A lot of people don’t like these kinds of movies because they have happy endings. It just seems too unrealistic to a lot of people for everything to end “happily ever after.” They prefer movies with complex, ambiguous characters rather than heroes and villains, and unhappy endings, or at least bittersweet endings. Maybe you are in that category, would rather watch The Godfather instead of fairy godmothers and such.
The reason I bring all this up is because of the way the story of the birth of Jesus often comes across this time of year. We are just shy of three weeks from Christmas, and already the radio has been saturated by Christmas carols. I have to confess to you that I love this time of year, and I love holiday music. But I am also concerned about the way lots of Christmas carols describe the birth of Jesus.
Christmas Carol Myths
My concern is not really about the trappings of Christmas per se. I am sure that the members of this congregation are well versed in the Bible and understand that a lot of the traditional elements of the “Christmas story” have no connection to Scripture. We do not know when Jesus was born, and the Bible nowhere commands us to set aside December 25th as a special holy day in His honor. “We Three Kings” were not actually kings, they were wise men, and we have no idea how many of them there were. They brought three gifts, but I am hoping I get more than one gift from each of you! And their visit did not take place the night Jesus was born, but some time later.
But these details are really ancillary to my concerns. What troubles me the most is the almost fairy-tale quality of many of the Christmas carols, the unrealistic way they describe the birth of Jesus. I am completely happy to allow for poetic license in songs; that is the very nature of music. The Psalms contain lots of imagery that should never be pressed into literal meaning. That is how lyrics evoke emotion and stir the imagination.
The problem is that many Christmas carols paint such a rosy picture of Jesus’ birth, a scene of unrelenting joy and peace and beauty, that the story becomes too unrealistic, totally irrelevant for a world that is filled with pain and conflict and evil. When that happens, the miracle of the incarnation can easily be relegated to the same bookshelf as Rapunzel and the powerful message of the coming of Jesus is muted.
So starting today I want to take some verses from famous Christmas carols and put them in sharp contrast with what the Bible actually says. And I can’t think of a better example to begin with than maybe the most beloved Christmas carol of all –
Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
I think I know what the writer of this hymn (Joseph Mohr) was getting at. I think he wanted to paint a picture of humble serenity. Jesus’ birth was a simple affair, not a spectacle like a royal wedding or birth would have been had one of the Caesars had just had a son. Jesus entered this world in humble circumstances. Further, I think these lyrics are designed to convey reverence and awe at the wonder of the virgin birth. So in that sense I like these lyrics.
But “all is not calm and bright” in my world. My world is filled with anxiety and clash and darkness rather than serenity and peace and light. If I am led to believe that the story of Jesus took place in a world where all was calm and bright, then what possible relevance could that story have to the grim realities of my world. This is the “fairy tale” quality of Christmas carol that I fear can undermine the message of the gospel.
The Birth of Jesus Was Not Calm and Bright
But is this the way the Bible actually tells the story of Jesus’ birth? “Calm and bright” are the last two words I would use to summarize the depiction of the birth of Jesus in the gospels.
In the first place just think of the circumstances under which Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus commanded a census to be taken, which in keeping with Jewish tradition would have required Jewish men to return to their ancestral hometowns.
4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
How calm could Bethlehem have been when Jews from all over Palestine were pouring in for this census? Bethlehem was a small town back then (as it is today). To be inundated with travelers from all around would have created lots of chaos and confusion in a small village, the very picture drawn for us in Luke 2 – a town so overbooked with visitors there was no room for the family in the local inn.
6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Since Mary gave birth when they arrived, she must have been far along in her term when they started out from Nazareth. How calm do you think Joseph and Mary would have been traveling the 90 mile from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her deep into her pregnancy? What a difficult journey that must have been (and remember, they had to do it on foot or horseback).
And once they get into the little village there is no place to stay. Though the text does not say so, the reference to a manger indicates they had to bed down where animals were kept, possibly a stable. And in those less than favorable accommodations Mary went into labor. No hospital, no midwife, no room. What a nerve wracking way this must have been to end the long trip.
I have to wonder how Mary and Joseph would react if they knew centuries later we would be singing about how “calm and bright” that night was!
It was a painful, stressful, busy night for that family.
Just as there is a tendency for Christmas carols to make everything much cleaner and neater than it really was, those traditional songs typically fail to point out the very real emotions of worry and concern the family of Jesus felt.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Messiah, she did not immediately start singing “Joy to the World”! Luke 1 says this:
28And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
She was “greatly troubled,” and Gabriel had to reassure her not to be afraid. Now, to Mary’s credit, once she heard the promise of God, she did break into song – she is a true heroine of the faith. But as much as she was a heroine she was human, and she journeyed from fear to faith like we all must.
Her husband had to make that same journey. In Matthew’s account, when Joseph found Mary with child before their marriage was consummated, he was troubled enough to put her away. But the angel of the Lord came to him and said:
20But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
“Joseph, Son of David, do not fear.” That tells me Joseph did fear, and like Mary he wasn’t always calm and needed the reassuring promise of God to graduate him past his fear to faith.
