I found myself complaining to a friend recently: “I hate when churches sing Christmas carols during worship just because it’s December…”
I’d gone to my parents’ church after Thanksgiving and found that there, like most of the rest of the world, the Christmas season was in full force. In addition to the trees and garland, the church’s worship set had been replaced with a set of classic carols. “They’re so hard to sing, and no one can remember the second and third verses anyway. They just don’t seem like worship songs.”
One or two carols was about all it took— the unfamiliar words and the rafter-high vocal range quickly convinced me to switch from half-singing to simply mouthing the words. Then came a song I hadn’t heard in a while:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
I stood and listened. The opening words suddenly struck me as deeply profound. How strange and amazing would it be to have been there that night.
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.
All of culture had been waiting in anticipation for that night: would the earth have felt different? Would the air have smelt sweeter? Or would it have been strangely ordinary? Would I have felt different? How would I have reacted?
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
The Christmas story is such a strange paradox of the commonplace and the extraordinary. A traveling teenager gives birth in the poor countryside, so they stick the baby in a barnyard food trough. Then a crowd of sleep-deprived farm workers; rich, foreign rulers; and celestial beings shows up for the occasion.
Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
You have to wonder what kind of God writes a story like this. The all-powerful, almighty, creator God who set all of existence into motion chose to step into his own story in this most unspectacular and paradigm-shifting way.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
The story is revolutionary at its core. The king who holds all power comes in weakness and humility. The God who is creator and sustainer of all things comes as a brother and son and friend. The Divine comes in love and peace rather than political control or dominance. How do you respond to something like that? I imagined myself standing there, overwhelmed by the strange beauty of it all.
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.
I stood there, wondering and asking God the same question. “It was so long ago, yet there is still so much power in that moment, God. The humility you chose, the revolutionary kindness and paradigm-shifting love— how do we respond to that?”
The music swelled, and suddenly I wasn’t concerned by my lack of singing ability or awkward timing of the last few verses. My off-tune voice rose up among the rafters:
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
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