Let Him Grow Up – December 24, 2018
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great, glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel!
A few weeks ago, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I drove to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to meet several other twenty and thirtysomethings who sing with me in a community choir. It was cloudy and maybe 38 degrees, but that didn’t stop us from standing outside decked in festive gear for 30 minutes at a time amounting to several hours total. Our task was to serenade those who were traveling through the main gates of the garden in order to attend the famous Holiday Train Show located in a heated greenhouse a short walk away. We were cold, possibly hungover, and not very well rehearsed. The acoustics of the open air, amplified slightly by awkwardly placed microphones, were not ideal, to say the least. Nonetheless, as soon as we began each set, a sizeable crowd would invariably form around us to hear us sing such standards as Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Joy to the World. After every single carol, even when our tuning drifted, even we made mistakes, our makeshift audience would erupt in excited applause. People were taking video with their phones. Little children were exclaiming, “Yay! Yay!”
I don’t know why I was so struck by the enthusiastic reactions to our mediocre singing. It wasn’t exactly my first time participating in a hastily thrown together caroling ensemble. And yet as the afternoon went on I continued to marvel at the fact that people were choosing to listen to a choir. They were not just choosing to listen to a choir; they were enjoying it. And they were enjoying not just any choir but a choir that was singing music about Jesus, and not just any choir that was singing music about Jesus but a choir that was singing music about Jesus written over a hundred years ago. You have to understand that one of my deepest passions in life is choral music about Jesus written over a hundred years ago and eleven out of the twelve months of the year most people think that is just about the most boring, outdated thing you could ever think of. But come late November and people can’t get enough of it.
You see, everyone is a traditionalist at Christmas. We can spend all year flaunting our modern technological gadgets, brandishing our progressive chops and grumbling about the anachronism of organized religion—but on December 24th we all clamor to get a seat in an ancient-looking church so that we can belt out epic ballads about the Godhead veiled in Flesh and abhorring not the Virgin’s womb. Even those of your acquaintances who wouldn’t dare attend church on Christmas Eve probably have Manheim Steamroller’s take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen playing in the background as they gather around the tree.
Don’t get me wrong. I can do Christmas cheese with the best of them. I have a fondness for the carols of John Rutter that the choir likely finds nauseating. “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung in procession gets me every time. And we clergyfolk hardly have the luxury in this age of strapped budgets and declining church attendance to complain about hordes of crowds and lack of space during the Advent/Christmas season. But I have to confess that every year as we struggle to squeeze over three hundred people into this relatively small space for our 5:30 service my inner Ebenezeer Scrooge emerges and I feel just the slightest tinge of resentment. We put incredible care and thought and work into what we do here week in and week out, every day of the year. Why do people only show up for this?
Christmas, of course, is only the beginning of a much longer and more complicated story. Before Jesus has even reached puberty, while we are still in chapter two of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is defying his parents and holding his own among the spiritual teachers in the Jerusalem temple. By the time we get to chapter four, Jesus is battling the devil, claiming God’s mantle for himself, and getting rejected by his hometown. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus eats with sinners, confronts the privileged, and stuns crowds with his puzzling teachings. He works miracles that defy the laws of logic and reason. He suffers persecution, is condemned unjustly, and dies a brutal death before shocking the world with his coming to life again. His is a messy and nuanced yet profoundly moving narrative that doesn’t lend itself well to short snippets, quick summaries, or blithe characterizations. His birth is just the beginning. If we truly want to understand the life of Jesus, we have to be willing to encounter and experience the whole thing.
John Mason Neale was a nineteenth-century English priest, scholar and poet who was no foe of traditions in general or of Christmas carols in particular. In fact, he himself wrote or translated several Christmas or Advent carols, including “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But one Christmas Eve, before the local choral society set out caroling in the local village, he preached a sermon in which he offered some strikingly subversive thoughts on Christmas carols. “We are not to think,” he said, “that all these old customs are good only because they are old. We must not imagine that Christmas carols are to be kept up only because they have been the fashion for so long. No; remember what was their first beginning. The first singers at Christmas time were the blessed Angels; and the first Christmas carol they sang was ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.’ And what was the effect of it? What did the shepherds say? Did they say ‘What lovely music!’ or ‘What sweet voices!’ or ‘What a glorious sight!’ No; they said ‘Let us now go even to Bethlehem.’” Neale urged his hearers not to linger too long marveling at the pretty songs they loved so much. He suggested, instead, that they keeping go forward, that they hurry on to Bethlehem, to where the real action was.
Bethlehem, however, can be its own trap. We can become so enraptured with the pristine face of our porcelain Baby Jesus that we lock him away in a hidden cabinet, eager to protect him from the cares and concerns of this dirty, chaotic world, intent on preserving him just the way he is, consumed with the desire to keep him forever the same, to never let him suffer the smallest hint of trauma, to never let him grow up. Yet a Christmas that exists solely to be treacly, comforting fantasy or that gathers dust as a weary, historical museum piece is not a real Christmas at all. The real Jesus does not stay a child forever, all meek and mild, safely tucked away in a manger where he won’t bother us with anything too terribly difficult. The real Jesus has a future. The real Jesus grows up. The real Jesus becomes an adult in order to disturb us, to challenge us and to change our lives.
Cecil Frances Alexander was in many ways the emblematic writer of quaint, overly simplistic nineteenth century songs about Jesus. She wrote things like “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” In fact she wrote an entire collection called Hymns for Little Children that is full to the brim with antiquated Victorian moralizing. But one of the items in that collection, her Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” is more sophisticated than it might at first appear. You may recognize it as the one that begins the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College in Cambridge, England.
A single boy chorister always sings the first verse alone:
“Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a Mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed;
Mary was that Mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.”
So far, so good. A simple, safe portrait of a familiar scene.
In the second verse, though, Alexander makes a bolder declaration:
“He came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor and mean and lowly
lived on earth our Savior holy.”
This isn’t just about a nice little child, Alexander is explaining. This is about a child who is actually God and about that God sharing a space with the outcast and the oppressed.
In the third verse, Alexander can’t help but try to teach children that they should listen to their parents. Unfortunately, her claims about Jesus’ own obedient nature are mostly made up, so we’ll respectfully skip over that section.
In the fourth verse, however, things get really interesting:
“For he is our childhood’s pattern:
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.”
In most other Christmas carols, Jesus stays a baby. But Jesus gets to grow up in this Christmas carol. And in growing up, he shares in the same sorrows and the joys we experience; he demonstrates his solidarity with us.
Still, Alexander is only warming up. It is in the final two verses that she makes her fundamental point:
“And our eyes at last shall see him
through his own redeeming love,
for that child, so dear and gentle,
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor, lowly stable
with the oxen standing by
we shall see him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when, like stars, his children, crowned,
all in white shall wait around.”
Ultimately, Alexander is suggesting, we should not let ourselves get overly preoccupied with the charming little helplessness of a child; we should direct our attention to who that charming little helpless child is, what that charming little helpless child will do with the rest of his life, and where that charming little helpless child will lead us, too.
By all means, then, sing your Christmas carols. Make your way to Bethlehem; worship and adore. But remember that Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger for long. Consider staying tuned to find out what happens next. If you can let this lovely little baby go, you will be astounded by the grown up he becomes.