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Advent and the Death of Jesus

I read hymns. I absorb hymns. I internalize hymns. I want to understand how good hymns invite us into the depths of human experience.  Sometimes I’m surprised when familiar texts give way to new spiritual insights that are hard to put into words.

“What Child Is This” in A Hymnal and Service Book for Sunday Schools, Day Schools, Guilds, Brotherhoods, etc. (1893)

William Chatterton Dix’s 1865 hymn asks the rhetorical question, What Child is This? Who is this child? Why is he greeted by angels and shepherds? If this child is a king, why has he born “in such mean estate”?  The original text offers a shocking reply:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

I had never read these words before this year. They caught me by complete surprise. The fate of this innocent child is death—death on a cross. Suddenly the death of Jesus becomes real because Jesus was real. Jesus was a child. Jesus was a baby. And this baby was brutally murdered.  I find Dix’s words incredibly profound, but for reasons that are hard to describe.

While Advent brings hope, peace, joy and love, the birth of Jesus came during a time of intense darkness. The historical evidence suggests Jesus was born in a militarized zone with Roman guards on the streets of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were likely poor laborers and were oppressively taxed to support the Roman and Jewish elite. This political and social darkness is still a reality for most people in today’s world.

Christmas hymns that tell the story of the death of Jesus remind us that Jesus was born for adversity (Prov 17:17). From birth to death to life, Jesus identified with the oppressed and following him requires that we identify with the same people: refugees, foreigners and the poor.  “He has brought down the powerful from their throws and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says in Luke 1. Jesus does not come in sentimentality but to overturn powers and principalities.

If we read the words of our carols more closely they teach us about Jesus’s humble birth and death. One of my favorite lesser-known carols is “Bethlehem Down.” In brilliant parallelism, Peter Warlock discusses the gift of “myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown” at Jesus’s birth and “myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown” at Jesus’s death. Jesus is indeed king, but does not exploit his power like earthly rulers. The fourth verse of “We Three Kings” offers the stunning reflection that Christ’s earthly life is one of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The same child that experiences a humble birth will experience a humiliating death.

But of course in death there is life. Christianity proclaims that the resurrection of Jesus is good news for all creation. The season of Advent is about expecting the coming of God, the one who has crucified but will in glory forever. The one who “with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). The final verse of “We Three Kings” proclaims:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Read

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Reflection

  1. How is the beginning of Jesus’s life similar to the end of Jesus’s earthly life?
  2. How has the message of Jesus’s birth been “sentimentalized” in culture?
  3. How would you answer the question “What Child Is This?”

Listen

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Opinion: It’s time to decolonize the hymnal

For church-goers in the United States, services on patriotic holidays may end with an “America hymn,” one of those patriotic songs that somehow made its way into the hymnal like “God Bless America.”

Patriotic hymnody

But why do we sing these songs in worship? The Kingdom of God transcends our borders and even the world itself.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

John 18:36

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9

In an age of increased honesty about societal injustice I believe that it is inappropriate to sing American patriotic songs in Christian worship. American Christianity and American nationalism have become dangerously intertwined, even in our sacred music.

Consider the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was inspired by the American Civil War:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Alluding to Biblical imagery in the book of Revelation, the phrasing of this hymn is easily misused to rationalize violence in pursuit of “truth”.  The words “His truth is marching on” and the rousing refrain that follows (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”) could be used to wield the wrath of God as a justification for terrible evil, despite Jesus’s warnings about judging others (Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:1-11).

Many denominational hymnals contain overtly American and even nationalistic material. For example, the United Methodist Church has half of its membership outside of the United States but the United Methodist Hymnal contains songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Why is it that the hymnal for a global denomination has included explicitly American patriotic songs?  

Somewhat less overt patriotism is found in hymns with militaristic imagery, such as “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” and “Faith of our Fathers,” which can both be used to conflate American military power with Christian freedom. For example, the line “In this free land with thee our lot is cast” in “God of the Ages…” describes America’s entanglement with God while praising political freedom. This text would be problematic for the Apostle Paul, who, prior to being brutally killed by a corrupt empire, explained that Christian freedom is about liberation from sin and death by the spirit of Christ.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death … For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:2, 6

Hence, using hymns to justify American political interventions (“From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence”) or to proclaim the United States as “sovereign,” can undermine the freedom that flows from the Christian Gospel. Furthermore, claims that America is divinely led, infallible or “chosen” mirror the attitudes of Hebrew priests before the fall of the temple in the sixth century BC.

A harsh reality of human history and American history is that God has been invoked to justify nationalistic evils such as death of thousands of indigenous people under the banner of “manifest destiny”. Other faith-fueled atrocities include America’s “original sin” of slavery which has yet to be atoned. Public consciousness has not come to realize that “free societies” are usually built at the expense of the poor and marginalized, which the Bible consistently denounces1:

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by iniquity!

Habakkuk 2:12

This is not Christian freedom. This injustice under the guise of nationalistic freedom.

In the beginning, Christianity was distinctly anti-empire.  The statement “Jesus is Lord” (kyrios Iesous) was a first-century threat to the lordship of Cesear, who is codified by the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13. The Jesus-following communities were seen as a danger to a powerful social and religious order so Rome was determined to use military power to end them just as they tried to end Jesus. The martyring of the early church was so profound that early Christians became the archetype of an oppressed people. With this backdrop, giving praise to a government or empire in worship disrespects God’s justice, especially when the empire hides behind quasi-religious notions of freedom.

Rather than singing about national pride, let’s sing about God’s justice and God’s concern for all of creation—humans, the earth and the entire cosmos.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
   the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord

Psalm 33:4-5

Let’s sing about God’s acts of redemption, unity and compassion that repair breaches in our relationships and communities.  To start, songwriter Audrey Assad has crafted an alternative to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which begins

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
You are speaking truth to power
You are laying down our swords
Replanting every vineyard 
Til a brand new wine is poured
Your peace will make us one.

1 See Isaiah 10:1-5, Psalm 37:14-15, Proverbs 29:7, Luke 16:19-25, Acts 5:1-6, among many other passages.

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John Newton was a slave ship captain

Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of “Amazing Grace” is intertwined with the story of transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the hymnwriter’s life tells us not only about grace, but about justice.

While his mother hoped that he would join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton (1725-1807) renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a planation in Sierra Leone. He was eventually freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain, “if this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton famously rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and lead several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans.

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends associated with the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by celery. Inspired by the texts of Isaac Watts (“O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Rise Today”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, Amazing Grace was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, called NEW BRITAIN, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and books—that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God—it was not until 30 years later (in 1788) that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newton writes of “the hour I first believed” in “Amazing Grace”, but he also viewed faith as a more gradual experience: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things (c.f. any non-divine Bible character). However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact we can indifferent or complacent in matters of injustice and oppression. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much, much later. He lived long enough to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which finally ended the selling and trading of human slaves.

How are systems of  injustice perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from realizing that how we treat different kinds of people might simply be wrong? And how can engage in “Kingdom work” to make reparations? In scripture, God’s kingdom and people are often compared to a vineyard. The prophet Isaiah writes a “love-song concerning his vineyard”, but is quick to call out the nation of Israel for violence and injustice.

My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

Isaiah 5:1-2, 7

Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by consistent and honest efforts. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficulty of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Luke 18:1-8 (Paraphrased)

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways we might be participate in systems of injustice and work toward being “repairers of the breach.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:9b-12