November 17, 2019

Catechetical Christmas Carols, I: And Ransom Captive Israel

Passage: Isaiah 7:1–2, 14; 9:2–5

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Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young women is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
  —Isaiah 7:14

You can sneak important but difficult substances into someone’s system by wrapping them in pretty packages. When I have to give my dog a pill the size of a nickel, I hide it in a piece of cheese the size of a quarter. Down it goes, and he looks hopefully for more.

The St. Joseph’s Aspirin Company disguises its beneficial but bitter product in that unforgettable orange-flavored pill we all remember from childhood.

When I want to introduce my children to Puccini’s operas, I take them to see Rent. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes: it goes down like honey. Rent is just a rockin’ remake of Puccini’s La Boheme.

They get Shakespeare painlessly from films like Ten Things I Hate About You, or plays like Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story.

You can get a hilarious dose of Homer’s Odyssey from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and you can harmlessly absorb a little Jane Austen from that charming film Clueless.

How do you get your theology? It is after all an important but difficult substance you should get into your system. Theology has a medicinal effect, but also, sadly, sometimes a medicinal taste.

The Christian Church understands this, and so for about 1,600 years, it has been sneaking rather sophisticated theology into Christian brains with Christmas Carols.

It might be the shrewdest and most successful propaganda campaign in the history of human thought. The Christian Church colonized culture for Christ with Christmas Carols.

My daughter teaches fourth grade in Washington, DC. She asked me what I was preaching about this Sunday and I said, “I’m starting a sermon series called Catechetical Christmas Carols. She said, “What in the world is ‘Catechetical’? and I said, “A catechism is a system of doctrine, and ‘Catechetical’ is the adjectival form.”

She said “Why are you always using such big hard words. I give a vocabulary quiz every week and I’ve never heard that word. Why don’t you just call it “Christmas Carols with Some Theology in Them”?

And I said, “Because then I wouldn’t get to say ‘Catechetical Christmas Carols.’ I get to say six hard C’s in three words. It’s fun.” I’m not sure she was persuaded but she stopped asking me questions.

To be perfectly honest my first example, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is not really a Christmas Carol at all. It fails on both counts.  It’s neither Christmas nor a Carol.

It’s not Christmas because based as it is on the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, we sing it during Advent in anticipation of Christ’s birth, almost never on Christmas Eve. You seldom hear it in the aisles of Macy’s or Target, for example, because it’s a little too serious for those shallow places.

So it’s really not Christmas and it’s really not a Carol either. Carol is a French word related to the word for dance, and it means a “simple, peasant song of praise and happiness.”[1]

Would it spoil your holiday spirit if I told you that some of our Christmas Carols started out as drinking songs in medieval pubs?

That is emphatically not the case with O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The text is based on an ancient, venerable Vesper Prayer recited during the week before Christmas in churches and monasteries since at least the ninth century. In the twelfth century, someone set it to an old plainsong chant, and the Christian Church has been singing it for 700 years.

You know of course, that Emmanuel means ‘God-with-Us,’ and perhaps you also know that the ancient Vesper Prayer borrowed the image from the prophet Isaiah, who lived and labored in Jerusalem in the eighth century B.C., when the entire city trembled with anxiety when it got out of bed every morning to read The Jerusalem Times or to watch whatever passed for Good Morning, Jerusalem three thousand years ago, and heard reports of vast armies gathering around them like desert storms on every distant horizon.

And into this grim situation, the prophet Isaiah relays a promise from God: “I will give you a sign: a young woman shall conceive, and you shall call his name Emmanuel...Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...Authority shall rest upon his shoulders, and there will be endless peace. He will break the yoke of your impending slavery and snap the oppressor’s spears like matchsticks, and all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments soaked in blood shall be burned as fuel for the festive bonfire of celebration!”

Seven hundred years later, a young woman conceived, and the Christian Church is quite certain that the child born to her is Emmanuel, God-with-Us.

“And ransom captive Israel who mourns in lowly exile here,” the Christian Church has sung for 700 years. And that’s the sophisticated theological image the Christmas Carol, or Advent Hymn, has managed to sneak past our dry-abstraction defense systems and to implant deep within our brains and hearts.

Jesus has come to pay the ransom we couldn’t pay ourselves. Jesus has come to free his folk from foreign foes, from captivity, slavery, oppression, and alien domination.

At first glance it seems an unpromising and inapt image for people like us, doesn’t it? We are not captives and we do not mourn in lowly exile here. We are Americans. We are citizens of the world’s only superpower. No one threatens us.

