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Old 12-23-2004, 01:39 PM   #1
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Putting Herod Back Into Christmas

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.

My boys and I enjoy watching the animated movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the island of misfit toys where all the strange and unusual toys lived? The island is an interesting picture of our church communities. The church is not a gathering of people who have it all together, who look and act alike, who have no problems to speak of. The church is a community of people who are broken and needy, who in their weakness trust in the grace of God. This is the kind of church that Jesus the outcast, the misfit has created. The gospel that acknowledges brokenness, pain, and the tragedy of life is good news for us all. There is hope for all who find this season tinged with despair or pain. Perhaps we mourn the loss of a loved one and their absence on Christmas day is more painful each year. Perhaps our lives are full of struggle. Perhaps we despair over the state of our world.

The news of ever-increasing poverty in this country and the news of the war in Iraq - whose mission was supposed to be accomplished by now but is clearly not - is a mess and getting worse by the day with more and more casualties. A war, like most wars, that has not lived up to its promises seems so much out of sync with the message that we sing in our Christmas carols. The Jesus of the Bible came to give life to those who are living with real grief and pain. This is not often the stuff of our Christmas carols.

The greatest Christmas song is that of Mary's, found in the second chapter of Luke:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

Mary's "Magnificat" tells us that this new king is likely to turn the world upside-down. Mary's declaration about the high and mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted is at the heart of the Christmas story. The son of God is born in an animal stall. Mary herself is a poor young woman, part of an oppressed race, and living in an occupied country. Her prayer is the hope of the downtrodden everywhere, a prophecy that those who rule by wealth and domination, rather than serving the common good, will be overturned because of what has just happened in the little town of Bethlehem. Her proclamation can be appropriately applied to any rulers or regimes that prevail through sheer power, instead of by doing justice.

This story that begins in a smelly barn finally ends on a cross. By human standards it is a message of weakness. Christmas reminds us that our God has come into our broken world, and that human judgments are not the last judgment, human justice is not the last justice. The power that humans exercise over us is not the last power. As we enjoy our caroling, let's remember to put Herod back into Christmas. Amen.

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.

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Old 12-23-2004, 01:52 PM   #2
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Sojourners is awesome. Check it out people — www.sojo.net

Merry Christmas and God bless.

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Old 12-24-2004, 05:55 AM   #3
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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.
What an excellent message. Thank you for posting it.
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Old 12-24-2004, 06:03 AM   #4
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That's the best Christmas article I've read. Thanks for posting it.
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Old 12-24-2004, 09:05 AM   #5
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I'm glad you guys liked it. As soon as I read it, I wanted to share it here.
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Old 12-24-2004, 11:03 PM   #6
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thanks, dano

The best Christmas article I've read too!


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