I have a Christmas confession: I am not a fan of most traditional Christmas carols.
My diagnosis has two parts. First, when working my way through university, I was employed as a Santa Claus (spoiler alert!) each year at a leading retail store in Sydney. Every day for two months, force-fed almost every carol ever written, bolstered by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing popular favourites. Even now, White Christmas gives me a light rash.
The second reason is more important. Many of the carols have beautiful tunes, but a lot of the lyrics paint a picture of the Christmas event as a bit of a Disney movie. Images of snow falling gently, a child who doesn’t cry, and two serene parents managing the whole situation. There’s the directive in one carol “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he”. For me, it’s an extraordinary story we’ve wrapped in cotton wool.
The Christmas story which moves my heart and gives me hope is the one the Gospels tell – miracle and challenge and risk and fear and wonder. A young woman accepting an enormous challenge, risking the shame, in those days, of becoming pregnant outside marriage. A husband-to-be accepting the risk, responsibility and care for his fiancée and her child. A long journey, heavily pregnant, eventually giving birth in a stable, or a cave, or in the middle of a paddock, using a feed box as a cot. Shepherds, unwashed and usually unwelcome, are the first to see the baby, their presence proclaiming that everyone is welcome at the birth.
The presence of God fills the story from the beginning, even when the violence of empire acts, as Herod seeks to kill the child, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt as refugees.
This is no Disney story. Our lives have mess, and confusion, and unwelcome guests, and grief and injustice. Our lives also have courage, and risk, and wonder, and people who act generously.
And Jesus is in the midst of it all. The birth of Jesus is astonishing hope, because God is with us in the midst of everything, not insulated from the world around, but present at the heart of it. God is in it, with us, because God loves us, and gives us all God has – God’s child – to let us know our worth.
This is from a new carol I discovered recently:
Round this birth, as every other,
wars are fought and people flee;
each new mother feeds her baby
with a yearning to be free.
Mary’s song still echoes clear:
justice, hope and peace are near.