Ah, ‘tis the Christmas season! Here at the Brymer house, we actually got our first real Christmas tree (not as in real live tree, but an actual tree instead of a decorative twig) and with the kids, we decorated it with lights and ornaments. My wife Heidi has been streaming her cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix and getting into baking delicious treats that I try to avoid and say oops 5 servings later. As strange as our family may be, this is not a setting that is uncommon to most American families, including Christian families. In addition to all the other things that make the Christmas season what it is, there is one more key ingredient that you will never find missing. Any guesses to what that may be? Yep, you guessed it…THE MUSIC!
The music of Christmas is all around us and seems to be starting earlier and earlier each year. Sure, a lot of it is related to Santa Claus and other holiday folklore, but a good chunk of it is actually sacred music, or music inspired by the Biblical Christmas story. Unless you hole up in a bomb shelter with no WiFi, you can’t escape it. You’ll hear a smooth jazz version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the elevator or in the department store and Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocking out to a metal version of “The First Noel” and Mariah Carey or some other diva wailing away on “O Holy Night.” This type of Christmas music has in many ways transcended Christianity (not Christ) in a sense that it has become a part of American culture, being listened to and sung without the assumption of commitment to the Christian faith, very similar to “Amazing Grace.”
The story of Christ has been thrown in with Santa Claus, the Nutcracker, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course, this is not surprising in the context of the unbelieving part of our culture, but we as Christians can become victim of the trappings of holiday spirit. We can go through the motions of singing our favorite carols and becoming more reminded of candy canes, mistletoes, and presents than of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is difficult to avoid that as our culture is so saturated in these extra-Biblical traditions that somehow got tied in with why we celebrate Christmas. Extreme familiarity is both a blessing and a curse. Most of us at least know the first verse of every carol by heart and can sing it with much gusto. That unites people and invites them to become a part of something bigger and special. On the other hand, that kind of familiarity can become routine and like being on autopilot, that the words and message go over our heads and we miss the point from having heard those songs so many times. We are united, yet don’t know what we are united in.
In a certain sense, it doesn’t make sense to sing lines like “hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” or “worship Christ the newborn king” in church because Christ is no longer a newborn. He’s not even a 33 year old adult anymore. He is the risen King who is coming again one day. It would have made more sense to sing these songs whenever Christ was actually a newborn. The clincher is that we as believers know what happened after Christ was born. We know the full story. We know that he ministered for three years and was crucified and resurrected on the third day and ascended into Heaven. When I use the word know, I mean more than head knowledge, but knowing with our hearts. With that knowledge, we can and should sing these songs together and honor Christ’s earthly beginnings while remembering that it was only the beginning. The greatest miracle would happen which ultimately is the reason we sing any song of worship together. Philippians 2:5b-11 sums it up in saying:
“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
For the world, the Biblical Christmas story is a traditional fairy tale that lends itself to pretty decorations and festivity. They sing and hear those songs without truly knowing their significance. We know that is part of the Gospel story that would lead to our redemption as sons and daughters of God. We as Christians often complain about the commercialization of Christmas. While there is definitely merit in that, this season can be a time of opportunity to take something that is culturally familiar and enjoyed and share it with someone who does not “know” the full story and pray that the Lord would do a work in their life.
So can we entirely escape the festive holiday associations of the carols we sing? Most likely no, not completely. But can we sing these songs and worship the Most High God who made Himself lower than the angels and became a humble servant? Absolutely. There are also new Christmas songs that are being written that do a great job of honoring the Lord, but the old familiar ones will always be here to stay. Some of the newer ones may even eventually evoke images of bells and stockings as well. To go back to the provocative title of this post, if you intend to sing these songs, especially in church without considering the implications of what they present, why bother? If you do want to get past the holiday tradition aspect however, think of these songs as songs of worship. Take the time to read through them and realize their significance. A line from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” communicates the Gospel very well: Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” That is worship! Know that God’s work rules over any man instituted tradition, and that ultimately we sing ‘O come let us adore Him”, because we are adoring our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.