Away and in Danger – and other unsentimental Christmas Carols

The rumour has got out in the Christian community I lead that I ‘hate’ Away in a Manger’. Of course, this is tantamount to Christmas blasphemy, so I feel I must make a defense and an explanation.

I can melt like the rest of us at a sweetly sung version of Away in a Manger. However, it has always struck me as a classic version of the kind of carol that emerged from that era of Dickensian niceness and over-sentimentality that continues to equate Christmas with a certain kind of feeling rather than a certain story. We don’t want to let an awkward story get in the way of that feeling we all want at Christmas; (open fires, mulled wine, candle light and well-behaved children singing sweetly), do we?

Except that the story of course was there to make things awkward. From the moment the Angel appeared to Mary things got pretty awkward. Jesus from his very conception probes, prods and cajoles at our sense of soporific comfort. And every generation has dealt with awkwardness and challenge in various ways, often aided and abetted by the church. A Barcelona friend of mine tells me of a character in the Spanish nativity called El Caganer. This character, a staple of Spanish nativity sets, is a man squatting the corner with his trousers round his ankles! El Caganer translates as ‘The Great Defecator’ and was probably introduced into the nativity scene to thumb a nose at the power, privilege and aloofness of the church. It was as if Spanish peasants were saying ‘this is our story too! You can’t sanitise this awkward story for us you know! Here’s a man shitting in the corner!”

Rather than writing in a character into the story to try and remind people the rawness, reality, pain and politics of the story I have taken to rewriting the words to some well-known carols. I have taken the worst offenders, in my opinion. Those carols that ooze sentimentality and seem to have lost all sense of the power and subversiveness of the story.

Away and in Danger

Away, amongst strangers, who gave them no bed
The new born Lord Jesus
Lay down his wet head
The stars in the night sky
Looked down in dismay
‘This was the Christ!? Asleep on some hay!?’

 

The cattle are lowing, this baby awakes
And just like a baby, a great din he does make.
‘I love you, Lord Jesus?
But please do not cry,
It makes you look human
Not aloof or on high.’

Be near me, Lord Jesus, get up from the hay
Grow into a man and be near me I pray
Bless all the children
In pain and despair
And don’t stop you’re crying
It shows that you care.

O Occupied Zone of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
In captivity you lie
Amidst your nervous, terror-ed sleep
The sentinels pass by.
In occupied streets shining
An endless burning light,
The hopes and fears of exiles’ tears
Are met in Him tonight.

How naturally, how painfully
the wondrous gift is given!
And God imparts to broken hearts
the promised reign of heaven;
Keen ears have heard his coming
But in this world of din
Where Roman soldier’s madness holds;
The liberator breaks in.

 

Sleepless Night

Sleepless night, horrible night
Baby cried, half the time
Round we walked this Mother and Child
Holy Infant not tender or mild
Sleep is desperately need-ed
Sleep is all that I need.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Shepherd’s came, what a sight!
Covered in poo and smelt like a bar
Brought their sheep, that’s going to far!
I can’t wait for the morn
I can’t wait for the morn.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Son of God? Yes, alright.
Asleep at last, just look at his face,
See the dawn of ordinary grace!
Jesus Lord at your birth
Jesus Lord at your birth.

 

Happy Christmas!

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Monty the Penguin and the Christmas Truce

Christmas TriceAs ever in the run up to Christmas the major retailers have released their Christmas ad. These ads have become something of an art form, a genre and are eagerly anticipated.  John Lewis which led the way with Christmas ad came up this year with that well known festive character – the penguin! Still,  the ad seems to me to do a very good job of creating that sentimental feeling about the family Christmas, and connects with our desire to give something to someone that fits with who they are and what they might want.

Of all the ads I watched though the one that for me captured the atmosphere in the run up to this Christmas, was the one from Sainsbury’s, based on the Christmas truce of 1914. Why did this capture this Christmas for me? Well I guess because instead of sentimental, and frankly unrealistic pictures of family bliss at Christmas, we have a more earthy and real picture of Christmas in the midst of war, violence and death.  The same day that I saw this advert news came in of 132 children and 9 teachers being shot to death, at random, by terrorists in Peshawar. Christmas celebrations have been cancelled, or considerably muted in Peshawar this year as the Christian community there responds to what has happened in their city. Christmas celebrations have also been cancelled in Sierra Leone where all energies and resources are being spent fighting the Ebola virus, and many are in mourning.  And there will be no Christmas celebrations in in the ancient city of Ninevah in Iraq, where there had been a Christian community for over 1800 years – because there are no Christians left – all have fled at the threat of death from Islamic State.

