Christmas Day I wrote about my appreciation for O Come, Emmanuel, because I think it captures the biblical story better than most Advent songs. Jeffrey Barbeau has some good thoughts in is humorously titled Don’t Let N. T. Wright Steal Christmas!
Peter Leithart, remarking on the trendsetting biblical criticism of N.
T. Wright, has questioned the way that many (presumably English)
Christmas hymns fail to capture the political and social context of the
birth of Jesus Christ. Leithart claims that Advent hymns (unlike
Christmas hymns) capture the here and now. Advent hymns declare, in this
way, a crisp, prophetic vision towards a world gone astray: “They are
deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look
forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.”
For Leithart, we would all be better off ridding ourselves of hymns that fail to include the deeply political and social aspects of the original Christmas story. “Wright is no Grinch,” he claims. “He didn’t steal Christmas. What he stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas. But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle. Good riddance, and Bah humbug.”
As one who studies the literature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christianity (the period that gave us so many of our great English hymns), I must admit that some of Leithart’s critique rings true. Indeed, some of our most beloved hymns contain precisely the kind of otherworldly message that Leithart deplores.
Before we call for a moratorium on Christmas hymns, however, let’s remember that these hymns often contain powerful reminders of profound and, I daresay, eschatological change. We would be wise to listen. ...