catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 23 :: 2010.12.17 — 2010.12.30


Crying he makes

The cattle are lowing.
The poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.

I admit it: Christmas carols work for me.  If the goal of playing them incessantly on radio stations and in retail establishments from Halloween on is to spark a warm nostalgia for every Christmas that’s gone before, I’m all in.  But like some of the carols themselves, that nostalgia has little if anything to do with Jesus: the Reason for the Season.  Take “Away in a Manger,” for example — really?  We’re supposed to identify with God Incarnate as a baby who doesn’t cry?  This lyric seems more bent on describing the inanimate centerpiece of a life-sized lawn nativity than a human child, paradoxically divine or not.

If I kick the sentimentality habit, what I’m left with is a complicated relationship.  Cognitively, I understand what “Joy to the World” is supposed to mean, apart from the holiday schlock, but what I feel as “joy” is never without at least a small bit of sadness.  One metaphorical understanding might cast that sadness as unwanted contamination.  I prefer to think of it as a bit of salt to balance the sweet.

In this sense, a less conventional Jesus song more accurately expresses the Gospel story for me:

Jesus, help me find my proper place.
Jesus, help me find my proper place.
Help me in my weakness
‘Cause I’m falling out of grace.

Written before irony invaded popular music, this 1969 song by the Velvet Underground is a strikingly intimate prayer, both weary with regret and urgent with longing.  If Jesus in his humanity is restricted to an eerily well-behaved infant, there is little reason to call on him in the great need of our weakness.  However, as a suffering Savior, he experiences the very human struggles that generate our need for grace.  It is to both my comfort and my shame that in order to be God-with-us, he has to run such a gauntlet toward a torturous end.

But it is so, I think, because of Love: the Love that motivated the creation of the world, that came into the world as a baby, that even defeated death.  In The Fingerprints of God, theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes,

Because [Jesus] is the eternal Beloved — the Icon of God, the One by whom all things are made and in whom all things consist — what happens to him happens to everybody, and what happens to everybody happens in him.  His birth in the manger is in all births, and all births are in that manger with him.  The deaths of the Holocaust were in his tomb, and his burial was in all the death camps….  The entire creation rises in his resurrection.

One response to Jesus’ all-encompassing, self-emptying love in the Incarnation would be to dwell on my guilt, which is ultimately self-centered because I become the one keeping myself on the hook for what’s already been forgiven.  In doing so, I leave the gift un-opened under the tree because I’m so thoroughly convinced I don’t deserve it; all I achieve is an insult to the giver and deprive myself of life on the other side of unwrapping the present. 

A better response, I think, is to learn how to accept such enduring, unconditional love as a great gift, conferring it on others as well as I can in grateful response.  In doing so, I commit to model Christ in all facets of his care for us, sharing joy as well as tears with my fellow human beings and, indeed, all of creation.  We have cause for great hope and joy, but we also have cause to nurture an aching longing for justice as or on behalf of those who mourn — including, and perhaps especially, at Christmas time as we celebrate God with us.  There is no birth without blood, no resurrection without the separation of death.


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