Ghost likes to give me a really hard time over the fact that I like to sing Christmas carols, well, any time of year. For example today I was listening to We Three Kings, (Birch Tree Project‘s version). But ultimately, the really good carols aren’t just about Christmas. Let me explain.
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where Ox and Ass are feeding?
Around Christmas we watched the Nativity Story at church. While not entirely historically accurate, it was a beautiful and poignant film.
One part that really stuck with me from the film was a bit with the Magi.
See, early on in the film, only one of the Magi, Melchior, is convinced they need to make the trip to Bethlehem. He finally convinces a second, Balthazar, to accompany him, but the third, Gaspar, flat out refuses.
Eventually he relents, and catches up with them in the desert, saying “You forgot the map.” He complains along the way:
Melchior:How many days have you come with us on this journey?
Gaspar: One hundred and four.
Melchior: And how many days have you complained about it?
Gaspar: One hundred and five.
[Melchior looks at him confused]
Gaspar: … I am counting tomorrow.
Anyway, when they get to the Christ-child, the first two Magi present their gifts with pomp and flouish:
“Gold, for the King of Kings”
“Frankincense, for the Priest of all priests”
But Gaspar. Gaspar gets choked up. He looks startled, as though he didn’t bring a gift for this party, this party for the High Holy King of Kings, God veiled in flesh.
In fact, he’s very near to tears as he offers his gift: “A gift of Myrrh… to honor Thy sacrifice…”
So many Christmas carols have great theology, and great poetry. Many are quote long, and nowadays we often omit verses. For example, I was listening to “We three Kings”
They sang both of these verses:
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, amen raising,
Worship to God on high.
But instead of singing the verse about the third gift they spend a verse going “mmmhmmmm mmmmm”. Why did they skip the verse?
That last verse is this:
Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Why do we skip the Myrrh? One blogger calls this verse “grim”. And it is. If we talk about “grim” things, then like Balthazar, we’re at the wrong party. At least we feel like it. So maybe they skipped it because Christmastime is the hap-happiest season of all! Culturally, Christmas is about “sweet baby Jesus“, who of course “no crying makes”. It’s about remembering uh, stuff. And presents and ribbon. And celebrating FaMiLY!!
Why lies He in such mean estate? Why bring the Magi the gift of myrrh?
As Gaspar so aptly puts it: “Thy sacrifice”.
You see, the celebration of Christmas is about the Incarnation. God coming down, giving up His rightful place in the riches of heaven to be veiled in the flesh. And yes, that gives us great cause to celebrate! God became one of us, that He might take our place. Hence: Christmas.
But the Incarnation is not stand alone. Instead it builds up to the passion, death and resurrection of the Incarnate One. In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says that the Incarnation is the “eucatastrophe of Man’s history”, and the “Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation”. Ultimately Christmas is not about Christmas. Christmas is about Easter!
This is why the myrrh. This is why the grim carols say “Nails, spears shall pierce Him through, the cross be bore for me for you” or “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Behold, the very Lamb of God, the Light of the World, slain and buried.
This is our LORD, our Suffering Savior, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the World. He’s our Man of Sorrows, and one familiar with suffering. I am reminded of in the Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan says to Digory “My son, my son, I know. Grief is great.”* He knows our deepest agonies, He took our sins and sorrows // and made them His very own // He bore the burden to Calvary // and suffered and died alone.”
The very God of Very God, great Deity and King of Kings humbled Himself to the point of death, and became the sacrifice that saved us. This is why we sing of the myrrh, the grimness, the death.
But that’s not all. The song doesn’t end there: “Glorious now, behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice…!!”
Behold, He has risen indeed.