I went to a midnight Christmas Eve service last night at a large church in an affluent suburb. Everything was done well. The music was professional grade. The choir and musicians made music which people pay money to hear. The sermon was well crafted and delivered with competent authority. The liturgy felt like a drama, and the people in the pews knew their parts.
The problem for me was that the “music” didn’t fit the words. Except for the angelic chorus, the Christmas story music is in a minor key and should be played pianissimo.
An older couple goes through life childless—a source of shame in those days—and then when the angel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby he questions whether the angel has been drinking, sort of an LOL really. Then the angel responds, “OK, if you don’t believe it when an angel from God tells you there’s going to be a miracle in your life, you’ll become unable to speak. Maybe that will help you hear and believe.”
From there the angel moves from a couple too old to have a maybe to a commoner named Mary who is too young really to have a baby, not biologically but not at a stage in her relationship with Joseph at which getting pregnant was acceptable, and tells her that she’s going to have a baby.
It has always bothered me that the angel chastened Zachariah when he questioned “how can this be” but when Mary asked the same thing, the angel gave her an explanation.
That’s why the story really is puzzling. It doesn’t fit our everyday experience, or at least not our everyday expectation . It’s not plausible. We know that it’s part of the story, just like we know that flying is what Peter Pan does, but if you try to find a woman who gets pregnant without semen fertilizing an egg, good luck. And if you tell a man who’s just lost the woman who has been his loving wife for thirty years that he’ll be happy again someday and might even know marital bliss again, he might try to believe it but the words won’t fill the hole in his soul.
Then Mary and Joseph have to travel away from home and family right during the holidays! And they can’t find a motel room, much less a birthing unit in a hospital, for Mary to deliver the baby. And then they have to flee their country and become refugees in Egypt to escape the tyranny of an ISIS like ruler name Herod.
Kenosis is the Greek, biblical word used to describe this. It means “emptying,” God setting aside glory and becoming present in a very “hidden,” almost anonymous way. Edna Hong uses words like the “downward ascent” to talk about what we refer to as the incarnation. Ilia Delio calls it “The Humility of God.” Luther talked about it in terms of what he referred to as the Theology of the Cross.
So, instead of the organist pulling out all the stops, I would have preferred to have a single obo accompany at least some of the carols. And instead of a confident preacher delivering a polished sermon, I would have liked a grieving widow talk with audible pain in her voice about how she dares to hope in and trust God right in the midst of her pain.
God, it seems, chooses to exercise omnipotent power in powerless ways. God chooses to reveal strength in weakness. God chooses to love me in a way where I can reject that love. . .and have many times.
“In the night in which he was betrayed,” said the presiding pastor about three fourths of the way through the service. Those words beg for music in a minor key. The Christmas story cries out for a single obo to accompany the singing, at least for a carol or two. The birth of a humble God demands a preacher who is not sure of himself at all, but nevertheless—miracle of miracles—somehow dares to believe that the vulnerable baby will give his life back to him.
I’ve nothing against the organist pulling out all the stops when that kind of music fits the words. But not last night.