Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.

Help Needed

It’s difficult to write for an audience you don’t know. The pastor who penned the Letter to the Hebrews clearly knew his readers, since he is able to reference their circumstances and sufferings with some detail. But I don’t have that luxury in writing for you! However, I imagine that you, dear reader, know much more about deep snow than I (a Southern boy, born and bred) do. As you know (and as I’m told that), when walking through snow that’s above your knees, it’s exhausting to move over long distances. I have walked across soybean fields, where the plants grow very densely, causing me to “high-step” the whole way. After a hundred yards or so, it stops being fun!

I imagine, though, that there’s one thing that might make your walk easier. If someone has gone before you to tramp down the snow, and if you’re able to walk in their footsteps, it must make a night-and-day difference! There are still problems, but because someone else has already done the far harder work, you’d be able to make it pretty easily.

So it is with the Christian life:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
—Hebrews 4:14-16

Being a Christian is meant to be a lifelong, dedicated game of follow the leader. Jesus is impeccably qualified to be our Savior—literally! That is, he’s perfectly suited to understand and feel for us, since he is one of us. There is no circumstance we go through that is foreign to Jesus. No one “gets” the human experience, with all its ups and downs, like him.

And to top it off, Jesus was impeccable (from the Latin peccare, “to sin”). Consider how amazing it is for Jesus, having slogged through the same life as us, without sinning at all. As a young child and teenager, he never failed to love God and people perfectly. He was tempted in every way—think about that: every way—that we are. But he never gave in and succumbed to disobedience or an unloving heart. And now, as he serves as God’s appointed mediator, he can beckon to us from heaven, as it were, saying, “Where I am, you can be, too” (see John 14:2-3).

What’s that mean for us? It means that the heavy trudging through a nasty and broken world—the really heavy trudging—is finished. What we face in this world really is hard, but it’s nothing compared to what the Son of God had to do—and did. So we can come to God. It really is possible for us to follow him all the way to the end, and we really must. We cannot give in to the pressures to loosen our grip on the gospel. And while we wait to reach heaven ourselves, it’s okay that we’re needy. In fact, only the needy find help, since only they know they can approach God with confidence (amazing!) and find undeserved grace and mercy when it’s needed.

Keep trudging. The way is clear.

What a Friend for Sinners

Imagine this bleak scenario: you find yourself convicted of a terrible crime and sentenced to life in prison. The conditions are terrible: filthy cells, meager food, and no relationships with people you can trust. The longer your sentence goes on, the worse the suffering becomes. The only way you’re leaving will be in a casket, but you don’t know which scares you more: the thought of living the rest of your life in torment, or the thought of your life ending without a final change in your circumstances. With the only options being suffering and death, you are, in a crushingly real sense, hopeless.

Now imagine that, miraculously, you are given the choice of a single friend. The first option is of a guard in the prison. His power means that he can provide you with better accommodations and food, but it also prevents him from ever engaging you in conversation and sharing in your pain. Or you could choose a fellow prisoner as your friend: someone who can’t do a single thing to change your conditions but who can make life better by sharing your pain as a fellow sufferer. Neither can fully redeem your misery, but both can help in their own way. Which would you choose?

I’m tempted to write something along the lines of “I hope nothing like that ever happens to you!” Yet everyone who reads this finds him- or herself in a not-too-dissimiliar situation. Many of us suffer physically or mentally, unable to alleviate the pain that’s just there every day. Even those of us blessed with good health, happy backgrounds, and material comforts fight inner demons, experiencing the anguish of frustration and loss on a deserted island in the middle of an ocean of prosperity. Even the kings and queens of our world know that, even if their lives consist of nearly perfect joy and happiness, their lives will end in either a bang or a whimper. To paraphrase the great theologian Johnny Cash, God (through death) will cut us all down.

