On Friday I shared with you a piece I wrote for Advent for my church. Today, I’m sharing another one about the misconceptions associated with the Christmas story.
Overburdened donkeys, magical wise men, grumpy innkeepers and little drummer boys populate the tales and hymns we retell and sing year after year.
We Three Kings is probably one of the most popular Christmas hymns and the one most people associate with being incorrect when it comes to the actual history of Christ’s birth. Although a large portion of the hymn is biblically correct, the opening line, “We three kings of orient are,” has provided misinformation to a large population of Christians. Although the Gospel of Matthew does recount the wise men’s part in the Christmas story, there are no details given to the number of Magi that were present, whether they were royal or even if they were from the Orient. The composer, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. composed the hymn at the same time he served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and meant for it to be a three man sung hymn. His intention was not to say there were only three wise men, but to simply provide a story of three men on their way to see the new king.
Away in a Manger gives us the misconceptions of a uniquely quiet baby asleep on a bed of hay. Cattle lowing beside him…but he doesn’t cry? He’s the King of Kings, but he’s still a baby! This is obviously a romantic version of the truth. Don’t we all want to believe that our Lord and Savior was a quiet, calm, peaceful person right from the start? In fact, some pastors have suggested that the baby Jesus could not have cried because a crying infant is proof of “original sin.” When infants cry, these pastors argue, it is proof that they are sinful from the start, but in truth, infants cry due to lack of warmth, want for food and the inability to remove their own wet diapers. Do we not think baby Jesus would have done the same?
The hymn Once in Royal David’s City gives us a much more apt version of the baby Jesus: “He was little, weak, and helpless, Tears and smiles, like us He knew…” Baby Jesus came into this world to experience humanity. He experienced exhaustion, hunger, sadness, and loss – and later in John 11:35 we are told “Jesus wept.” It would only be normal for little baby Jesus to cry.
Then there are the songs that although may not be historically correct, still hold deeper meaning. Songs such as The Little Drummer Boy, while not technically a Christian hymn, provides a romanticized version of that fateful night. This poor little boy comes to see the newborn king, but has nothing to offer except the playing of his drum. Isn’t that how we all come to Jesus? Poor in spirit, lacking in gifts to bring…but we can connect to our Lord and Savior by giving back of ourselves with all that we have.
In the end, the hymns and carols we sing and the stories we tell, even if they are slightly romanticized, at Christmastime serve to remind us about Christ’s birth and how he came into the world a simple boy with a larger purpose. His love gives us the hope and faith to continue, knowing that it was his birth that leads us to an everlasting peace.
As Mary sang in her song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
I pray that you find peace, joy and understanding in this season of Christmas. God bless.