I am an unabashed fan of Christmastime.
The lights, the food, the drinks (wassail ftw!), tradition, time off. One can almost see America exhale when school lets out.
And then there’s the music. From Bach to Bing (with the notable exception of anything performed by Andy Williams, Wham!’s ‘This Christmas’, this steaming pile of a Christmas ode to Kansas City and any rendition of ‘Hey Santa’) I love the songs. Of course, being raised in church, I’m also partial to the classic seasonal carols, when they’re treated respectfully. No, that does not mean in a ‘joy to the world/the teacher’s dead/we barrr-be-cuuuuued her head!’ kind of way, but in wretched ‘rearrangements’ like the one of the prior parodied I heard on a Christian radio station here in the holy city last week. Some things just need to be left alone.
One of my favorite carols is ‘O Holy Night’; I may have mentioned this before. My aunt, the one with the operatic voice, used to solo it every season in her church and would nail it every time. Incredible, given that most of us tend to cut the volume when those high notes approach in order that no one hears us crack our voices like awkward 15-year-olds at the end of the checkout line who just got their work permits for the grocery store. (Let’s be honest, there are two kinds of people who can’t hit those notes: those who do this exact thing, and liars.)
And, in this advent season, the season of anticipation and waiting, a phrase jumped out of the song that seems odd. (Honestly, there are lots of questionable theological reflections in the Christmas carols, but let’s let that part of things alone for now.)
Long lay the world, in sin and error, pining.
I’ve done treatments on the second part of the phrase before–’til he appeared and the soul felt its worth–and noted both the existential statement therein, as well as the plain fact that the birth of Jesus had no soteriological value in and of itself. But here, in advent, it seems like a strange state of affairs for the [Jewish] world to be wallowing in sin and error. In the same way, we neglect the fact that the ‘not yet’ dynamic of Christian quasi-ecclesiology (a fancy way of saying ‘the way and why we do things as the church’, because when we really think about it, there is no fully-developed way or why we do things as the church) seems to absolve us from the responsibilities we have as Christ’s representatives in the world.
The children of Abraham had a responsibility, to be blessed in order to bless the world: keeping their end of the bargain, the one they renewed time and time and time and time again. If they were laying in sin and error, pining, the problem wasn’t that there was no Emmanuel: the problem was that they weren’t doing the covenant justice. (Incidentally, God’s end of the deal was always kept, to bless and to bring justice and correction when needed. Faithfulness to the terms is a two-way street.) In a history-repeats-itself kind of way which would more closely resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Evangelicals have become more and more closely aligned with fundamentalist principles, we have holed ourselves up, waiting for Jesus to come back, failing to recognize that we, like the people of God 2000 years ago, are too laying in sin and error, pining.
It’s one thing to be acting out of line; it’s another to be whining brattishly for God to give us a lollipop to sate us in the meantime.
Sin is not a divine problem, it’s a human problem. Errors are not made by God, they are made by us. Moreover, both are not merely human problems, but human religious problems. God’s unwavering commitment to mercy for the penitent may indeed be a deep reservoir of compassion, but the fact remains that sin exists solely for the religious. We who are supposed to know better–and, really, ‘believers’ just don’t–are the ones who bear the responsibility. We are the ones who would rather waive our rights and responsibilities for a bailout.
Jesus: Emmanuel. The prince of peace. The TARP act for Antiquity.
The truth of the matter is that God always was with us, from Adam to Melchizidek to Mother Teresa to this coming Monday. And, certainly, the life of Christ was a catalytic moment in history, but Jesus’ appearance should not have led to the soul feeling its worth; rather, it should have felt the weight of the divine mandate to live a life of justice, mercy and blessing for the world. The fact that the soul–my soul–so seldom seems to (and that’s an improvement!) indicates how reliant we remain on everything except living in relationship to God.
It certainly was a holy night when Christ was born, but we need to be a people who don’t reflect on holy nights, but holy lives. To be made of fundamentally different (because that’s what ‘holy’ is, rather than that fundamentalist puritanical and pelagian nonsense) stuff, to lead extraordinary lives not to fulfill ourselves, but as an extension of our union with God.
To be blessed, to bless. To be reconciled, to reconcile. To be loved, to love.
Interestingly enough, when we experience these things be it religiously or in the economy of human relationships, the moral inversion, the wallowing and the pining stop. We are rocked out of our mediocrity as one jolted awake from a dream. The world comes into focus, and we realize our place in it. The holy night supplanted by the resurrection morning. Then we realize that even beautiful songs celebrating a divine birth can be as short-sighted as a depraved club anthem.
No more sin and error, pining, but life and justice, living, in order that someone else may eventually–hopefully–recognize just how holy a night can be. Everyone lives in default advent, whether one realizes it or not.
When will you stop waiting and start living?