Two Christmas Reflections

Part one:  a reprise of something I wrote a few years ago about one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Heaven’s Child.” I listened to it again this morning and find it just as powerful as I remembered, so naturally I wanted to write about it. But I already have, and having reread what I wrote the first time this particular spirit moved, I see no reason not to let well enough alone:

On the treadmill the other day, the Martins’ “Heaven’s Child” cycled through my iPod and I caught for the first time something I had missed before: the interesting role reversal described by the chorus: “Joseph wept with wonder / as Mary sweetly smiled / because she knew this was Heaven’s Child.” I like this very much, especially the play on “wonder,” because it turns our typical assumptions about Mary (demurring and divinely pliant, maybe even a little simple) and Joseph (good guy but a little dense) on their head. Imagine the emotional imbalance that would have actually existed between two people in a relationship like that if one half had been singled out for divine revelation and immaculate conception while the other was left to … well … wonder. As scripture tells it, Mary had had time to “ponder all these things in her heart,” to come to terms with having been swept up in the downright baffling means to this particular eternal end. By the time of Christ’s birth, as the song imagines it, Mary’s contemplation gave way to a serene calm, born not so much of knowing (because I don’t think it’s sacrilege to propose that even the most faithful handmaiden of the Lord might doubt her sanity if she had just all at once been visited by an angel and made the living vessel for the Christchild), but perhaps of accepting (she had so much to accept, after all, for things turned out for Mary - as the first verse reminds us - not at all like she had imagined in the “prophecies of old”). It’s too bad that centuries of fetishizing the Virgin Mary have depleted much of the humanness of the story of Christ’s birth. Protestants haven’t done much better either. It’s pretty hard to get at the mysterious encounter between the human and divine when so often it’s dressed up in old terrycloth dish towels and threadbare dressing gowns and tinsel-trimmed angel’s wings of kindergarten Christmas pageants - pageants that for all their earnestness tend to have an inevitably cheapening effect. Don’t worry. I’m not so curmudgeonly as to advocate doing away with Christmas plays. They’re fine for what they are: religiously acceptable ways of making Christmas about us even in church, just like it is everywhere else. But they’re also part of a Christmas machine within religious culture that prefers its Marys and Josephs to be as one-dimensional as the wooden sheep and cardboard donkeys. Mary meek and mild. Joseph stolidly faithful. Easy enough. Now may I open my presents? Sure, but maybe after that, listen to Joyce Martin breathe something like the breath of new life into the image of the nativity, and Mary’s sweet shining smile of acceptance and Joseph’s weeping wonder.

Part two: We’ve been talking a lot about the Crabbs (again!) lately, so this clip seemed appropriate: Jason Crabb singing “Strange Way to Save the World,” another really fine Christmas tune. You’ll want to stay with it to the end to hear the contrast between the climax of the first few choruses (”I’m not one to secondguess what angels have to say”), where he sings the word “say” in falsetto, and the final chorus, in which “say” is sung in a plaintive full voice that contains all the half-bewildered, half-awestruck - or, as the song puts it, “strange” - tangle of unsorted feeling found in any authentic encounter with a saving grace.

Merry Christmas.

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Comments

  1. nonSGfan wrote:

    One of the first things I noticed about this tune done by Jason was his “say” at the end. I wonder who’s idea it really was, thats a little brilliant.

  2. burt wrote:

    I like Jason but, I don’t think his tonal/inflection change of the word “say” should be described as brilliant. It’s quite common in every genre…especially pop. The song just builds as it goes.

  3. Janet wrote:

    I have always admired Joseph. He obviously loved Mary very much since he: 1) didn’t have her killed for being “unfaithful,” and 2) went ahead & took on the responsibility of raising the Son of God. Never thought of him as “dense.”

    New, really moving Christmas songs are rare, probably because the subject matter has been mined to death. So, I love it when someone comes up with a new way to look at the story. One such song is “Labor of Love,” which is on Randy Travis’ 2007 Christmas cd. “It was not a silent night; there was blood on the ground…” The verse about Mary talks about her being frightened & alone - “Little Mary, full of grace, with tears upon her face, had no mother’s hand to hold.” But it’s Joseph’s verse that gets to me - “No midwives to be found on the streets of David’s town in the middle of the night. So, he held her and he prayed, shafts of moonlight on his face. But the baby in her womb, He was the Maker of the moon, & the author of the faith that can make mountains move.” Just beautiful.

    May we all remember that Christmas is not just a story about angels & shepherds & a star & a sweet little baby lying in a manger - it’s also about struggle, sacrifice, uncertainty & a love that demands the best from each of us.

    Blessed Christmas!

  4. ruth wrote:

    agreed!

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