Sunday, December 19, 2010

'O Holy Night': Christmas remembered

The mythic Christmas is a white one, but one of my greatest Christmas memories involves weather that was easily fifty degrees above freezing.

It was December 1993. I was teaching middle school English at Cradle of Life Christian School midway between Port-au-Prince and Petionville. I was more than two thousand miles from home, and couldn't help but feel a little yearning for the days when I used to wake up early and rush for the presents under the tree. And I couldn't help feeling a little wistful when I thought about the Christmas Eve services my brothers and I had attended as children.

On this particular evening, those teachers who felt so inclined had gathered for a school Christmas party. It was a hot night, and although there were Christmas decorations and there was a general effort afoot to get into the Christmas spirit, I don't recall much success.

At one point, the power failed, this being Haiti, and our hosts produced kerosene lanterns. It was shortly after this that Jim Muchmore produced a guitar and started leading us in Christmas carols. We sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tammy Lynn Johnston joining me on the tags at the end of each line; and we sang a Christmas song Jim had written about the economic embargo then in effect; and then we sang "O Holy Night."

It was a new song for me, one I knew the existence of but one that I had never actually heard at church as a boy. As we went on, I felt the awe and wonder of the song steal over me. By the time we had finished, the Christmas spirit had arrived, and this hymn had become my favorite Christmas carol.

Like many Christmas carols, "O Holy Night" is a song that is rarely sung in full, and that is a tremendous loss to us all. While carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Adeste Fideles" beautifully express deep and timeless doctrine about Christ, "O Holy Night" expresses a deep truth about the nature of Christ and the gospel he brings:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Truly he taught us to love one another;
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.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Written in the 19th century, the song was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, who gave it a strong abolitionist message at a time when many in the South were still defending slavery as their God-given right. Not surprisingly, while the song became very popular in the North, it took a while for it to find an audience in the southern states.

While the first verse recounts the wonder of the Incarnation, and the second verse (not shown above) recounts the Christmas narrative of the magi coming to Bethlehem, the third verse recounts nothing. Neither warm nor fuzzy, it instead challenges us to consider the stark contrast between the way we do business and the way Christ does it.

In recent months there has been some fear among some churches about the resurgence of the "social gospel." Some people feel that it neglects the spiritual tones of Jesus' message, and others fear what a faith-driven political liberalism could change.

People are right to be afraid. The gospel is one of the most subversive messages ever proclaimed. Socialism, which has become a byword in America the last two years, is merely an economic system. In the end, socialism wouldn't uproot even a fraction of the American way of life that would be undone if we took Jesus as seriously as we claim we do. The ridiculous salaries and bonuses of Wall Street and corporate CEOs wouldn't just be indefensible, they would be unthinkable. Our entire health care industry would be overturned. Our welfare and immigration rules would be undone, and our foreign policy would be torn to shreds. And that would be just the beginning.

Since I first discovered the song in Haiti, "O Holy Night" has stuck with me in a way no other Christmas carol has. The tune is too beautiful for words, and the words are a challenge to the comfortable life I live. Christ has come, and he has made the slave my brother. Every time I benefit from the debasement or exploitation of another, through the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or by any other means, I am out of step with the call Christ has placed on all our lives.

At this time of year, it is common for Christians in some churches to pray, "You came into the darkness and made a difference. Come into the darkness again." We must always remember that Christ has come, not just into the darkness, but into us as well, and it is up to us now, his people, his body, his partners, to see that the difference is made.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Talking the talk

I confess, I have a little difficulty understanding people who fill their speech with spiritual jargon.

Sometimes it's because their spiritual talk just makes no sense, like when someone says, "We're out of milk, praise God" or (true example) when a woman talking to children about being on-guard against sexual abuse says, "You should let a parent know if someone tries to touch you there, bless Jesus."

Sometimes religious people feel that a life of faith means being upbeat and cheerful, even if there is nothing to be cheerful or upbeat about. These are the people who find out you have cancer and urge you to overcome it through the power of your faith, or who comfort you after you've been fired from a job by saying, "Remember, 'All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.'" (Thanks, Shirley. I don't think I ever said how much that meant to me.)

Then there are the religious people who can't wait to let you know that you're going to hell because you do something they don't like, whether it's having premarital sex, which could lead to dancing; or reading comic books (Psalm 107:18 warns of comic book artists, saying "They drew near the gates of death"); or most dangerously of all, having your own opinions (Proverbs 26:12). I have no time for these people at all.

More entertaining are the people of faith from one religious tradition or another, whom we all have met. who trot out passages from their holy texts at every possible occasion. These are people who say things like, "The church had a barbecue last night, in accordance with Leviticus 3:16"; or "I met my boyfriend by following the principles God laid out in Proverbs 7:10-21"; or "I'd like an iced coffee. Is it not written, 'Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth'?"

Back at the Church with an Extra E, we had a fellow named Sean who fell into that latter group. Like most people of that bent, Sean was a big teddy bear. He called everyone brother or sister, quoted Scripture with authority whether it was needed or not, and couldn't understand why nobody else in the church used "Holy Ghost" as an adjective. It is a testimony to how wide the grace of God is that we could worship at the same church. We were not cut from the same cloth.

"Hey, Brother Dave, how about a Holy Ghost hug?" he asked me once, warmly.

"Hey Sean, how about a Holy Ghost restraining order?" I asked with a smile.

I don't really get people who lace their speech with spiritual jargon. But I'm fairly certain they have an equally hard time getting me.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.