Friday, December 17, 2004

"Silent Night" A Christmas Meditation

Recently, a parent found “Silent Night” offensive because of its religious nature, and a New Jersey school deleted it from its holiday music program (although they later reinstated it). My first reaction was “How silly;” the school’s program was admirably PC (politically correct), including songs celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But then after more reflection, I thought that perhaps this was a good thing. Maybe the parent who found “Silent Night” offensive understood a little more about Christmas than the teachers who put together the holiday music program.

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, sleep in heavenly peace

What’s so offensive about that? Well, to tell the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of “Silent Night.” It seems to belong to the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” school of hymnody. However, the Christmas story is there in shorthand. A mother who is also a virgin… a holy infant. I wonder about the “heavenly peace,” though. If we follow Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was anything but peaceful. It was so crowded with weary travelers that the only place a very pregnant woman could find to rest was a cattle stall. Matthew’s version is even less peaceful. Joseph is tempted to “put away” his fiancée when she becomes pregnant before their wedding. And after the magi alert one king (Herod) that another king (Jesus) has been born, he has all the children in the region put to death.

We have let culture co-opt Christmas for so long that we no longer appreciate the hard and dangerous edge of the Christmas story. Christmas is both offensive and subversive. It offends our reason by celebrating a God who embraces human weakness so completely that we confess that the “holy infant” was in the most literal sense “God in the flesh”. And Christmas is subversive because the true King came to his kingdom to reign, and the “kingdoms of this world” were out to get him from beginning to end. Herod tried to use brute violence to kill Jesus and failed, but Pilate succeeded by using the tried and true method of getting rid of troublemakers: Try ‘em; convict ‘em; string ‘em up.

Some would argue that Christmas is a holiday for everyone, not just Christians. Perhaps it is. Certainly, the circle around the manger is wide enough to include all of us. But the marriage between Christmas and culture has blurred its distinctiveness. The Christmas story is a dazzling tale of daring adventure. It is about a rescue mission in hostile territory. Imagine parachuting into an occupied country during a bitterly fought war. That is a poor metaphor but it gives some sense of what God did at Christmas.

So this Christmas, by all means let’s sing “Silent Night” at the elementary school holiday program. But the words of Robert Southwell (1561-1595) that Benjamin Britten set in his Ceremony of Carols give us a better sense of the grandeur and mystery of Christmas:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

Glory to God in the highest!