by Ellen Sims

Each Advent Open Table offers a Lessons and Carols service–with a twist. On the third Advent Sunday when we light the candle of joy, we add contemporary poems and other writings to pair with traditional scriptures and carols. Several years ago we introduced a new carol by William Flanders “for the heretics” among us. There is no sermon in the Lessons and Carols service. But I often offer a commentary on one of the scriptures or carols. Below is the Lesson on the Heretics followed by the new carol “Sing Me a Carol.”

The Eighth Lesson: Welcoming the Heretics

Our next carol honors the heretics among us. Yes, let’s not leave the heretics out of Advent. They’re 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 simple accept what we’ve been told, we are, by its earliest definition, heretics.

It’s important to know the Christian tradition/s and appreciate there are various ways Christians have made sense of Jesus life and death and life again. From the beginning individuals and groups have taken Christianity off into new trajectories, whether they did so consciously or not. Those who choose a spiritual path differs from a particular group get named as heretics by that other group. Heresy is in the eye of the beholder.

So let us include the heretics—the choosers—in this service of Lessons and Carols because all kinds of folks have found their way into the Jesus story and to the Open Table and continue to expand or refine the story. All kinds of unexpected paths have led people Godward.

The wise men, for instance, whose story we just read from Matthew’s Gospel, were not Jews and certainly were not Christian. But they are honored in the Jesus story. 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 by serving 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 reflect 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 to recognize some irony or incongruity in the present? Or just to delight in one another? We can’t 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 authentic Christmas. We get too defensive over Jesus. Let’s love him instead.

The progressive Christian songwriter Willian Flanders wrote this next carol for the heretics among us:

“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, Joy
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