The writer of Hebrews (an even greater theologian!) is writing to provide hope to the hopeless and encouragement to the suffering. He tells us that the answer to hopelessness is not changing our conditions but knowing and trusting a person, Jesus Christ. Not only does he, as the King of all creation, have the power to turn our mourning into dancing; as a fellow human being, he has the experiences to fully understand our real and painful suffering. Look at what he says:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death— that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
— Hebrews 2:10-18

On top of the reasons we’ve already seen in the letter so far, why should we trust that Jesus really matters in our suffering? First, he is the author (or, as the original word could also be translated, the “pioneer” or “esteemed founder”) of our salvation. He himself experienced the suffering of human life in a broken world, and he himself experienced ultimate vindication through his glorious and awesome resurrection. We can trust him because, like no one else we’ll ever meet, he can look at us as an equal and say, “I know how much it hurts.” When Jesus fulfilled the words of the Old Testament that are quoted in verses 11 through 13, the emphasis is on the words “family,” “brothers,” and “children.” Jesus knows what it’s like to stand in a group of worshipers and sing and pray alongside people who suffer Monday through Saturday. Jesus knows what it’s like to have to take God at his word, even when his circumstances made that difficult. Jesus doesn’t look at us in our brokenness and weakness and feel awkward about being related to us. He’s not ashamed of us — he’s one of us.

How is that possible for someone who, as our Savior, had to be all-powerful and unopposable? According to verses 10 and 17, the better question would be, “How could he not suffer with us?” By God’s logic, the Savior had to be a sufferer. It wouldn’t have been fitting for him to forgive us without absorbing the penalty of our sins himself. The devil, who “holds the power of death” (verse 14), had to be defeated in battle, not appeased through a treaty. God’s justice meant that sinners had to suffer; God’s love meant that sinners had to be saved; God’s plan meant that he would send his own Son to be a suffering sinner. And because of that, “he is able to help those who are being tempted” (verse 18).

Which would you rather have: a powerful but unsympathetic advocate, or a compassionate but impotent buddy? Jesus Christ is both greater than us and equal to us, and he is able and willing to bring you to glory.

Our Suffering King

So far, the Letter to the Hebrews has established two things very clearly: there is a supernatural reality to our world that God created, and Jesus rules over it. But for people like us, living in a world where the natural seems all too real and powerful, that might be tough to swallow. To paraphrase a common objection from our atheist neighbors, belief in the supernatural doesn’t always seem possible in a world with high-speed air travel, genetic engineering, and free WiFi. And even if we grant that there’s more to the world than meets the (scientific, naturalistic) eye, who’s to say that Jesus is really in charge? With wars of religion on one hand and natural disasters on the other, can we really be blamed for wondering if someone is asleep at the wheel?

For me, one of the most persuasive arguments for trusting the Bible is the way that it acknowledges our doubts and questions like this. It doesn’t just gloss over the hard questions of skeptics — it deals with them head-on. Listen to this:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.’ In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
— Hebrews 2:5-9

At this point in his letter, the writer continues arguing that Jesus is better than any of God’s angels. But he does it in an intriguing way: he admits that this isn’t as obvious as some might like. In fact, one could argue, if Jesus were so great, how could he be a human? And even more important: how could he have suffered like he did?

The writer’s response, quite frankly, blows me away. Like many other great thinkers throughout history, he turns the objection on its head and shows that what appears to be a great weakness in Christianity is actually one of its greatest strengths. “Yes,” you can hear him say, “your objection is valid. But have you considered that, instead of disproving me, it might just make my case stronger?”

Here’s what he’s saying: the full humanity of Jesus is a given. As we’ll see again throughout the next few chapters, Jesus really and truly war a flesh-and-blood human being. But this isn’t a sign of his inferiority, since (by quoting Psalm 8, an Old Testament prediction of this) it proves that he is the long-expected Messiah, who had to be a human being. “The son of man,” in some ways, really was “lower” than angels because of the physical limitations of humanity. But that was a key qualification for the Savior of all mankind, who himself had to be a man.

And the suffering and humiliating death that Jesus went through? That’s no sign that he was inferior or substandard. As the Old Testament passage hinted, he was crowned with glory and honor, not despite his low estate, but precisely because of it! A savior who does not suffer, according to the Bible, is no savior at all. And because God graciously allowed Jesus to taste death for everyone, there is no one who without the hope of experiencing the solid joy and lasting treasures won by Jesus.

So what do you see when you look at the world around you? A chaos of sin and weakness, governed by an absentee ruler (if anybody)? Or do you believe the writer of Hebrews, who says that Jesus, because of his suffering and death for sinners like us, is the King over all? By faith in what he says, do you see that?