As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter. Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”. Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins. Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us. And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.
All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas. Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year. And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter. They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism. Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger. If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God. If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?
One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’. He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:
From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.
Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal. Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:
Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!
No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel! I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music: