Last night, I went with my family to a Christmas Eve service. This being California, rain - and not snow - fell in sheets outside the windows, and, conspicuously to my eyes, no one had to remove scarf or gloves before sitting down in the aisles.
The service began with up-tempo carols - "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Joy to the World". It was all in the vein of my upbringing. Energetic guitar strumming. The congregation singing back in full voice, children and adults together.
Next came a duet by two very talented sopranos. They sang a song that was new to me, their voices soaring in the rafters with trained virtuosity (sometimes in Italian, no less), but the longer they sang, the higher heaped my dismay.
These were the words that they sang:
"Let this be our prayer,
As we go our way.
Lead us to a place;
Guide us with your grace,
To a place where we'll be safe.
[. . .]
We ask that life be kind,
And watch us from above.
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.
Let this be our prayer
Just like every child
Needs to find a place
Guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we'll be safe.
And the faith that
You've lit inside us
I feel will save us."
It was a beautiful song, beautifully executed, but there my praise for it must end, since it was, from start to finish, a load of hogwash.
"Give us faith so we'll be SAFE?" Is that the point of advent, then? Is that why Christ came? To be safe? To make me safe? Have the authors of this soaring anthem so entirely forgotten that the child Jesus did not, in fact, find any place but a feed trough to receive him?
Nothing could have been less safe than that night in Bethlehem. The great I AM makes himself infinitely vulnerable in the shape of a squalling infant. A worn-out pregnant teenager, with none to attend her but a coarse-handed carpenter, lays her head-covering, perhaps, over the animal dung to have a place to wrestle through the contractions. And in the capital city, a paranoid tyrant is plotting the child's murder.
This is not about safety. This is an act of desperation by a God determined to reconcile to Himself his estranged, rebellious creatures. In the great war for men's souls, this is Omaha Beach, the toehold from which God will reclaim out of enemy hands all that He has made.
The earlier songs, though perhaps homelier, spoke far more truth:
"God rest ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay. You know that Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan's grasp when we had gone astray!"
"Joyful all ye nations rise! Join the triumph of the skies!"
"Let earth receive her King. [ . . .] No more shall sin nor sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings known, far as the curse is found!"
This is no silent night. This is a coup. We have long lived in occupied lands, but the real king is coming to take back his own.
Ranting aside, the song does speak some truth. In the end, when Christ comes again in final victory, He will grant to us shelter at His table, in His home. When once are souls are bought by Him, no power can do them harm. In that sense, we are "safe". And even in this life, in His presence, there is a security, a peace, a joy, that no evil circumstance can touch. But let us not deceive ourselves. The battle has not ended, and we should not act as though it had.
When Christ has laid himself out for us in the vulnerability of human flesh, being born and dying like us, shall we then, before victory is final, ask him, simpering, that life be kind to us? That we all find a hand to hold and a bunker to hide in? Would it not be a more fitting tribute to Immanuel the Infant King, on Christmas Day and each day, to offer Him a life yielded for His purposes, though like Him we have no true home on this earth, though like Him we may face dangers and indignities, though like Him we may still do battle in a world that is decidedly unsafe and unkind?
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