by Ellen Sims

On the third Sunday of Advent, Open Table offers a Lessons and Carols service — with a twist. We place contemporary writings in conversation with the songs and sages of old. One song on the Sunday in which we light the candle of Joy is a recent carol “for the heretics” among us. There is no sermon in the Lessons and Carols service. But I do offer a reflection each year on one of the scriptures or carols. This commentary follows the reading from Matthew 2: 1-12.

Eighth Lesson: The welcoming of the heretics

Our next carol honors the heretics among us. Yes, let’s not leave the heretics out of Christmas, a group that includes many of us. Maybe all of us at particular times in our lives. And definitely all of us if we reach back to that word’s origins in the Greek word hairetikos, which means “able to choose.” If we choose an ideology or theology rather than simply accept what we’re told, we are, by its earliest definition, heretics.

I want to include the heretics in this service of Lessons and Carols because all kinds of folks have found their way into the Jesus story and to Open Table. All kinds of unexpected paths have led people Godward. The wise men, for instance, whose story we just read from Matthew, were not Jews—and certainly were not Christian. But according to Christian tradition, they traveled far to lay their best gifts at the feet of a poor baby. Some of the most Christ-like people I know don’t name themselves as Christian. But they offer up their best in service to others and by honoring the lowly.

I like that this lilting carol invites ALL of us to enter the story. And though it acknowledges we live in troubled times, it does so with a touch of humor you don’t expect in a carol. It’s often through humor that we can become vulnerable–and vulnerability makes love possible. Consider how joy and laughter and delight and good humor make us vulnerable. You can’t split your sides laughing with your defenses up. You can’t roll on the floor hooting hysterically without sacrificing some dignity, which means getting to a very vulnerable place. You can’t even relax into a deep-down smile without being in a position of trust. And the best way to make someone else laugh? Expose yourself: your real self, your embarrassing moments, your humanness. Not to debase yourself. Not to make fun of someone else. But laughter that is joyful, not mean, is possible when we’re at ease with ourselves and others. Then we can enjoy the humanness of who we are. What better therapy is there than to be with a group of friends telling stories on themselves and able to laugh at some long ago event? Or recognizing some irony or incongruity in the present? Or just delighting in one another? We can’t do that if we’re not taking the risk of reaching out to others, if we’re not providing others a safe welcome where they can trust us with their vulnerability.

One way to be authentically Christian, it seems to me, is to laugh even at the seriousness with which we try to “keep Christ in Christmas” — as if we could take Christ out of Christmas. We get too defensive over Jesus. Let’s love him instead.

The progressive Christian songwriter, William Flanders, generously shares this and other progressive hymns for your use. For your convenience, I’m printing the words below:

“Sing Me a Carol”

Sing me a carol, a Christmas time song.
Sing one that’s easy to hum, I’ll follow along.
Choose your own story, but angels and shepherds bring good cheer
Sing me a carol, one for a tired year.
Sing me a carol, one for a tired year.

Sing me a carol, some warmth in the cold.
Find a new way, then, to tell what’s always been told.
But touch on the baby, sentiment plays a subtle trick.
Sing me a carol, one for a heretic.
Sing me a carol, one for a heretic.

Put Christ back in Christmas, the stickers declare.
I’d rather we let him alone to be anywhere.
Maybe in churches, maybe anew in Palestine.
Sing me a carol, one for a troubled time.
Sing me a carol, one for a troubled time.

–words and music by William Flanders, shared with his permission

Category Advent
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