Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Battle Hymns of Christmas

The front lines of the war on Christmas are not, as you might think - spread across the battlefield of pop-culture, i.e. Santa vs. Jesus; Merry Christmas vs. Season's Greetings; "We Believe" signs vs. "Get-That-Nativity-Out-of-My-Courthouse" protests. These are but minor skirmishes (a flank at best and a 5th column at worst). Although these are the talking points that occupy 99% of the news this time of the year (as it does every year), while the 1% gets left behind.

The real battle for Christmas is (as it must be) waged inside the church not outside. If it's true that wherever Christ plants his church the devil raises a chapel, then it's also true (and perhaps more so) around the holy days where Christians get all bent out of shape over the wrong thing. For example, instead of boycotting stores who don't say "Merry Christmas," Christians should boycott churches that don't preach the Gospel during Christmas (or any day of the year for that matter). Self-help sells but it's not the Good News the angels were singing about to the shepherds. The announcement that a "Unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord" is not something you'll find in the purpose driven aisle of the bookstore or the church. People need good news this year - the Gospel, that Christ has set you free from the demands of the Law; he has taken your sin, your guilt and your death and he did it all by his holy blood and his innocent suffering and death on Friday afternoon - not that you must live your best life now, have forty days of purpose or any such nonsense. At Christmas people (in and out of the church) need the Gospel, not the Law disguised as Good News.

Or take another example, fighting to have the nativity scene in front of public buildings during the holidays. Do you have one in front of your house? Why not? Wouldn't that be an opportunity to be a witness to the Good News of Christ's birth, life and death with the neighbors in your own community? Let's remember the two kingdoms. It's not the government's job to celebrate Christmas properly, but to give us the freedom to do so. That's what the Church should be doing in these Last Days - preparing our members and a world in need of Good News, for Jesus coming by proclaiming the Gospel.

Finally, after those tangential's the main point: What's going on in your church during Advent? What about Christmas? How are you preparing at home with your family or in church with your congregation? Has your church had more of an influence on the culture or vice versa? I'm especially interested in the hymns we sing this time of the year. Don't get me wrong...Easter hymns are phenomenal - and there are too many good ones to list - but the hymns of Advent and Christmas are some of the most sublime, 200 proof Good News out there; and ironically they are some of the most overlooked and neglected hymns of the season.

Take, for example, the following smattering of hymns: when was the last time you heard them sung at Christmas? If your reply is should demand them to be sung! And I know what you're thinking...Yes, all fifteen verses of Luther's Christmas hymn! It's as joyous as it is easy to sing; you'll be glad you heard and sung the whole story.
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come  - Martin Luther
  • Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming - Michael Praetorius
  • All My Heart Again Rejoices - Paul Gerhardt
  • O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is - Paul Gerhardt
  • Come, Your Hearts and Voices Raising - Paul Gerhardt
  • We Praise You, Jesus at Your Birth - Martin Luther
Of course there are many others that should be added. But these six hymns all have several things in common: 1) they were written by Lutherans (not that Charles Wesley doesn't write a good hymn once in a while...but that's not the point); 2)  they were written somewhere in the 16th and 17th centuries (time isn't the important issue, however, the Lutheran chorales of this era are unsurpassed precisely because of their depth, breadth of Christian doctrine and their application of such into the seasons of the church year. It's time for a re-discovery of these lost treasures, especially in the Lutheran church where they came from historically); 3) and most importantly, they illustrate the best of hymnody in the church - not for the sake of sentimentality, but for the sake of the Gospel.

We all know the old favorites: "Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, etc." Sometimes that's the problem...they are so familiar that we lose all sense of meaning (what they say or don't say, what they confess or don't confess) and we sing them simply because we've always sung them on Christmas - and for no other reason. Now of course one can fall into the ditch on the other side of the road and sing the old Lutheran chorales for all the wrong reasons too, but the former, I have found is more often the case in recent years.

This is why I'm not suggesting a coup of these popular Christmas carols. Nor am I suggesting that there be a regime change. Perhaps a prisoner exchange. When it comes to Advent and Christmas hymns in the church, it should not come down to an either/or scenario: the old sentimental favorites vs. the lesser known yet richly theological hymns. It should be both/and. To paraphrase an old nursery rhyme: "sing new hymns but keep the old!" The more quality - Christ centered, cross-focused hymns we sing in church (throughout the church year) the more we receive the Gospel and the more we carry the Gospel with us on our lips - just as the shepherds did - declaring the Good News to our neighbor.

If you've got some favorite unsung hymns of Advent and them in the comments below. Sometime in the days ahead, I'll try and update the list as well as provide some commentary on a few of them too. A Merry Advent and Blessed Christmas to you all in the Christ who occupies the crib and cross for you!

O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word
Made flesh for us; here in Thy grace forth shineth.

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