I can’t relate to fairy tale heroes, but I can relate to people who are troubled when life turns upside down on them, to people who are gripped with anxiety and need the promise of God to release the grip of worry. That isn’t the way many Christmas carols tell the story, but it is the way the Bible tells the story, because it isn’t make believe; it is real life.
The World of Jesus Was Not Calm and Bright
Real life is not always “calm and bright,” and neither was the world into which Jesus was born. There was a superficial calm, called the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. The census that led to Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem was ordered by the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (Luke 3:1), who prided himself on the peace and security his administration brought to Rome. But the Roman Peace came at a price. The sometimes brutal subjugation of anyone who challenged Caesar’s authority. And in no part of the world was the potential for violent rebellion stronger than where Jesus was born, in the land of Israel.
Many Jews seethed under the Roman occupation of their land, and resented having to pay taxes to Caesar. Periodically this resentment spilled out into open rebellion, and the Bible refers to several instances of violent suppression of the Jews. Luke 13:1 mentions a massacre of Jews from Galilee while coming to offer sacrifices in the temple, and Acts 5:36-37 mention two insurrections which ended in bloodshed. In Acts 21:38 Paul was confused with an Egyptian who stirred up a revolt of four thousand “Assassins,” the Sicarri, the knife-men who murdered those in sympathy with Rome. And of course, who did Pilate release instead of Jesus? Barabbas, a man “who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder” (Luke 23:25).
It seems like the Middle East has always been saturated with violence and hatred, and while that it is not actually the case, it certainly has been through much of its history, and especially in the time of Christ. The promised land, the land that flowed with milk and honey, in the time of Jesus flowed with hostility and animosity, and of course that hatred reached the boiling point 40 years later, when Israel went into outright war against Rome and was crushed.
All is not calm and bright now, and it was not when Jesus was born, either. But that hate-filled world is the very world He chose to come to. The purpose of His coming was to bring peace and healing to a world torn apart by sin. And the way He proved that He could do this was by His great miracles. Think of this story:
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
There is a lot going on in this story. It first of all establishes the power of Jesus over nature itself, which astonished (and terrified) the disciples. If He is powerful enough to dissipate a storm by simply speaking to it, what couldn’t He do! That is the sort of thing only God can do! As Psalm 65:7 says, it is God “who stills the roaring of the seas.”
Further, in the OT the stormy seas often represent the forces of evil and chaos, which God must subdue.
8O LORD God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O LORD,
with your faithfulness all around you?
9You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
10You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
Jesus came into a world roiled by hatred, which was not calm and bright. But He came to still the storms, and while all is not calm and bright on its own, once Jesus acts, as Mark 4:39 says, “there is great calm.”
In the very next chapter of Mark there is another story from Jesus’ ministry that allows us to see the ugliness of the world that Jesus really came into.
1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.
This is no fairy tale world where all is calm and bright. It is a story of evil, evil unleashed to do harm. The gospels teach that the world of Jesus was under attack by the Devil, who used his armies of unclean spirits to create havoc. In verse 9 the demons identify themselves as Legion, which indicates their great number (a legion at full strength had six thousand men), but more importantly indicates their purpose. They are an army, on the offensive, doing what armies do, wreaking destruction. In this case viciously possessing a man in the country of the Gerasenes and provoking him to do great harm to himself.
That is the world Jesus lived in. And He knew there was a war to fight, an enemy to defeat, a victim to deliver. It didn’t matter how many demons were arrayed against Him; just as He stilled a storm with one word of rebuke, Jesus sent a legion of the Devil’s soldiers plunging over a cliff in a herd of animals who appropriately symbolized their uncleanness. That part of the story gets all the attention, but I love the simple detail in verse 15 – the man who once gashed himself under the influence of demons was now sitting with Jesus, “clothe and in his right mind.” All was finally calm and bright for him.
Jesus did not come into a fairy tale world; He came into a beleaguered world needing liberation, and in His ministry time and again He did just that. But these miracles pointed to a larger reality, to a greater mission, which Jesus completed on the cross.
If you have ever doubted that Jesus could understand the misery and evil of our world, just think of the cross. There was no such thing as “death with dignity” for a Jewish rebel, which is what Jesus was accused of being. Crucifixion was an ugly and brutal form of execution, one Jesus endured surrounded by a jeering mob taunting Him to save Himself, ironically ignorant that if He saved Himself He couldn’t save them.
It wasn’t a world calm and bright, but cruel and dark, so dark that God shrouded the sun in the middle of the day.
Well might the sun in darkness hide and shut his glories in
When Christ the mighty maker died for man the creature’s sins
This book is not the Brothers Grimm; it is not Aesops’ Fables; it is a book that describes sinful humanity and a sin-cursed world in all its stark misery. But to that very desperate world God sent His Son at just the right moment, to share the misery and bear our sins so He could redeem us from our sins and we might become His sons.
4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
And He doesn’t promise us a story that ends happily ever after. Rather, He promises us a happiness that never ends, where all is finally and eternally calm and bright.