But the American New Testament scholar Marcus Borg says that captivity is not just a political image but also has psycho-spiritual dimensions. Every Advent the Christmas story invites us to ask ‘To what am I in bondage?  To what are we in bondage?’  “The answer for most of us,” says Dr. Borg, is “many things.”[2]

I am in bondage to my own constricting materialism. To what are we in bondage? Many things. Literally, many things. The richest pay, the highest job, the proudest position, the largest house, the fanciest friends, the sexiest mate, the buffest body, all of them good but fleeting treasures.

Every Advent I go on a shopping spree. How did this happen?

Tomorrow night, a few of us are going to be thinking about what we can learn about Christmas from Charles Dickens.  Some have called A Christmas Carol ‘The Fifth Gospel.’  Yes? The Fifth Gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Charles.

Charles Dickens is buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. When he died at the age of 58 in 1870, they held a small, private graveside service, and in a simple eulogy the presiding priest called A Christmas Carol the finest charity sermon ever preached.

The first ghost Ebenezer Scrooge meets on that harrowing Christmas Eve is his old business partner Jacob Marley. Jacob comes to Scrooge dragging heavy, ominous chains.

“You are fettered,” says Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?” “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replies the ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”[3]

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here. Come, Sweet Little Jesus Boy, to your weathered, creaky cattle-shed, and show us the prisons we’ve forged for ourselves. Come with starlight and angel song to scorned and roughened shepherds and show us the emptiness of status and prestige. Come in your homelessness and show us that beauty is not built with bricks.

To what are we in bondage? Many things. Or maybe it’s not things we’re in bondage to, maybe it’s our own regretted past, our own dubious choices, our own checkered history.

Sometimes we are hobbled by the chains of a poor decision that has locked us up ever since. Some mistake we’ve made or choice we’ve regretted or substance we’ve abused or life we’ve ruined or lover we’ve betrayed looms so large that no fine we could pay would ever make recompense.

Do you ever feel constricted by the chains of some thoughtless lapse you can never undo? Is anybody here captive to regret? Fifteen years ago Anne Tyler wrote a fine little novel called The Amateur Marriage. I love the title because all marriages are amateur, right? Very few of us get it right all the time, and we’re all sort of blithely blundering through the most important relationships in our lives.

In The Amateur Marriage, a man has just lost his wife to Alzheimer’s, and he’s thinking of all the ways he might have been kinder and more helpful to her in the darkness of her dementia. And he is sharing his regrets with his daughter. She becomes his confessor.

And he says, “Last night I was remembering once when she knocked over her milk. It had been a trying day and then I burned our supper and I had to fix it again from scratch. I got it all on the table, settled her in her chair, sat down myself, reached for my fork...and she knocked over her milk glass. Milk everywhere, on our plates and the table and her lap and the floor, and I clamped my mouth shut and went out to the kitchen for a rag and came back, heaving these sighs, and while I was sponging her skirt she reached out and touched my hair and said, ‘You are such a love.’

His daughter says, “Oh Daddy.”

“I worry I’ll go to hell when I die,” he says, almost too low to be heard. “I worry I’ll get to heaven and your mother will say, ‘You!  What are you doing here, after you were so hard on me?’”

His daughter says, “That is never going to happen. Never.  I promise. You know how it’s going to go?” “How?” he asks, but distantly as if he didn’t care.

She says, “There you are, climbing the stairs to heaven, and you look up and you’re surprised to see that the gates are already open, and Mom is standing just inside waiting to greet you. She’s not old and sick; she’s the girl you first knew, and she’ll be all excited. She’ll be laughing and saying ‘You’re here! You got here! Hurry up and come inside.’ You’ll say, ‘Don’t I have to clear this with someone? Pass some kind of test?’ and she’ll say, ‘Oh, my, no.’ You’ve already passed the hardest test there is,’ and she’ll take you by the hand and lead you through the gates. I promise.”[4]

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here. Come to your weathered, roughened cattle-shed and foreshadow the weathered, roughened wood of that cross on Calvary where all our sad failures are erased so thoroughly it’s as if they never existed. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, come with your life of perfect simplicity and transparent divinity, come with your beautiful life and give it up for us all. Come and wash away with your blood the regrets etched indelibly into our very existence. Forgive the unforgivable. Love the unlovable. Reverse the irreversible. Revoke the irrevocable.

Come and show us that your grace is larger and stronger than our capacity to mar the earth and our lives.

[1]Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 46.

[2]Slightly adapted from Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 124.

[3]Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1: Marley’s Ghost.

[4]Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage (New York: Knopf, 2004), 198–199.