Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent 2: Christmas Carols and the Love of God

A local radio station begins non-stop Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. As hard as I try to observe Advent and Christmas as separate liturgical seasons, I confess that I do reset my car radio dial (buttons, really) to make this the station of choice. After all, you don’t want to miss Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey.

I like the schmaltzy old Christmas tunes and their classic singers: Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Burl Ives, Perry Como, and that whole generation of crooners. I don’t much like modern re-makes; their performers seem to try too hard to be novel, to “put their own spin” on the songs, and it mainly comes off as labored or pretentious or just poor quality music. I do very much like the instrumentals – selections from the Percy Faith Orchestra to the Windham Hill Christmas collections to Tingstad and Rumbel to Mannheim Steamroller. My wife and daughter mainly share these preferences so that our home and car are filled with music and there are no epic battles for control of the CD player or radio.

What I don’t care for are the songs – primarily of recent vintage – that get all touchy-feely with God’s emotions as he beholds his Son made flesh. A song new to me this year, and typical of the genre, treats God as a proud and protective Papa looking over his sleeping child, soothing him and wishing him sweet dreams. I've done that with my child; probably every father has. So it only makes sense that God acts this way too. Right? The trouble with this, with such cheap and easy sentimentality is that it reasons upward from man to God, that it creates God in our own image – God as man writ large. It posits God’s love as different in degree only – and not in kind – from human love. Take the best in man, increase it by a notch or two, and there you have God. While there is not a total disconnect between man and God – we are, after all, created in God’s image and likeness – reasoning upward from man to God is always moving in the wrong direction. We don’t know the love of God by comparison to human love; we know the love of God because he has revealed it to us in Jesus Christ and we try our best, in the Spirit, to conform our human love to this pattern. We do not so much reason our way to God as we listen to and observe his revelation, and ultimately as we unite ourselves to his revelation in Christ through faith and sacrament and obedience. As the great Advent prophet Isaiah calls to us:

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; *
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways *
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, *
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.[1]

Christmas is a sentimental time, bound inextricably with memories of family and friends and children – especially children. But, we can’t allow our sentimentality to compromise our theology. God is love, as shown in the incarnation of Christ, yes, but also as shown in the Garden, on the cross, and in the tomb – not so much sentimental as absolutely determined to put creation to rights regardless of the cost. God’s love is a purifying fire, a “reckless, raging fury” as Rich Mullins described it.

These truths don’t necessarily make good Christmas carols, but they do make good Christians who can and do and will sing the praises of God now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Canticle 10, The Second Song of Isaiah.

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