I love Christmas music. I realize a lot of the popular songs that fall under the category of “Christmas music” have nothing to do with the nativity of Jesus, but I still like them. I like listening to “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” “Santa Claus is coming to town,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Mi burrito Sabanero.” I particularly enjoy listening to the Christmas albums by Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Josh Groban. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining Dr. Graciela Boruszko and her husband Samuel for a night of Villancicos (Latin-American Christmas Carols) at an event organized by the Division of Modern Languages at Indiana Wesleyan University. I must admit, I did not know most of the songs and, similar to what I mentioned about the genre of Christmas music, many of them were bad examples of what Christmas really means. But I had a good time surrounded by colleagues and Spanish students.
There is nothing wrong with caroling, gift exchanges, and Christmas parties and holiday music. Jesus loved parties, gave gifts, sang songs, and celebrated the holidays of his day. However, it is important as ministers and church people to be reminded and to remind others that the story of Christmas in the Gospels is about something else.
I love the way the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy. The story interweaves narrative and poetry to paint a beautiful and perplexing picture of the event. Through canticles, the characters of the story communicate the significance of Jesus’ life as the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. One of these canticles is the song of Simeon, commonly known as Nunc Dimittis from the Latin translation of Luke 2:29.
The text tells us that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the meeting between Simeon, a righteous and devout man, and the parents of Jesus, who came to the temple to fulfill their covenantal obligations. Simeon awaited the “consolation of Israel,” perhaps referring to the deliverance of Israel from its oppressors. Upon holding the baby, Simeon erupts in praise:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32).
The old man can now rest in peace. He has seen salvation. He has seen light. He has seen glory. It sounds like a joyful Christmas song. The only problem is that, suddenly, the story turns somber. It’s as if the song modulated to a minor tonality (let the musicians understand). The proclamation of salvation, light, and glory cannot be divorced from the fact that Jesus will face opposition and those who love him most will encounter suffering.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).
Jesus is announced as a sign that will be opposed, a child who makes some fall and others rise, a man who exposes the hidden, and a son who breaks his mother’s heart. This Christmas carol is not the typical feel-good kind of song. This canticle is unsettling.
Jesus is not an innocent baby perpetually stuck in a manger. His mission is not to give us the spirit of Christmas. He is not a dove that flies amidst battlegrounds so that enemy armies can cease fire for a day to eat ham and rolls. Jesus doesn’t drive a Coca Cola Christmas truck. He does not hand out free toys. His blessings are not discounted during the holiday season. Jesus is a king and his agenda is to introduce a new world order…the kingdom of God.
We must celebrate, not only the birth of the king, but the fullness of his life and his work. He was at work before the manger and he is certainly at work today. It is interesting that two of the Gospel writers did not include stories about the birth of Christ. In a sense, they too remind us to fix our eyes on Jesus himself, and not just on the events surrounding his birth.