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Monday, 7 December 2015

Christmas Plus

   The season of Advent draws together many strands of the Christian story.  We look back at the Old Testament prophecies surrounding Jesus' birth and how they were fulfilled with precision.  We anticipate the second coming of Jesus, an important hope without which our faith would be incomplete.  
   Perhaps less common in some traditions, we also look ahead to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even the old man Simeon hints at Jesus' painful destiny before the infant is even two months old, when he says to Mary: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."  Christians are reminded of this reality of suffering when we take communion during Advent.  Christmas truly is a time of joy, but it cannot be completely isolated from what comes before, after and that which we still await.
   Two pieces of music that are commonly performed during the Christmas season embody this "Christmas Plus" idea within them.  Incidentally, they were written twenty-two years apart in 18th century England.  
   The first is "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts.  Originally this hymn was not written as a Christmas carol, but as a version of Psalm 98.  It does not refer to specific events from the Matthew or Luke versions of the first Christmas, but some of its phrases, such as "Let earth receive her king" and "Let every heart prepare him room," do fit nicely with the idea that Jesus came as king and that his coming requires a response.  Alyssa Poblete even suggests that the song is more about Jesus' second coming than his first:
"So why do we sing this song at Christmas? It is clearly a song about Christ’s second coming—when the full expression of his glory will be revealed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Or does it? After all, there is no second coming without a first coming." [1]
Indeed, we cannot properly hail Jesus' birth without also keeping in mind what things will be like when his Kingdom comes in all its fullness, when the effects of sin will all be eliminated, as symbolized by thorns no longer infesting the ground.
   The other piece of music that helps Christians celebrate Christmas Plus is George F. Handel's Oratorio Messiah.  While he originally wrote it to coincide with Lent/Easter, this rich vocal and instrumental work is not out of place at Christmas.  Beginning with Isaiah 40's "Comfort Ye My People" and ending with the heavenly vision of Revelation "Worthy is the Lamb", Messiah gives us a sweeping narrative of God's good intentions for humanity.  
   When we see the Christmas story in its full context, as the songs I just mentioned help us to experience, it also becomes more real.  It is more than just a time to pretend everything in the world is perfect or a season to over-indulge.  Christmas by itself does not work magic.  In the midst of the mess we find ourselves in as humans, we can be assured that God has a rescue plan.  It is a work in progress, and the final ending will be beyond our imaginations!
[1] Alyssa Poblete wrote this on December 22, 2014 in the following blog post Joy to the World

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