Have you ever noticed how Christmas song lyricists seem to play by their own rules? That’s always bugged me.
Like most kids, I used to love Jingle Bells, but what the heck is a bobtail? And in the second verse of the song, the author arbitrarily changed the spelling and pronunciation of the word ‘upset‘ to ‘upsot‘, just so he could rhyme with ‘misfortune seemed his lot‘. Anything in the name of whimsy, I suppose, but Jiminy Christmas!
And does anyone put presents on the tree, as it says in I’ll Be Home for Christmas? Ours go under – or maybe around – the tree, not on it?
In Do You Hear What I Hear, ‘a child, a child shivers in the cold. Let us bring Him silver and gold.’ Definitely not some warmer PJs or a blanket, precious metals. (Maybe we’re not supposed to infer cause and effect from the two sections of this line, though.)
Perhaps the most irritating lyric of all is in the first line of Joy to the World – the Lord is come. ‘Has’ has the same number of syllables as ‘is’, and would make so much more grammatical sense. We sing Joy to the World as a Christmas song, not an Advent song – and since Jesus’ birth has already happened, past tense is appropriate in this line.
Or is it?
A number of podcasters have taken me to church on this notion recently. Guys like Daniel Kirk and his Lectiocast guests, and Kent Dobson and his cronies at Mars Hill Bible Church, have opened my heart a little to the seemingly bad grammar of the first line of Joy to the World.
Picking up where we left off last week, Tony Campolo talked extensively about the timelessness of God in the sermon that inspired my last Disciplehood post:
The very name of God connotates His timelessness: ‘Yahweh. Jehovah. I am that I am.’ God never was, God never will be.
When they asked Jesus about Himself, this is what He said: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Why would He use present tense for something that happened thousands of years before He was on the scene?
Because Jesus is the incarnation of God. The thousand years are as a day, the day as a thousand years. All time happens now, as it says in Scripture. With God, time shall be no more.
The God that is incarnate in Jesus hangs on Calvary’s cross. He is simultaneous with me, lying in bed in the morning. The 2,000 years that are separating us are compressed into one eternal now…
By extension, it seems likely that Jesus’ arrival on the scene is, for God, a present reality – rather than something that occurred 2,000 years ago. So in a sense, the only tense that ever makes sense where God is concerned is present tense.
I guess that’s all well and good for God, but how does ‘is’ make sense for beings like us, who don’t move at the speed of light, and therefore experience time as a linear dimension?
Even for us, to put the Joy to the World line in past tense would imply that Jesus’ work is done, and that His arrival ushered in a permanent, final reality. But as Daniel Kirk noted in a recent Lectiocast, ‘To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who proclaims redemption in an unredeemed world,’ quoting 20th-Century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
The way we Christians understand things, the period between Jesus’ first and second comings is a temporary reality where redemption has been made possible, but has not yet been fully achieved (at least in the temporal realm); an existence where Jesus is no longer with us in body, but He remains with us in spirit.
That’s why at New Year’s parties tonight, we won’t be celebrating the arrival of the year 2016 After Death (AD), we’ll be welcoming 2016 Anno Domini (AD) – a Latin phrase that means ‘in the Year of the Lord’ – pointing to a present reality, not one that counts forward from the death of someone important in our distant past.
The Year of the Lord is a liminal era where the tension between Christ’s presence and absence is undeniable, yet difficult to articulate. It’s described as well as anything by St. Gordon of Downie in his second letter to The Tragically Hip:
‘How do I explain this? How do I put it in words? It’s one thing or another, but it’s neither this nor that. Actually it’s a collection of things. She said, “That’s it! That’s it! Get out!!”‘ – from I’ll Believe in You (or I’ll Be Leaving You Tonight), from the 1989 album, Up to Here.
OK, enough rock ‘n roll. Back to our Christmas carol.
In this liminal era, where ‘It is finished’ and yet still in progress, to say ‘Joy to the world, the Lord has come‘ would gloss over the fact that Jesus left us in body on Ascension Day, and promised to return. To say ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is coming‘ would downplay His first coming, and turn this Christmas ditty into an Advent song. (It was apparently written to be more about Advent than Christmas, but that horse is way, way out of the barn by now.)
Nope, once again, to be a good theologian you have to be a bad wordsmith and sing it like Isaac Watts wrote it:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing.
Peace be with you.