And the soul felt its worth

This Advent I’ve been spending time in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, looking at some of the characters that were present during the first Christmas. I’ve been focusing on four figures in particular – Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, and Anna – and the situations they were in when Jesus was born.

(To see Kershisnik’s painting in all its glory, click here.)

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest who worked in the temple. Offering sacrifices day after day, he knew the sins of the people were many.

Mary would have been around thirteen years old when she became pregnant. Considering the cultural climate of her day, she must have felt anxious and uncertain about the future – few things were more socially repugnant and taboo than pregnancy out of wedlock.

Simeon was waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” which is shorthand for saying he was waiting for God’s people to be rescued from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Though they were living in their own land, the Jews knew that as long as another nation ruled them, they were still living in exile.

Anna was an older woman who was a part of a group who “were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She remembered the promise made to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through his descendants, and thus she longed for Israel to be redeemed so that the whole world might be redeemed and put back to rights.

My hunch is that many of us find ourselves in similar situations this Christmas. Maybe it’s anxiety due to hard financial times or uncertainty about the future. I have a number of friends who can’t find jobs. It could be that there’s a sin or addiction – either your own or someone else’s – that’s weighing you down and making you feel hopeless. Maybe it’s the dark cloud of depression. Or perhaps you’ve been longing for justice and peace to come to our war-torn world (you might have even thought Obama would bring it), but now with 30,000 more troops being sent to Afghanistan and a Nobel Peace Prize speech used to justify violence, you’re becoming disillusioned again. At least I am.

Two thousands years and a vastly different culture separate us from the four characters in Luke’s narrative – yet we have more in common with them than not, for we all share the same primordial struggles.

And here’s the stunning thing about Christmas. The birth of Jesus was an answer in some way or another to each of their longings. Furthermore, each of these characters responds to the news of Jesus’ birth by singing a song. There’s no better way to express a sudden change of emotions than through belting out a song with all your heart.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend some time looking at their songs. Maybe on Christmas day, either with your family or by yourself, you could read these ancient songs and ponder their meaning. My hope is that by the end we would find ourselves singing along with them, getting caught up in their music and experiencing the same comfort, hope, and joy that they did that first Christmas.

Zechariah, the priest who felt the heavy burden of the people’s sins, sings of God’s tender mercy and how he is lavishly pouring out the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:68-79). Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat, is as jubilant as it is politically subversive (1:46-55). It reminds me of something Dorothy Day would write.

Simeon’s song is a short burst of gratitude (2:29-32). As he takes the baby boy in his arms, he lets out a deep sigh, for he has finally seen the One he has been waiting for. Luke tells us that Anna also had a song to sing (2:38), but unfortunately he doesn’t include her lyrics. All we know is that it had to do with her longing for the redemption of Israel and the world.
But since there’s no surviving copy of her song sheet, I propose we use a modern rendition of what Anna’s ancient song could have possibly been. And I suggest we use O Holy Night by Nat King Cole.

Exegeting with Nat King Cole

Of course I know this song was around long before Nat was even born. It was written 1847, in fact, by a French wine merchant and poet. But I’ll forever associate it with Nat King Cole because he sings it like he owns it. Listen for yourself.


O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of
Our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
‘Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.

It’s the line, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth,” that always gets me. Maybe that was Anna’s story. We’re told she was an older woman who had been waiting a very long time, and that something happened when she saw the Christ child. I do know, however, that this is my story.

As a teenager I was searching desperately for my identity. I tried finding it in sports and relationships. Then I thought I needed to own a lot of stuff and make tons of money. I was just sort of floating along in life without any real purpose. And then I had an experience one summer that forever changed me – I tasted the love of God in a real and tangible way. I began to sense his presence in my life and to feel the warmth of his embrace. The more I learned about Jesus, the more I wanted to know him and follow him. I was discovering my identity and that I was created to be a part of something much bigger than myself. A simpler way of putting all this might be, “He appeared and my soul felt its worth.”

