By Bob Hiller –
Here’s a little piece I wrote a few years back hoping to start some fun Christmas conversation. I hope you enjoy it! I know my mom wasn’t a huge fan…
This is the most wonderful time of the year for my ears. I am becoming quite a Christmas-music snob in my age. I liked Christmas music before it was cool (Can a hipster listen to Christmas music?). This is especially true when it comes to Christmas hymns. Advent and Christmas hymns are some of the most beautiful, haunting, and theologically rigorous hymns we sing all year. But the opposite seems to be the case as well: this is the time of year when some of our weakest, most heterodox, and downright strange hymns get loads of undeserved attention. It is rather frustrating that these hymns tend to be quite popular! But as with that abysmal “Do They Know Its Christmas?” by Band Aid (ugh…), no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get away from these hymns. Like the Grinch, I want to descend into WhoVille, bag these songs up, and remove them from the musical catalogue. But you will very likely sing them in your church this season, despite their dangerous teachings. After all, orthodoxy is no match for nostalgia.
All I want for Christmas is you…to think Biblically and faithfully about the songs you sing in church, even during Advent and Christmas. To this end, as Scroogey as it may seem, here is my list (complete with overly emotional video links) of the Top 5 Humbug Hymns we sing during the Christmas season:
Do I hear what you hear? Not if it’s this song, because I am plugging my blessed ears. Look, I’m a big Bing Crosby guy this time of year. But I don’t even like his version of this one. Here’s a song that is just trying too hard to be profound. Instead of propounding some penetrating spiritual insight, it merely recounts a game of telephone taking place on the night Jesus was born. The wind whispers to the sheep, who talks to the shepherd boy, who has a conversation with a mighty king, who tells us about Jesus. I am not sure how the wind either talks to a sheep or sees anything. Yeah, I know personification. But, this one is a stretch. Further, when the sheep hears angels blasting “Glory to God in the highest,” it almost flippantly asks the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?” Of course not, thought the shepherd, these angels are making so much noise I can’t hear a thing!
Believe me, this one is painful to put on the list. I do love singing this one with my kids. One point for nostalgia. Unfortunately, I feel compelled to include it because it exemplifies of one perpetual problem we find plaguing Christmas hymns: sentimental Gnosticism. There is something inside of us, let’s call it the old Adam, that doesn’t want to think of our Lord as being fully human. We want to clean him up. We think it impious and crass to speak of the holy infant as a baby who fills his holy diaper and keeps his parents up at night crying for milk. So, we sing,
The cattle are lowing,
the poor baby wakes,
but little Lord Jesus,
no crying he makes.
Why not? Is crying a sin? Maybe this line was penned by some disgruntled passive aggressive parent on night six of 3:00 am newborn night duty. “You know, Johnny, baby Jesus didn’t cry at night.” No, our Lord, from the moment of His divine conception in the womb of Mary, has been fully, completely, totally human. Dirty diapers, crying, disgruntled parents and all.
This one isn’t all that bad, save that we don’t actually know how many kings there were. Wait, yes we do… zero! They weren’t kings, nor were they really wise men. These were magi, pagan stargazers from the east. (Think of Nebuchadnezzar’s spiritual advisors in Daniel 2:2.) Leaving these details aside, I just want to take this opportunity to remind you that your nativity scene is wrong. The magi didn’t show up on the night of Jesus’ birth. In fact, if you read Matthew (2:1-12) closely, it could have been anywhere up to two years after the birth of Christ before they came bearing their gifts. Liturgically, this song doesn’t belong to Christmas, either. The magi are men of Epiphany. In light of this, I am recommending that my church does an Epiphany Living Nativity. Only, in this one, instead of everyone standing around reverently gazing at the baby Jesus doll, we’ll have six or seven overly costumed magicians chasing my two-year-old around our parking lot while Mary cooks dinner and Joseph has bad dreams.
Setting aside the obnoxious “Ba-rum-pa-bum-bum” chorus, this song wreaks of sappy works righteousness. This is the autobiographical story of a poor child who has nothing to his name but a drum. He is invited to see the baby Jesus, asleep in the manger, but feels woefully inadequate because he has nothing to offer this little king. Ah! But wait! His trusty drum is on hand. He looks inquisitively at Mary, who thus far has been enjoying nothing but a silent, holy night (more on that in a moment), asking, “Shall I play for him? Ba-rum-pa-bum-bum? Of course, as any good mother would, she invites the young man to beat away on his drum for a sleeping newborn infant! And then comes the lamest line of the whole season, “The ox and lamb kept time. Ba-rum-pa-bum-bum.” This one is just absurd. Never mind that the story isn’t true, never mind that it is full of works righteousness (do your best and then the baby Jesus will smile at you), never mind any of that. What mother lets a drummer perform for her newborn baby? Do they think Mary is bats? This is a strange one to be sure.
If you want to see a candle-light service turn into a fun Christmas game of “burn the pastor on a stake,” then try removing this one from your Christmas Eve service. But this may be the worst of them all. Don’t get me wrong, I like the tune and the candles and the emotion of it all. I especially like it sung in German, mainly because then I don’t have to listen to the lyrics. The main idea of this hymn is, well, not true. The night that Jesus was born was not a silent or quiet one. Mary gave birth to a baby next to a feeding trough. I can’t imagine the cows keeping to themselves, let alone the epidural-less mother of our Lord. Further, angel choirs don’t tend to whisper. Far from the Gnostic, sentimentalized picture of Jesus with glorious beams of light shooting from his face, our Lord was born into a loud, sinful, messy world in a loud, painful, bloody way. Though the Scriptures give us scant details about Mary’s experience, I think it would be fair to say that this birth, like any other birth, was one that felt the effects of the fall (Genesis 3:16). But then, Jesus is always doing that. It’s why He came! He is fully human, after all, and he didn’t once avoid what you or I experience, even the effects of sin. He came to endure them. He became sin for us, after all (II Corinthians 5:21). So, his birth was likely full of blood and pain, just like His death.
His death. Now that was a silent night. Sure, the onlookers were vocal enough, but not the heavens. There were no angels singing at the cross and no Father’s word of pleasure here—nothing but a forsaken silence. Maybe you should sing this one on Good Friday. It was for that night that he came. Because of that night, the silence is now the devil’s, for he cannot accuse you any longer. Even if he tries, no one is paying attention. The Father’s ears are too busy listening to the risen Jesus plead for you.
If you’d like a healthy corrective to this song, check out Jill Phillips sing “Labor of Love” on the phenomenal Behold the Lamb of God album by Andrew Peterson. Her first line:
“It was not a silent night,
There was blood on the ground.
You could hear a woman cry,
In the alley-way that night,
On the streets of David’s town.”
Look, I am not trying to be a Scrooge here. Perhaps the three spirits of Dickens will visit me in a dream and I will awake with a new, happy list for you—one with songs of comfort and joy; songs of truth and beauty; songs of angels, shepherds, and stars; songs of orthodoxy; and songs of Jesus. Until then, a merry Christmas to all!!