Letting God Teach Through Advent and Christmas Songs
December 11, 2014
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Our annual celebration of Christmas varies little from year to year, including the music we sing and listen to. And since it's something most of us have been doing since childhood, it's easy to let it become routine. I don't mean that it's mundane or uninteresting. Certainly it's fun and exciting, something many of us look forward to as December approaches. Yet, I think we don't ardently look for God's voice teaching us, showing us, speaking to us amidst the decorations, carols, and readings of the Nativity story.
One way God teaches us at Christmas is through songs, just as he does the rest of the year. Many Yuletide songs retell the story of the Lord's birth, replete with shepherds, angels, and almost unimaginably bad weather. But some songs go deeper, speaking truth with well-crafted poetry. Let's look at a few of these songs.
The first is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, a gorgeous song written originally in German. In the English translation, a later verse contains the following lines:
O Savior, child of Mary,
who felt our human woe;
O Savior, King of glory,
who dost our weakness know;
A number of songs mention that Jesus left his heavenly throne to come to us. But how often at Christmas do we consider that God, when he sent his Son, felt the pain of leaving the womb, the helplessness of a baby? It was not just that he gave up his majesty and seat of power; he also began his earthly life in just the same way we all do.
Another beautiful verse is from "O Come, O Come Immanuel":
O come, O Branch of Jesse's stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o'er the grave.
Someone asked me recently why the Bible is so explicit about Solomon's expansive wealth. Now, of course, I don't know for sure, but my best guess is that it contrasts with the terrible depths to which God's people would fall. From vast, seemingly unassailable riches and years of peace to exile and subservience; it's an allegory for all of humankind. And while we were yet sinners, a tiny baby came to free us from hell. David could not do it. All Solomon's gold could not do it. Only Jesus could, and what was fulfilled at the Cross began in the stable.
In "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" we find this:
For the herald's voice is crying
In the desert far and near,
Bidding all men to repentance,
Since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
This is one of the few calls to repentance that I know of in Christmas songs (if you know of others, please share). How strange, since without repentance the gift of God that comes to us through Jesus can never be claimed. The birth of Christ is a joyous event, without a doubt, and in order to prepare a way for God to enter our hearts and realize the tremendous power of forgiveness, we must first repent.
Lastly, I love this line from "O Little Town of Bethlehem":
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
Jesus was literally born in a stable, but he must also be born in our hearts. It might even be the most essential prayer of Christmas.
There are other wonderful passages in the songs we sing at Christmas. I encourage you, in choosing which carols and verses to sing this year, look for those special, poignant lines that get to the heart of Truth. Maybe take a moment before singing to talk about the power contained in the words. Please share lyrics that speak strongly to you. Whether singing a song for the hundredth time or the first time, I pray that we all hear something new this year.
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I love the text of a relatively new advent hymn in Lift Up Your Hearts - #64 - O Shepherd, Hear and Lead Your Flock. This is a beautiful pairing of the text of Psalm 80 to the familiar tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem. The imagery in the first verse of the Shepherd (God) and we as lambs makes this such a beautiful blend of text and tune. But then, a definite teaching moment occurs in verse two - the words, "Our selfish prayers deserve God's wrath, our pride, a sudden burst; we have but stones to serve as bread, and tears to quell our thirst. Restore, O God Almighty, the radiance of your face to lighten and reveal the gift of your redeeming grace."
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