And on that same day someone sent me a text responding to the news from Peshawar. In the text she despaired at the evil of that appalling act. And then she said – and where was God? Why doesn’t he intervene?

Why not indeed? And I cannot give an answer that will seem anything except trite and feeble in the face of such suffering and violence. But any answer I would try to give would have to include Christmas. Not the sentimental, romantic nonsense of Monty the Penguin – but the raw, earthy, bloody, risky, violent and messy version of Christmas which is found in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.  1st century Palestine was far more like the western front than the soft snug living room that Monty’s new ‘friend’ emerges into. Israel was a place of hardship and mess. It was a place where the use of violence by one superpower (the Romans) was changing the world forever.  Death, lots of it, was the Romans means of establishing power. And the census, which a poor young married couple get caught up in, was another way of enforcing it.

And into this particular place of death and violence – God intervenes. Not in a far off, thunderbolt-from-heaven kind of way, but in a far more risky and earthy kind of way. God himself comes. Not as power. Not as violence. Not as one bigger better weapon against all the other weapons. But rather as a child.

‘He will come, will come

Will come like crying in the night,

Like blood, like breaking,

As the earth writhes to toss him free.

He will come like child.’ (Rowan Williams)

God has intervened into a world of violence, terrorism, pointless and futile death. He has intervened in the child Jesus.  OK, great.  What is a vulnerable, crying child, kicking his little legs in a manger in a small village in Israel, going to do about all this violence and death? In what way is this the Prince of Peace?! A choir of angels singing ‘peace on earth’ feels  a bit like a game of football on no-man’s land, a wonderful moment of peace and goodwill, but everyone knew it wasn’t going to last.

Well what the angels knew, and the shepherd’s, kings, Mary & Joseph could only wonder at was that this Jesus was God starting a process of peace, leading the way by sending himself. The Sainsbury’s advert portrays the beginning of the Christmas truce not as the agreement between commanding officers then played out by the troops. No – the Christmas truce is thought to have begun when one man, hearing the sound of the German’s singing Silent Night, a carol that the British solider then joined in with in their trenches – one man, took the courage, risked his life to walk out of the trench and stand in the gap, in the no man’s land between the trenches.  Others followed his lead and so the truce (unofficial but put up with by higher command) was begun.

The Christian story, that begins with the story of Christmas, is that God has stepped into the gap for us. He has not intervened from afar in our mess of violence and death.  He has become one of us and then stepped into the gap for us. He walked voluntarily into the power of violence and death, receiving all the pain and suffering that the Roman Empire could throw at him with its torture and murder weapon of choice – the cross of crucifixion.  One young soldier on Christmas Day 1914, to the surprise of everyone around him, does not get immediately shot. Jesus, to the surprise of everyone around him, disciples and authorities alike, does not get snuffed out by crucifixion. He comes back from the grave and the first word he utters to his disciples is the same word sung by the angels – peace.  ‘Peace be with you.’ A movement of peace begins that day when Jesus walks out of the grave and announces that peace has come.

I believe that God has intervened, for all time, in the mess and violence of the world. And when this child Jesus grows into a man and steps into the public frame he says to people over and over again ‘come follow me.’ That soldier venturing into no-man’s land perhaps turned to beckon his fellow soldiers. So the actions of one man became a short-lived but powerful movement that day. So too Jesus who walks into the face of death and out the other side beckons you and me to follow him, to create a movement of peace – a movement that Isaiah called ‘his government’ and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. What does the Kingdom of God mean? Well I guess it means following Jesus into the sorts of places where he would go now. The no-man’s lands, the gaps, the places of need in our world today. Frederick Beuchner said ‘the world is a manger’. The world is now the place where God is being born, God is intervening and does so, more than any other way, by followers of Christ standing in the gap, walking into no-man’s land and beckoning others to follow.