We live in a world that ascribes worth depending on what car you drive or how you compare to beauty models. We’re told that only the rich and powerful matter, and that unless you have a long list of accomplishments on your résumé and a few letters attached to your name (e.g., PhD, Dr, Rev, Esq) then you’re really not all that important. No wonder so many folks feel they’re slowly dying inside.

Maybe this Christmas you and I need to remember our truest identity – that we are beloved sons and daughters of God – and that the significance of our lives is found not in what job we have, what we own, or what we wear, but in knowing God, the One who appeared so that the soul would feel its worth.

A Bomb in the Form of a Baby

Yet the story of Christmas is not just about God reaching out to us. It’s also about God calling us to be a part of what he’s doing in the world. This is another reason I love O Holy Night. The first verse describes how we come alive through God’s love, but the last verse looks at how we’re swept into God’s mission.

Truly He taught us
To love one another;
His law is love
And His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break
For the slave is our brother;
And in His name
All oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy
In grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us
Praise His holy name.

Christmas is when heaven dropped a bomb on the world in the form of a baby. The world would never be the same after this invasion of love and peace. The world says it will bring peace through sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, but Jesus’ way of bringing peace is radically different.

For example, think back to Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers came for Jesus. Matthew tells us that he could have called twelve legions of angels to fight on his behalf. Now I take this literally – Jesus could have called supernatural helpers down from heaven – but I take this also metaphorically: if Jesus wanted to mount an attack on the Roman occupation in Jerusalem, there would have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of disgruntled Jews ready to draw their swords and join him in violent revolt.

But he doesn’t. Instead of destroying evil through might and weaponry, through the cross he takes on its full force and absorbs it into his own body. Paul says that by so doing, he stripped the Powers that Be and exposed their oppressive systems for what they are. Hanging there alone on the cross, Jesus prays for, rather than curses, his enemies as they mock him. This is a very different sort of kingdom with a very different sort of power.

Then the crucified Jesus is raised from the dead by God in a great act of triumph. Easter is the older cousin of Christmas. The resurrection shows that Jesus’ way of confronting evil is the true way to bring peace. Jesus is vindicated as the world’s true king and lord.

And the way he now brings peace is through his followers. O Holy Night says he teaches us to love one another. That’s how he continues his mission of bringing peace where there is strife, light where there is darkness, and love where there is hatred.

This is why you’ve got to tack on Pentecost along with Easter and Christmas. Jesus empowers us with his Spirit to go out into the world and do acts of justice and compassion, to break the chains of oppression, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to be peacemakers, and to be a light to the nations. As the carol says, “in His name All oppression shall cease.”

We’ve now come to the last bit of the song where it speaks of “sweet hymns of joy” and praise. We’re reminded that this is indeed a joyful task we’ve been called to. And that’s why I’ve given my whole life to it. There’s nothing in all the world I would rather do than be a part of God bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Everything else just seems boring in comparison.
A friend recently turned me on to the work of American artist Brian Kershisnik. His paintings usually follow a narrative, and often the viewer feels as if they’ve walked in on either the climax of a dramatic scene or the delivery of the punch line of a joke. I would suggest that the three Kershisnik paintings in this post tell the Christmas narrative, from the dramatic nativity scene to soulful singing to joyful dancing and merry-making.

Friends, I wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy time with your family and close friends. I hope you drink some eggnog and eat some sweets, and I hope dad likes the new underwear and socks.

Yet above all, I hope and pray that the story of Jesus’ birth would leave your soul in awe. The king took off his robe and put on a beggar’s clothes; he came into the world and lived among us.

But that’s not all. My prayer is also that you’d be a part of God’s invasion of love. God is putting the world back to rights, and he invites us to be agents of his peace and justice. I pray that you would join God in pushing back the darkness, but that you would do so in the way and manner of the cross – through sacrificial self-donation and radical love.