Dec  2017 19
Silent Night and the News

In a congregation I knew well, a direct descendent of Franz Gruber, the creator of Silent Night, was a member. At the Christmas Eve candlelight service, that descendent with his German-born accent and baritone voice sang Silent Night, auf Deutch, at the service’s close. Not a dry eye in the house, any year. Even as I write and recall, I wipe tears.

A still moment in a turning world.

At Christmas I want nothing more than peace. Actually, I want peace every day, but my emotional imprint with Christmas is to wish for, to long for, peace. Inner peace. Family peace. Workplace peace. Peace on earth, good will toward all.

Except one must dig for moments of peace in the Christmas stories. The longing for peace is clear, especially in Luke, but the reality of peace is not obvious.

You can find or plausibly imagine a still moment here and there. Mary “pondering all in her heart.” Momentarily calmed shepherds who had been terrorized by an angel and a heavenly army. But for the most part, the two Christmas stories are profoundly disturbing.

Consider Matthew’s account.

  • Mary is pregnant and unmarried. Joseph considers breaking the engagement.
  • Herod, the King of the Jews, is deeply upset to learn from the Persian astrologers that a new King of the Jews had been born, and “all of (name your favorite capital city) was disturbed with him.”
  • Herod reprises Pharaoh’s role and determines to slay all male infants two and under in Bethlehem. Matthew invokes the Jeremiah text about Rachel weeping for murdered children (Matthew 2:18).
  • Joseph is warned in a dream to flee the terror; the Holy Family becomes refugees in Egypt and then makes a new home in the backwaters of Nazareth.

Consider Luke’s account:

  • Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) sings of God flipping rulers off their thrones and separating the wealthy from their riches (Luke 1:52-53), as the hearer might imagine Miriam, Moses’ sister, praising God for tossing horses and riders into the sea during the Exodus (Exodus 15:20-21).
  • Zechariah foresees a savior, and that the people will soon be “rescued from the hands of (their) enemies” (Luke 1:67-79)
  • Caesar, the representation of Israel’s enemies, can apparently make the whole world do his bidding.
  • The revelation of the Messiah’s birth is given to shepherds, possibly the worst-regarded occupation in first century Palestine, except for maybe tax collectors and other conspirators with the Romans.

For whom is all of this good news? Not for everyone. Not for those in power. Not for the wealthy. Not for those who simply want peace but ignore the second part of the angelic army declaration to the shepherds: “peace among those whom God favors,” among those with whom God is pleased (Luke 2:14).

Ever since first hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Silent Night and the 7 o’clock News” decades ago, I’ve not been able to escape the juxtaposition of the beloved carol with the realities of the world that followers of Jesus construe as displeasing God.

I encourage you to listen to S&G’s rendition and consider our own newsworthy God-displeasing reports. North Korea. Myanmar. Charlottesville. Hollywood and countless boardrooms and shop floors. Flint. Columbine to Sandy Hook to Pulse to Vegas, with many slaughters of innocents in-between. Sixteen years of war in Afghanistan. Sixty-five million refugees. Post-hurricane Puerto Rico recovery. Catastrophic weather events on a tightening timeline.

Simon and Garfunkel did not politicize Christmas by playing news reports alongside the carol. In fact, one has to erase all the context of the biblical Christmas stories in order not to ignore the clear political context of those stories. These stories can’t be interpreted without asking how their context translates to today.

I can still be moved by Silent Night. I will still be comforted by the carols. But I can’t sing those carols or internalize them without my peace being disturbed by the rest of the Christmas stories. And, once disturbed, I am called to act consequently in a way that aligns me with those whom God favors. I hope. 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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