jesus was born. There was a superficial calm, called the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. The census that led to Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem was ordered by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (Luke 3:1), who prided himself on the peace and security his administration brought to Rome. But the Roman Peace came at a price – brutal subjugation of anyone who challenged Caesar’s authority. And in no part of the world was the potential for violent rebellion stronger than where Jesus was born, in the land of Israel.
Many Jews seethed under the Roman occupation of their land, and periodically this resentment spilled out into open rebellion (see Luke 13:1; Luke 23:25; Acts 5:36-37; Acts 21:3). The promised land, the land that flowed with milk and honey, in the time of Jesus flowed with hostility and animosity, and that hatred reached the boiling point forty years later, when Israel went into outright war against Rome and was crushed.
But that hate-filled world is the very world Jesus chose to come to. The purpose of His coming was to bring peace and healing to a world torn apart by sin. And the way He proved that He could do this was by His great miracles. Miracles like that described in Mark 4, when Jesus calmed a storm so fierce it terrified the experienced fishermen who were in the boat with Him. Or like the ones described in Mark 5, when Jesus delivered a man oppressed by a Legion of the devil’s demons by a simple rebuke.
That is the world Jesus lived in. A world of chaotic forces that needed to be tamed. Of unclean spirits at war against humanity. And just as He made everything “calm and bright” for His disciples and for the demoniac, He can bring peace for us as well.
The Bible is not the Brothers Grimm; it is not Aesops’ Fables; it is a book that describes sinful humanity and a sin-cursed world in all its stark reality and misery. All was not calm and bright then, and it isn’t now. Jesus really came into the world as it is, but He does not intend to let it remain as it is. And so we look forward to that new heaven and earth where all is finally and eternally calm and bright.
(a version of this article originally appeared in the January issue of the print edition of Focus in 2011).