Sunday’s performance of Rutter’s Magnificat teemed with sophistication as the basses and tenors chased sopranos and altos up and down the musical score, accompanied by a full orchestra. This highbrow work was sung in Latin, which, like a British accent, makes anything sound more elegant and urbane.
But what we call the Magnificat, or the song of Mary, is as down-home as a labor union rally. “The big cats are going down because we’ve been oppressed far too long. God has heard the cries of the poor, so you’d better get ready for change you can believe in.”
No wonder we prefer Mary’s song in Latin set to lofty music. What better way to obscure the politically charged, radically subversive message of the woman chosen to carry the mystery of divinity in her body than to civilize it to death?
We’ve done the same thing to the whole Christmas story, really. Two thousand years of carols about the perfect baby Jesus (“no crying he makes”) and angels that look like Precious Moments dolls have camouflaged the hard-hitting implications of the story.
For example, let the previous compliment to the British be accompanied by a recent Reuters story of competitive British parents creating a “manger chic” for Christmas pageants, with exotic fur throws purchased for their children cast as sheep, and ivory bridesmaid dresses for their darlings selected to be angels.
The Christmas story begins with a recognition of who is in charge (“a decree went out from Emperor Augustus”) and his demand that all people in the occupied land return to their hometown to register to pay taxes (quick: name a Christmas carol that includes the word “tax”). That’s what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from where they lived in Nazareth, 30 miles to the north – imperial powers throwing their weight around, treating ordinary people like puppets, using their might to meet their own needs. Some things never change.
There’s the stable birth, complete with cattle that are lowing, whatever that means. Other than a cute twist for future Christmas pageants, does the stable detail tell us something about where the sacred is most visible?
And then there are the shepherds, the salt-of-the-earth, working-class folk who are the first to hear the news from “a multitude of the heavenly host.” This is akin to a dignitary sending birth announcements to hotel clerks and fast-food assistant managers instead of to the social and political elite.
We read that the shepherds were “sore afraid” by their nocturnal visitors. Translation: it scared the heaven out of them. You’d be scared too, both by singing night angels but also by their message that interrupts the regularly scheduled programming with the announcement of a new deliverer who will come from outside the prescribed places of power in order to shuffle the deck and deal out a new hand.
But can we hear this message?
I don’t see many of us afraid like the shepherds at Christmas. Maybe we fear not scoring a coveted Zhu Zhu pet – this year’s hip toy. Or we’re afraid our credit cards (symbols of the system if ever there were one) will max out before our shopping is finished. Or maybe we’re afraid that we won’t “get in the Christmas spirit” this year.
But the fear of Christmas that might awaken in us a clearer picture of how the world should be ordered? Not so much.
Karl Barth, a German theologian during World War II, warned, “Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas.” That is, lives void of reverence for the sacred carry in them the seeds of fear that grow unquestioned and unchallenged. These lesser fears paralyze us and ultimately bear the fruit of havoc in our world – competition, hoarding, retaliation, isolation.
But what about the life-altering chill from hearing a message announcing that the Holy One hears the cries of the poor, comes among us and condemns our wars and conflicts with the simple words “and on earth, peace”? What about the heart-in-throat evoking realization that this “good news of great joy” really is for “all the people”? What if it’s true that love is stronger than hate? What if we really are meant to live together as one people, united in common parentage, humanity and hope?
I wonder if even my Jewish and Muslim friends, who reverence their own faith stories just as I do, might be invited as honored guests to see beyond the details of Christmas and the specificity of the Christian faith in order to recognize a picture that is profoundly and universally true: The Heart of Love wants to scare us awake from the sleep of life-as-usual into a new way of being stewards of these beautiful lives we’ve been given.
Once frightened awake, we are assured in Mary’s song, “God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.” As the angels said to the awakened shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church and Ridgewood Baptist Church of Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.