Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas music & the future

Like most people with souls, I really enjoy Christmas music, especially the old, traditional carols.  Maybe part of the magic is that we only hear them for a few glorious weeks each year...but there is something, yes, magical, even primitive or ancient, about them, and I feel like a part of history when we sing them at church, with the lights down low, candles shimmering and glowing on faces.

It's probably because I've studied words and poems and sentences and literature for so long, but I can't help see the beauty of the lyrics, so much more complex and layered than the monotonous choruses our generation turns out.  The lyrics are timeless because they are meaningful and beautiful.  

Traditional Christmas carols are about the baby Jesus, about the manger and the stable and the angels and the shepherds.  But the Christmas story isn't just about that instant in time, that particular nativity (birth) scene that we replay and make shrines to.  It's about peering into the future.  Christmas is about waiting for something.  We are all waiting for something.  

Jesus was born so that man and God could be at peace, so God could loosen the burden of the sin we were born with. He was born to be a King of the world, to make his blessings known far as the curse is found. He came to remove the ugly and humiliating stain of evil that's all over our universe, soaked through our hearts.  But we could quite legitimately object to lyrics like these, from a few of our favorite Christmas carols:

"He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love..."
"Born that man no more may die...born to raise the sons of earth...born to give them second birth."
"Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."
"His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease."

That last one is especially objectionable. In Christ's name oppression will cease? Not yet, that's for sure! Horrible and heinous things have been done in Christ's name, staining history with the deeds of his so-called followers.  Why do these song writers seem to think the world became wonderful when Christ was born?  It's actually just as bad as it's always been, and a lot of people think it's worse than it's ever been (although I'd probably disagree in a way).

I really had to think about this: does Jesus reign now? Sure, we talk about him reigning in our hearts, but for the most part, in our world, it seems like someone else is in charge.  God's enemies are the real princes of this universe, and while we've read the last pages of the book already and know how it ends, God's power is restrained in this world, at this time.  The curse on the earth--which includes sin, evil, greed, selfishness, death, oppression and injustice--is still widespread and dominant.  It's the default of our human condition; we have to work against the forces of entropy and evil and selfishness, if we want anything to be different.

But Christmas is about pointing not just to the past and the baby away in the manger, but to the future, when the work Christ began will be completed.  He didn't make the world a better place, and he doesn't reign in this world, and, no, the nations don't all proclaim his righteousness, and everyone still faces evil and death and all the other pains of being alive.  The point of Christmas is that humanity needed to be reconciled to God, and we needed a way to do that.  

On an individual level, however imperfectly, we can see these promises fulfilled.  We can now have peace with God, and he can reign in our lives, and we can live for him. But that's not the full story: the curse has not been lifted.  That's why we can't fully experience these truths. Rather, Jesus's birth is a key chapter in the continuing drama of God's relationship with Man.  One day, what we can now experience in an imperfect way, will be perfectly and wholly true throughout the vastness of the world, after the hideous crookedness of sin has been done away with.

In many ways, life is wonderful.  And in many ways, it's terrible.  There is a tension between our desire to stay on earth--we were made for this place, made out of it--and our knowledge that heaven is a place without pain.  The point of Christmas, and all those wonderful traditional songs, is that one day we'll live in real, lasting peace, on this very same earth. We won't have to choose between this beautiful earth, and our awesome Savior.  There won't be this tension between physical and spiritual.  We are waiting for God's plan to be complete, because until then, we all suffer in this world, even as we love the beauty in it, and even as God speaks to and through us. 

So, while these Christmas songs seem to be confused in their assessment of the current state of humanity, many of them still express the idea of waiting.  There's a verse that I haven't heard sung very often, in the song "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" that says it much better than I could.  Christmas is a crucial moment in the story of salvation, but it's not the last chapter.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

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