I love Christmas. It's the one time of the year where I always feel a deep sense of contentment and peace. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the weather is cold, the trees lift their honest, barren arms to the sky, and people give generously of their time and love. Rain purifies the streets, frost enfolds it all in a comforting blanket, and hot tea and chocolate are standard fair.
And the music. So many good and lovely memories emerge every year with the advent of Christmas music. Hymns about God's love. Joyful tunes about gift-giving and playing in the snow. Lots of harmonies. Everyone singing together.
But there are a few songs that bug the socks off me. (Is that an expression? It is now.) The main one is Away In a Manger. It turns a beautiful and reverent scene into dumbed-down meaningless dribble fit for people to clap and smile and not actually hear the words they're singing.
Away In a Manger addresses that moment of glory when God became flesh, God became one of us so that at long last we could know him and touch him and hear his words face to face. The song reduces it to something jolly and about nothing more than personal comfort.
Take the line, "No crying he makes." Really? Babies who don't cry usually fail to thrive. Crying babes are healthy ones. A baby that is born starts crying to say he is alive. He cries to tell his mother he's hungry. He cries to tell mom he wants something. Crying is communication before we learn words. Crying is how babies say, "I need you."
I like the picture of Jesus squalling away like any other baby. I imagine Mary was relieved to hear him cry. The Messiah was born. How must that have felt? There was God--joy of all joys! God--crying to be held, crying to be fed. God in flesh. He was one of us. In every sense.
I imagine that over the ensuing months, Mary wearied of the screaming. Remember, Jesus was perfect, but she wasn't. Mary and Joseph probably experienced times of frustration. They didn't always know what to do. They weren't always the best parents.
Jesus experienced true humanity. That's the beauty of it all. That's the depth of Emmanuel, God with us. He really was one of us. When Away In a Manger talks about infant Jesus not crying, it makes him feel Other. It makes him feel too divine, and not enough human. Jesus was human, as fully and completely as he was also divine. And I'm certain he cried.
Another line from that song that I find inaccurate is, "Take us to heaven to live with you there." Oh boy. I won't whip out all the passages that talk about the new heaven and new earth, about having real physical bodies after death, about how earth and flesh are not evil...we'd be here for a long time.
The idea that heaven is "elsewhere" is one of my pet peeves. I was raised very conscious of heaven. There is never a time I did not believe in a perfect, fun, eternal afterlife where we get to be with God and all the peeps. Heaven was always real to me. When I got a little older and started studying for myself, I found Jesus saying over and over, "The kingdom of heaven is here." Here. He answers questions about eternal life and the kingdom of God by saying it's right here, right now. And that was 2000 years ago.
Salvation isn't simply some spiritual thing that's personal and has to do with the future of your soul. Salvation is current. It is restoration: of you, your life, your culture, your world. Salvation includes justice for the oppressed, care for the environment, and a whole host of other things. Us and God working together to make those aspects of the kingdom a reality.
Heaven isn't "out there." It isn't somewhere you go when you die, an escape from earth. God loves this earth. He wants to save this earth, not scrap it and start over. If he didn't want to save this planet, he wouldn't have been born away in that manger all those years ago. If we live thinking we go elsewhere when we die, we stop caring about this earth and the people on it. We're supposed to care. God isn't going to abolish all this; he's going to take away the bad and help us be all we can be, all we were made to be.
Please, don't take us away, God, to be with you "there." Be here, with us. We need your help on this earth. We need hope. We need restoration. Justice. Mercy. Love. We need Emmanuel.
That's the good news: the kingdom of heaven is here.
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