De-Grinching Leithart (and Wright)

Fra Angelicalo NativityPeter Leithart has reposted his 2009 essay, How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas, in which Leithart describes how Dr Wright had diminished his enjoyment of Christmas by highlighting the disjunction between Advent and Christmas in the church’s hymnody:

Advent hymns are about Israel. 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.

When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. […] Jesus is David’s Son, but how many Christmas hymns mention Abraham? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has not happened. Christmas hymns do not seem to fulfill the longing expressed in Advent hymns, but some other longing.

I especially like Leithart’s identifying the three songs from Luke 1 & 2 as the Bible’s Christmas carols: carols for which the fulfilment of those Advent themes is central. It’s not that N.T. Wright stole Christmas, he concludes, but just a “de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas” to which Leithart bids a robust “good riddance”.

Leithart concludes:

I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.

All good, clean fun, and Leithart makes some excellent points. However, I read his essay just before Midnight Mass last night, and during the mass it occurred to me that the bias of Christmas carols towards the apolitical and universal is only a problem if all you’re doing is singing Christmas carols. But the church doesn’t just sing Christmas carols: it also reads the Scriptures, including passages like last night’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 9:1-7):

The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase; they rejoice in your presence as men rejoice at harvest time, as men are happy when they are dividing the spoils. For the yoke that was weighing on him, the bar across his shoulders, the rod of his oppressor, these you break as on the day of Midian.

For all the footgear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood, is burnt and consumed by fire. For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.

Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end, for the throne of David and for his royal power, which he establishes and makes secure in justice and integrity. From this time onwards and for ever, the jealous love of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This is full of the “Advent fulfilled”, Israel-centred themes that Leithart is calling for. Hearing this – in the Jerusalem Bible’s stirring and (to me) unfamiliar translation – only minutes after reading Leithart’s essay left me audibly exclaiming (and germinated this post).

The New Testament reading (Titus 2:11-14), though, shows how the “universalised” understanding of Christmas goes back to the very beginning of the faith:

God´s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour Christ Jesus.

He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.

What is it that links the particular and political Advent promises of the Old Testament with the universal message of Titus 2 and our Christmas hymns? Answer: the gospel reading, which begins with a highly specific delineation of time and place:

Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David´s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

But ends with:

a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favour.”

So I’m going to carry on singing all the Christmas favourites very happily, but I’m grateful to Leithart for prodding me into making sure I also sing the Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis with especial fervour, listen to those wonderful Christmas Old Testament readings with fresh attention, and so understand how our “universal” Christmas can only be understood properly in the light of the “particular” Advent whose hope and promise it fulfils.

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7 thoughts on “De-Grinching Leithart (and Wright)”

  1. If anyone is ever mad enough to let me loose on a Christmas Day service, I’ve long thought that Luke’s account, almost straight through, would make a fantastic Christmas Day service. (In my madder moments, I think he might have written it that way.) You have the readings, and then sing along with Zechariah, Mary, the angels, and Simeon at the appropriate points.

    1. Ha! Love it! You’d have to find room for some carols as well, though, or there’d be a riot. 😉

      And where to fit in the communion service? I reckon consecration straight after the birth of Jesus, with the shepherds narrative being read during the distribution (“Let us go and see this thing that has come to pass”). Round it off, in true Lutheran fashion, with the Nunc Dimittis as a post-communion canticle.

      1. Certainly Nunc Dimittis at the end. Not coming from a tradition where Christmas Day communion is a thing makes sorting this out easier. 😉

        And yeah, ditching all the carols was precisely *why* they’d have to be mad! I might make an exception for While shepherds watched, which could quite justifiably be used as the reading for a large section of the shepherds’ narrative. Of course, the Gloria usually comes earlier, doesn’t it?

  2. Isn’t part of the reason for the disjoint between expectation and fulfillment that Jesus’ advent did not restore Israel or establish God’s kingdom on earth in any straightforward way–at least not in the way the prophets likely would’ve recognized? It seems to me that the “universalizing” of the gospel message is one way the church dealt with the defeat of the eschatological expectation entertained by early Christians (and possibly Jesus himself). Whether this “spiritualization” of the message was ultimately a good thing or not is debatable, but surely that’s part of the answer to Leithart’s puzzle, isn’t it?

    1. That ‘defeat’ is almost entirely a scholarly construct, with hardly any evidence in the New Testament texts, except where it’s being countered (2 Thess, 2 Peter, perhaps Rev). Whereas the universality of the gospel is at the core of the gospel. Eph 2 explains it better than I ever could. I wouldn’t look down that alley.

  3. Very good points. I would add the following:

    Luke wrote a rather long work in two volumes, and did it with considerable literary skill. If you read the whole thing, one of the striking things about it is the contrast between the bookends: at the start (Luke 1-2), all the songs of the fulfilment of Israel’s longing and the glory of God’s people Israel—and at the end (Acts 28), confirmation Israel’s rejection of the Messiah and the turn to the Gentiles. The turn to the sons of Adam, and beyond the sons of Abraham, is built into the Scriptures themselves.

    As a minor aside, Leithart fails to mention that the high point of the Benedictus is:

    And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways:
    To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins:
    Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us:
    To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.

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