My mother, as they say, is a saint. And I have witnessed her righteous indignation, expelled in the spirit of Elijah on Mount Carmel, at the insidiously subversive notion that Advent hymns might be too overwrought, lyrically; too dense, theologically; and too passé, musically. The initial accusation might have wrinkled her brow; the second may have elicited a silent shake of her head; the final, however, was outright blasphemous slander.
My mother’s musical blood is purebred, and Christmas songs, above all other genres, make it sing. Others may have rushed to the mall on Black Friday; my mother rushed to her LP’s, cassettes and CD’s to unleash her voluminous Christmas collection. Thus have I been raised with an appropriate reverence for carols, which I gleefully imbibe all December.
Among our favorite carols, often sung at the conclusion of the Christmas Eve services of my childhood, is the rousing “Joy to the World”. It is a favorite of many because of its celebratory tone, yet it also highlights the tensions of Advent.
“Joy to the world,” we sing, and in so doing, we echo the angel appearing to the bewildered shepherds in Luke 2:
But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: today a Savior who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David” (Lk 2:10-11, HCSB).
But these days, with ISIS wreaking havoc in the Middle East, with the bombings in Paris, and with mass shootings popping up across America with far too much frequency, you’d be forgiven wondering whether the birth of the Savior of the world had really happened two thousand years ago.
In fact, it hardly takes headline grabbing atrocities to stretch our faith. We may each be a cancer diagnosis, car accident or downsizing away from wondering whether Jesus had truly brought “peace on earth to people [God] favors” (Luke 2:14b). The tension can be all too real.
But the tension is not new.
The Christmas season, naturally, is the right time to review the nativity stories from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Seldom, however, do we arrive at Matthew 1 by way of Malachi 4. That is, we too often begin reading these celebrated Christmas passages without their historical context.
When the angels burst into the shepherds’ lives in Luke 2, the Jews of Palestine had already been living under the Roman thumb for 60 years. Before that, with the exception of a few notable years, Jews in the Near East had been cruelly governed by the Seleucids for 140 years. Before that, the Ptolemies had come from Egypt and harshly ruled the Jews for 120 years. Just seven years or so before that, Alexander the Great had swept through the Middle East, making everything Greek. One hundred years prior, Malachi had prophesied in a Jerusalem under Persian jurisdiction. And though the Persians were generally beneficent toward other cultures, they certainly were not Israelite descendants of David, whose throne God had promised to uphold eternally (2 Sam. 7). And before the Persians, who controlled the land for 200 years, came a half century of Jewish captivity in Babylon, which itself had been preceded by 150 years of captivity under the Assyrians.
All told, by the time Jesus was born, God’s people had been waiting over 700 years for the Lord to restore the fortunes of His people, to bring “peace on earth”.
Everything that’s old, as the saying goes, is new again.
Advent is, as it ought to be, a celebration. Yet it is further, as it ought to be, bittersweet. Like a Van Gogh painted upon a postage stamp, Advent is a frustratingly stunning portrait of how the world ought to be. Indeed, it is a premonition of God’s aim for the creation—tantalizing in the glimpses we get of that hope; frustrating in the long wait for Christ’s return, when the angels’ song for peace on earth at last will be made fully real.
This Christmas, then, I will again be singing “Joy to the World” with full throat. I will do so as a declaration of history, for those with eyes to see, and as a prophetic act: Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!