December 24th, 2010

If Jesus had wanted to avoid aggravation, he wouldn’t have been born.

Luke 2:7

December 24, 2010

Carol conflict

The U. S. Supreme Court recently refused to take up a case that would ban singing Christmas carols in public schools.  I’m not particularly encouraged, because that means Christmas carols are less offensive to our secular world than prayer.   In other words, people don’t really think about the words that they are singing when they sing carols.  It’s just a harmless tradition along the lines of saying “Trick or Treat.”  Nobody really means it when they “worship Christ the newborn King.”

In reporting on the above story, Christianity Today provoked a little discussion about the children’s carol “Away in a Manger.”  While reading up on the spat, I came across a blog discussing the top eight historically incorrect Christmas songs.  Besides “Away in a Manger,” those making the list were “The First Nowell” (because it says the shepherds saw the same star as the wise men) “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (N. T. Wright doesn’t think much of the “ever-circling years” ushering in an “age of gold”) and “We Three Kings” (my personal favorite among the purveyors of legendary partial truths).

The potentially offensive line in “Away in a Manger” is this one: “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

Tom Jennings, director of worship and arts at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, writes, “This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation: Jesus entered into our suffering.”

Others even say this line of the carol is “heresy.”  What they mean is that normal humans cry as infants, and there’s nothing sinful about a baby crying.  So if Jesus didn’t cry in the manger, he must not have been fully human.  That would be heresy.

Not everyone agrees.

A Korean theologian responds, “In my culture, a ‘guai’ (good) child is one that ‘does not cry’ (unnecessarily, that is). It describes a mother’s delight. I have never sung this hymn thinking Jesus was not human – but that He was simply a mother’s delight, a Good Child just as He is a Good God.”

John chimes in on the blog, “I was once bothered by the phrase, ‘No crying He makes…’ Then I had children. I suppose Mr. Jennings has never seen an infant, upon hearing a strange sound, stop its crying and turn toward the source.”

Annie adds, “I believe that the real meaning of this phrase is that ‘Jesus did not fuss about being born in a manger, but instead accepted the suffering.’ In a way I think it refers to God’s choosing to become human, and not complaining about it.”

There must be pain

Without attempting to resolve the raging debate, it simply seems to me to paint a picture of the “ordinary” world into which that “extraordinary” baby came.

The most memorable book I read in all of 2010 was Why We Hate Us, by Dick Meyer.  The book is about discontent in America.  We all believe everybody else has it wrong, and we’re ticked off about it.  Nobody else gets it like I get it.

One way to hear or read my words would be as a “whine-fest” toward those who blogged about the crying in “Away in a Manger.”  I don’t mean that.  The spirit of the comments on the web site was mostly a good-natured exchange from sincere worshipers of Jesus.

My point is simply that the baby born “away in a manger” came into a world so broken that we can’t even agree whether Jesus crying is a good thing or not.  Quantitatively, most of our whining is not about “peace on earth” – although that still seems elusive 2,000+ years after the birth.  It’s about peace in the church, peace in the home, peace between the warring factions within each of our souls.

But that’s why he came.  I don’t want to suggest he’s happy over all the whining about crying.  I do want to say it was exactly your world and mine that he so passionately wanted to enter into.  He doesn’t run from brokenness.  He doesn’t steer clear of conflict.  He doesn’t avoid unhappy people.  He comes to them.

My favorite quote outside the Bible this past year was one Peter Corneliussen made about dear Maggie Dow, who died in September at the age of 98.  Maggie was publicly pleasant but had a private mean streak known only to a few.  Peter said of Maggie, “When there’s that much aggravation, there has to be a lot of pain.”  He moved toward her.

That’s what Jesus did.  He knew all about our aggravation, all about our pain, all about conflicts – big and small.  He came to us – not in spite of it but because of it.

That’s my message this Christmas.  Don’t run from the broken people.  Find them.  Don’t shut the door of your heart to those who annoy you.

At your gatherings tonight, this weekend, or even into New Year’s celebrations there will likely be at least one person or situation or conflict you try to steer clear of so you can enjoy the holidays peacefully.  If Jesus had wanted to avoid broken or mean or argumentative people, he wouldn’t have come into our world at all. 

He knew that he couldn’t even be born without our arguing over whether crying in the manger is a good thing or a bad thing for the Son of God.  That’s just one symptom of our brokenness.  We fight.  We hate.  We are proud and self-serving.  We  love “me” and hate “us.” 

What Jesus said about our brokenness was something like this:  “Where there’s that much aggravation, there has to be a lot of pain.”  So he came.  As he lived his life, he showed us what goodness and godliness look like.  Then he died for our badness and sin.  Trust him to forgive you.  Then go and do what he did.

Find the person this Christmas who is aggravating or alienated, aloof or bitter, maybe even mean or boorish.  Listen.  Love.  Care.  Serve.  That’s the Jesus way.  Amen.

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