Caroling Through Christmas: Joy is a Scandal, Not a Sentiment
Liturgical churches will start singing Christmas carols this Sunday. This blog series will theologically reflect on the hymns of the Christmas season.
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you… Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (From Gen. 3:14 -19)
The events of Eden leave us with the stark reality that our sin will inevitably touch every part of creation. The voice of the Lord warns us that it will affect everything from our children and family relationships, to our relationships with the land and economy. The Creator is not ambiguous with his words, calling sin’s effects a “curse.” The whole of Scripture then embarks on a narrative telling stories of humans who find themselves at odds with one another and their land at every turn. God’s promises to Israel are a direct assault on the troubles God knows every generation will face with their children and with the land they inhabit. It is a narrative we can all identify with.
The scandal of Christmas is that the God who, from the beginning, observed how human sin would curse everything it touched, put on the materials of creation himself, and instead of cursing, blessed everything he touched. In 1719, Isaac Watts sat down and set the scandal of Christmas to music.
Watts’ vision of salvation is not one-dimensional. The joy that has come to the world results from the entrance of creation’s king into the earth. Watts echoes the sounds and images of the first Christmas in Bethlehem, when angels intruded on Earth’s starry blanket and announced that from that time forward all that suffers from sin’s curse was now being touched by Heaven. The incarnation did not blur the lines between Heaven and creation, it dispelled the myth that such lines existed in the first place. The revelation leaves Heaven and nature singing. Fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains reverberate with songs of joy as creation witnesses its king bless and bless and bless, until the curse is driven from everywhere that sorrow grows. Even the political and economic landscape has been challenged by the Creator’s revelation that truth and grace are really the powers that rule the world. Nation’s princes and powers would still curse everything they touched, and in every instance where they did, it only proved more and more the glory of God’s righteousness and the wonder of his love.
When we sing this song, we are not reciting the words of a sentimental tune. We are announcing a scandal! We are announcing that a new king is in town, and that the God who became flesh is driving out all the mess that flows from human folly. Joy to the world is a scandal, not a sentiment.