by Joy Carroll Wallis
How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card…. People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone’s house for mulled wine and minced pies…all very English! Great memories. But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, “the stable was warm and clean!” But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It’s interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus’ entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of “Away in a Manger.” Jesus is the perfect baby, and “No crying he makes….” My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn’t weep with those who weep, a Jesus who’s just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us. In Britain there’s a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of “Saviour’s Day” reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away….” I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season’s Christmas songs. When it came to “Saviour’s Day,” the writer said, “This song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!” A radio DJ in this country once said, “What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this.” It’s not a celebration of this “great” nation; it’s about Jesus Christ. It’s so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, “We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God.” Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke’s account it’s not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend. No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. But we don’t want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the “Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart.” We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let’s not forget to put Herod back into Christmas. Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God. Joy Carroll Wallis is an Anglican priest and the author of The Woman Behind the Collar (Crossroads) which tells the story of her journey to ordination and role as a consultant to the British television comedy series, The Vicar of Dibly. Joy lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis) and their two children. This message is adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5 2004.