The best spiritual practice you could perform is to spend the next year simply trying to live the implications of your favorite hymn. My friend, the late theologian and attorney, Edward Fudge, once said, “We all sing ‘All To Jesus I Surrender,’ and we’re all lying when sing it.”
While Christians have spent centuries debating hymnody, one topic left off the table is whether we believe what we sing. Edward’s words jammed into my spirit. Every beautiful once-in-a-while, I’ll catch myself in worship and swing back to the insight in Edward’s words.
“Am I lying while I’m singing?”
Oftentimes I am.
You are too, I suspect.
O Holy Night
This Advent, my ears have been ringing with the haunting words of French poet Placide Cappeau who wrote O Holy Night. I can never decide which artist’s version I like best, but the lyrics should harass the heart of any Jesus-follower. The first verse declares the hopeful truth that a sinful world was encountered by a loving Savior; a thrill of hope ripped through the world and our rightful response is to fall in worship. The second, and least sung verse from Cappeau, recounts the wise men’s search for the promised king in the promised land. But it’s the third verse that stings:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
If that doesn’t crash your expectations of Christmas, nothing will.
In just a few weeks, friends and family will exchange gifts. We will fly, train, and drive across the country to greet long seen loved ones with warm embraces. Our reunions and gatherings have the potential to be as beautiful and touching as Hallmark tells us they should be. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day, we will raise candles, sing hymns, and be reminded that into this dark, corroding world, a Savior has come.
For many of us, that’s just the word we need right now. Whether it be wars in places like Syria, the sight of women and children feeling violence only to encounter violence, hearing the demeaning words of politicians as they willfully embrace and nurture a culture of contempt, the death of a loved one, derailed children, financial reversals, sickness, depression, or any of the thousand other dispiriting miseries which accompany life, a Savior is what we want and what we need.
But O Holy Night reveals to me that at Christmastime, we get more than a Savior for me. We get a Savior for all.
During Advent, we not only await a Savior, at Christmas I sing that that Savior is not narrowly interested in my isolated, insulated salvation. Christmas ties my salvation to solidarity and kinship with the least on society’s totem pole—“the slave is our brother.”
I know this is unwelcome “good news” in a culture which prides itself on the cultural myth that human flourishing is produced by individual people doing individually well for their individual selves, and that all we need to do is get out of the way of individuals. While I’m quite certain that framework may work well for some things, it is does not work well for Jesus. The individual is not at the center of the Bible’s story and Jesus’ work, and s/he never has been.At Christmastime, we get more than a Savior for me. We get a Savior for all. Click To Tweet
A Gospel for “Me” is Too Small
This past weekend, I heard a televangelist parade out the tired old trope of “insert your name in John 3:16. For God so loved ____ that He sent…”. I get it. He wanted to make Jesus’ salvation specific and personal. His motives were good. His method was bad. We don’t get to just change the words of scripture when it fits our needs or when we want to sharpen our arguments. And here, not only is it poor interpretation, it truncates what God is up to in the world.
John 3:16 unfolds the cosmic drama for which Jesus was born, that God loves “the world.” The individual is part of the world, but the individual is not an only child. We are all caught up together in an inescapable web of fellowship. Therefore, what Jesus has done for one of us He has done for all of us, and what He has done for all of us He has done for each one of us. Christmas is cosmic and those who celebrate Christmas bear witness to a cosmic reordering of our values. Those cosmic values are reflected in living out the 59 “one another” passages encased in scripture—love, be devoted to, live in harmony with, have equal concern for, etc…one another, as well as Paul’s preamble to the oldest Christian hymn, which encourages us to “consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2).”
No longer are the narrow confines of parochial and particular concerns our only burdens. The load carried by my brothers and sisters becomes mine. No longer are other’s joys restricted to them. We share them. This is the grand vision of the gospel. St. Paul says Jesus is the firstborn of a “very large family (Romans 8).” As the messenger announced to Jesus’ unnerved parents, His name is Emmanuel, God with us.
Christmas is Good News for All the World
So, how can we not care about our brothers and sisters escaping violence in Venezuela or those living in poverty all around us? How can we ignore the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, those who live without justice, the unarmed dead, and still call Christmas Christmas? “The slave is our brother.” I suppose in a world accustomed to compartmentalization, we can, but we should at least have the integrity to not lie in our singing. If we don’t believe the slave is our brother, let’s not say he is.
So, this Advent, my family and our church are once again seeking ways to bring the world the gifts Jesus’ birth was intended to bring—peace, wholeness, healing, salvation. For years, our church Ecclesia Houston has partnered with Living Water International to build clean water wells. It’s part of our rhythm this time of year to give less, spend more, love all, and worship fully.
But please, don’t get it twisted. We’re not angels. We’re neither monks nor martyrs. We just want to sing O Holy Night…and mean it.Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His Gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease. Click To Tweet