Christmas

New and Improved Christmas Hymns

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Christmas carolers. Anne Kitzman/Shutterstock

One of the downsides of a theological education (and/or an overactive theological imagination) is an inability to sing some favorite old hymns with naive gusto. During this Christmas season in particular, we simply know too much about the biblical story (and the reality of childbirth and babies in general) to fully believe all of the touching words in some of the most popular Christmas carols.

So as a public service, I have written historically accurate versions of three of the most beloved holiday hymns. Without personally endorsing any of the theology below, I also offer some alternatives to those who don't theologically jive with the current version of "Joy to the World."

Advocacy From the Manger and Environmental Justice

Nativity scene. Ron and Joe/Shutterstock

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch our children’s ministry present through play, song, and dance the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

No matter how many times I have seen this story, it’s always amazing that this miracle that happened in a manger could have such a huge impact on the lives of so many. Jesus was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his parents did not have the best reputation, and he definitely wasn’t birthed in a fancy hospital. Instead, he was born where animals were kept — not the best conditions environmentally at all! Further, Jesus Christ became an advocate for the poor, for those that do not always have a voice, and for those that were suffering from terrible mistreatment, disease, and sickness.

I truly believe that Jesus’s focus on the “least of these” is a model for advocacy, especially for the environmental justice movement.

Why My Family Says 'No' to the Santa Claus Myth

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Fourteenth-century icon of St. Nicholas Tlegend/Shutterstock

A few weeks ago a well-meaning adult asked my youngest child, “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” She said, “Oh, I don’t believe in Santa.” I observed an uncomfortable silence, a nervous laugh, then came the question in that tone. “Why wouldn’t you teach your children about Santa? Don’t you like Santa?” Followed by: “Aren’t you concerned that they will ruin the fun for other children” and “Are you using some crazy psychological theory?” as well as “Your children must miss out on so much fun.”

Similarly a pastor friend encountered a strong reaction when he accidently revealed Santa to be a myth in a small group of Christian middle school students. A young girl became emotional and her parents were angry. Until that moment she had believed that Santa provided gifts for all children and her family had intentionally preserved that belief in service of imagination and wonder. I wonder if her parents were aware that had she grown up in a less financially comfortable situation, she would not have been a believer of Santa in middle school. That kind of “innocence” is available only to those with resources to isolate their children from the realities of the world.

Your Christmas Card Is False Advertising (Unless It Speaks of Sedition)

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Christ’s birth ushers in peace through upheaval — not so much mentioned in Christmas cards Jagoda/Shutterstock

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on its website, has a wonderful slide show of paintings from the renaissance depicting the birth of Christ. This time of year those beautiful works of art often come to us through reproductions on Christmas cards. My husband and I support several charities that work in the emerging world so we also receive cards with nativity scenes reflecting cultures from across Africa and Latin American. Some of my favorite cards are the ones with nativity scenes from the Caribbean; I love their bright colors and exuberance.

Each of these cards, whatever the source, offers a different perspective on the birth of Christ; each presents a different emotion: serenity, joy, often the quiet peace associated with Christmas. What the artwork doesn’t convey, what our Christmas card may not fully be able to convey is the magnitude of Christ’s birth. Maybe the magnitude of this truly cataclysmic event is better depicted with words. And maybe there are no greater words then those of Mary.

The birth Christ ushers in peace through upheaval. It is a radical event. With the birth of Christ the world is turned upside down. Existing authority is challenged. Kings so terrified that their rage leads to mass killings. The significance of this night is not so gentle, not so calm. Not so much mentioned in our Christmas cards. 

Hope and Despair

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Sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html

Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.

In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?

How Much of Christ Can We Stand in Christmas?

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Christmas manger image courtesy gst via Shutterstock

I’d say the moment is ripe for “Christ in Christmas” — the real Christ, of course, who shunned the privileged and aligned himself with sinners and outcasts, whose heart went out to sufferers like the homeless of Rome whom a new pope risks serving.

I’d say the moment is ripe for new life being born in stables and forced to flee the powerful and greedy. We have seen Mammon’s insatiable maw, power’s absolute corruption of the human soul, and thugs murdering the many in order to protect the few — and we know our need of something better.

So, yes, it’s time for Christ in Christmas. Time for new life, time for hope, time for the faithful to say yes to God. Time for peace, not war. Time for repentance, not comfort at any cost. Time for justice and mercy and the even-handed goodness that God promised.

This, of course, isn’t what zealots mean when they vow to “defend” the faith from a culture’s “war on Christmas.” They want a free-fire zone where moralizers can denounce all but the like-minded, and churches with huge budgets can frighten or seduce worshippers into donor mode. They mean using Jesus’ name to impose the very cultural and political oppression that Jesus escaped once as a child but couldn’t escape as an adult.

I Am Not A Good Christian

Photo: Tripp Hudgins

Mandela can become a symbol of God for some. Photo: Tripp Hudgins

What makes one a good person? Additionally, what makes one a good Christian? I have been spending some time wondering about this as news of Mandela’s death has been making it’s way across the planet. Was he a good man? I think so, but how do we measure that? How do we know? And if, as some have claimed, his greatness stemmed from his willing embodiment of his Christian faith, I need to know if he was a good Christian.

Guy Sorman writes of Mandela:

“The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, founded by President Mandela and led by Bishop Tutu, is perhaps the most concrete example of Mandela’s Christian faith. Instead of the vengeance and reprisals that were expected and feared after years of interracial violence, the commission focused on confession and forgiveness. Most of those who admitted misdeeds and even crimes — whether committed in the name of or in opposition to apartheid — received amnesty. Many returned to civil life, exonerated by their admission of guilt.”

Mandela is exemplary not because he was perfect, always kind to everyone he met, an ideal husband and father, but because of these larger virtues that he also attempted to live out. He lived into these virtues — all of them, large and small, and all of them incompletely.

God, Santa, Gifts and a Story for Preschoolers

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Santa as a model to imitate: He gives gifts for the joy of it and so should we. Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock

When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents hung our stockings up at the beginning of Advent. Each morning, my younger sister and I would run down to the rec room to see if Santa had left us anything during the night. Finding an empty stocking was a huge relief, because the only reason Santa would leave us anything before Christmas was if we had been bad. Bad children would get a warning, you see. An onion or turnip swelling the stocking’s toe meant we were on probation and we had better shape up before Christmas or we’d end up on the naughty list.

This put the fear of God, er, Santa in me, I can tell you! When it happened to me (and it happened a lot — I reigned over my younger sister with the zeal of a tyrant!), I would rack my brain to figure out what I had done the day before that had garnered Santa’s judgment. Sometimes I knew what it was and I’d apologize for it and promise to do better, but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d done wrong and that was the worst of all. How can you fix something when you don’t quite know what needs fixing? I would worry and fret until Christmas morning. My stocking filled with candy and the presents under the tree were a relief, tangible evidence that in Santa’s estimation, I was a good girl. At least good enough to stay off the naughty list!

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