On Christmas Day, this joyous day, the Word’s Incarnation and death’s long shadow are linked, hinged in the dark stable like the reality of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the fruit of our self-delusion on the other.
Jesus was born, fully God and fully man, for one purpose only: to die in order to save believers from death. Manger straw was sharp, like splinters from a criminal’s cross.
As a sharp-dressed Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra point out in a classic of Christmas cool, it’s a “Marshmallow World”:
Yet ours is a “marshmallow world” only in a way that the lyricist likely did not intend: a world made insubstantial by Adam’s fall, a confection of a world, treacly and the color of a whitewashed sepulcher. Into this world the new Adam came, God robed in flesh, verbum caro, mysterious as the “Magnificat” of Dutch composer Joep Franssens (born 1955) (link below).
Mysterious thing, Christmas Day, and we do well to meditate on it. Yet those in the Puritan tradition, while rejoicing in the blessed event, often scoffed at the day’s popular commemoration: Jonathan Edwards consciously avoided ever preaching a “Christmas” sermon, and the Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon considered fixing the day on December 25 to be a “superstition” to paint over pagan winter festivals. They stripped away the day, down to the Gospel.
Perhaps for you this Advent season, perhaps even this Christmas Day, has been stripped down to the grain. The days are darker and sharper at the same time, restless with God’s movement beneath the seeming appearance of things. Revolution, quiet portents, death: all seems possible to you.
If so, let God speak in the grain. Consider the spookiness of my favorite Christmas carol, “In the bleak midwinter” by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894):
In the bleak midwinter…
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
There are a million covers of this piece. Try this one by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:
This is not weird; this is the Christmas breath of the Gospel. In the early 1970s, on cold clear December nights, my little AM radio in Alabama could sometimes pick up WLS, a storied radio station in Chicago, with a nighttime female DJ memorably named (at least, memorably for a 12-year-old boy in 1972) “the queen mother of rock.” What restless trick of radio waves, what mystery of the earth’s curvature and its frozen ground, brought music, news and voices from so far away, crackling in the dark of my room?
Stripped to the wood-grain of the manger, this is what Christmas Day brings: heaven’s music to a world muted with sin, good news of a Savior to a world tired of false saviors, voices harmonized by the Holy Spirit to a world otherwise ringing with our screeches and screams. Along with Mary, let us today ponder all these things in our heart, praising God in wonder.
Here is the Joep Franssens “Magnificat”:
Jack Sharman is an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, and a Vestry & Chapter member of the Cathedral Church of the Advent.