My son just came home for Christmas after his first semester in college. I remember doing that too, many years ago. As a college student, I wasn’t a Christian; I had left my childhood faith over the issues of racism and war, both in my country and in my church.
Having rejected and having been rejected by my church, I wasn’t practicing any faith during my college years, which were marked by an intense social and political activism over the very issues that had separated me from my church’s faithlessness on justice and peace — a church that my parents helped to start and was our family’s second home.
But every Christmas, I would drive home on Michigan’s snowy roads, from Michigan State University to my home just outside Detroit, listening to Christmas carols. I still have vivid memories of those teary drives as I listened to carols telling us what the coming of the Christ child meant for the world — the baby born into a manger.
Even today, as I write this, I feel the tears welling up again, having just taken my college son to hear those carols again last night at the Kennedy Center where the Washington Chorus presented “A Candlelight Christmas,” something I try to hear every year.
I still need to listen to those Christmas carols — sometimes desperately, especially this year. Even as that college activist kid, I needed those carols to remind me of what and who was most important in this world that I wanted so much to change. One of the reasons I always wanted to come home is that I knew those Christmas carols would be playing non-stop in my family’s house over the holidays, and the non-religious son would be quietly listening without admitting how carefully he was.
I needed those Christmas carols, and still do, to remind me of what God’s world is all about and, therefore, what our lives should be too. I listen to the carols as the foundation and inspiration for what I do, for what and my life and vocation is all about.
Because our only hope is that light does come into the darkness, that this child born in an animal stall is still more important than all the kings and rulers, that the “lowly” are closer to God than all the “high”-placed people that we are forced to watch and listen to all the time. I needed last night to remind me again.
Mary had a Baby, Oh Lord!
What did she name him? Oh, Lord.
Named him King Jesus, oh, Lord.
Where was he born? Oh, Lord.
Born in a stable, oh Lord.
Mangers are more important in God’s world than hotels.
The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay…
Born is the King of Israel!
The Word comes to poor shepherds before billionaires in God’s world.
Angels we have heard on high …
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord the newborn King
Humility wins over pathetic boasting in God’s world.
Hark the Herald, angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.
Peace and mercy triumph over angry attacking in God’s world.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
When politics destroys the “calm” and “bright,” God brings both back.
Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus Lord at thy birth!
Love’s pure light will win over all the hate in God’s world.
Oh Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary word rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
When politics gives us nothing but weary words, how we need the “thrill of hope” from a new and glorious morn.
Truly he taught us to love one another,
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease.
This is the great reversal of Christmas. In God’s name, all oppression, and racial bigotry, and the fueling of division and conflict for political self-interest … shall cease.
The concert always ends with the Hallelujah Chorus.
The Kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord
and of his Christ, and of his Christ;
and he shall reign for ever and ever ...
King of Kings, and Lord or Lords,
Forever and ever. Hallelujah!
Who is in charge? Who will reign? Not the would-be rulers who now think they are in charge or believe they soon will be. Not in God’s world. Not in the hearts of those who begin with God’s word and are reminded this Christmas of what the coming of Christ means.
When it came to the carol service’s triumphant ending with the Hallelujah Chorus, we all rose to our feet, as, legendarily, did English King George II when he first heard it and people have traditionally ever since. And when we proclaimed who will reign forever and ever at the top of our lungs, I felt like pumping my fist into the air this holiday season (but didn’t for fear of embarrassing my college son).
I desperately need the hope that Christmas brings me every year, and still do; that the new order that this child brings to the world literally overturns the world of our politics today. And it is that hope allows me to sing out:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room…..
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love.
I especially need my Christmas carols this year when darkness seems to be settling in on all sides, and faith will mean finding a little light in that darkness.
For reasons that some of you can understand, I have also been drawn to German theologian and political resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer this Christmas season, and to the Christmas sermons he preached as darkness grew in his own country many years ago.
Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the manger.”
"No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged. …
“ Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. …
“And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly … God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
―Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger
So that is where I go back to this Christmas — to the manger. As we approach a new political world that proudly and brazenly puts success, wealth, power at the top of everything, we go back to the “lowly,” who are at the bottom of that political world but are at the top in God’s world.
Bonhoeffer calls us to a faith that will abide.
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men [and women] who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.”
After the carol service, a black pastor who was also there came up to greet me and said, “We have our work cut out for us don’t we?” Yes, I said, but what we just heard and sung reminds us of what it true, and what is not. Christmas tells us what is true and what is a lie. Singing Christmas carols reaffirms in me what is true — and deepens my resolve.
The Christmas carols remind us that truth, love, peace, and justice will abide — and will abide in us.