I’m one of those weirdos who could listen to Christmas music year-round. But I don’t, because I love the special sense of awareness of the incarnation that dawns upon my heart every year in December as advent songs begin to play. Some of these songs, especially the old ones, seem to me to breathe upon this hard, cold world the very atmosphere of heaven.
And I love that.
I love the fact that each year—rising above all oppression, enslavement, injustice, and poverty—these melodies of God incarnate, God in love, God in the throes of a voluntary agony in solidarity with us, rebuke the darkness and articulate hope.
The poetry of song has a way of concentrating massive amounts of meaning in a minimum of words while piercing deep into the emotions. Advent songs seem to possess an unusual share of this poetic clarity. Here are five of my favorite lines from Advent songs and the ideas they stimulate within me.
Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
To my mind, these are among the most beautiful words ever penned. But they are more than beautiful: they are startlingly insightful because they convey the paradoxical reality that we both hope for God to approach us and we simultaneously fear His approach. We hope that He comes near because there is within us an inescapable sense that He alone is of sufficient wherewithal to save us, and yet we fear His coming because we also sense that One so good as He will not countenance our evils ways without marshaling against us all the opposition we deserve. He loves us enough to save us and too much to excuse us. In the advent of Christ we encounter the inextricable convergence of both the beauty and the terror of the Lord. And it is, in fact, His beauty—in all its moral flawlessness and selfless love—that terrifies us.
O Holy Night
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
This lyric rightfully discerns that sin, along the way with all its sick and twisted machinations, steals away our sense of self-worth. Guilt is a hard creditor that hammers at us demanding its due. Shame acts as a mirror in the soul to show us our morally-deformed selves staring back at us. Satan capitalizes on our failures, whispering to us that we are beyond hope. But when Jesus came, He despised our shame, not us. He conducted Himself in such a manner that all with whom He came in contact were given the gift of a restored sense of personal dignity.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Pleased as man with man to dwell;
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
What a delightful thought! Was God, indeed, pleased as man with man to dwell? We rightfully think of the incarnation of Christ as a monumental condescension, as an inconceivably heart-wrenching sacrifice. He came down, way down, not making merely a geographical journey through space, but a transmigrational journey of nature. He who was for all eternity past God and only God, now became for all eternity future human. And, astoundingly, He was happy to do so. Pleased, Wesley would have us believe. He wasn’t driven by stern duty or stoic obligation, but rather by a love so deep and genuine and pervasive to His being, that He chose to unite Himself to us for eternity by the deep and unbreakable ties of nature, of identity. As Paul says, “He became us.”
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Yet with the woes of sin and strife,
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled,
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not,
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Here we are ushered into a jolting and sublime juxtaposition of images, of realities: the din of war and the song love. Human beings are fighting with one another, the noise of battle fills the air, the shrieks of the suffering pierce the heavens. But then, rising above the clash of arms, the melody of a love song washes over bloodied warriors and bleeding bodies to hush the turmoil. The angels sing of God’s love as we charge upon one another with hate. It’s hard not to stop and listen. And if we do, this love song alone has the power to crush the violence that pulsates within us.