How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas (Peter Leithart)

Have you listened carefully to and reflected on the meaning of the words of the Christmas carols we’ve been singing this past week?  Do they accurately capture the true meaning of Advent?

Well, some are better than others.  A recent article by Peter Leithart at Credenda Agenda probes this topic interacting with the scholarship of Bishop N.T. Wright that exposes the many ways our favorite Christmas hymns get the Christmas story wrong.  The article is humorously entitled, “How N. T. Wright Stole Christmas.”

Here’s a taste of the article:

[Wright] made me see the fairly radical difference in tone and content between Advent and Christmas hymns. Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets. Advent hymns are about Israel’s desperations and hope, and specifically hope that the Christ would come in order to keep Yahweh’s promise to restore His people, and through them to restore the nations. . . .

. . . Advent hymns are about Israel. They are deeply and thoroughly 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. How many Christmas hymns mention Israel? Many refer to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, but Jerusalem? . . .

. . . . Biblical Christmas hymns are very, very different. They are explicitly rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, exile, and the longing for return. They are overtly, even uncomfortably, political.

What does Mary sing about? Not about oping heavenly doors. She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him, His generosity to the poor and hungry, His hostility to the proud and rich, the help He gives to Israel. She sings about the fulfillment of the Lord’s determined covenant mercy. And she talks about Abraham, for all this is done to fulfill what He “spoke to our Fathers, to Abraham and to His seed forever.”

Zacharias? The Lord comes to accomplish redemption for His people, to raise up a horn of salvation in the house of David – a King, and a king from David’s line, a king who is going to deliver us from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. The coming of Jesus is a sign that the Lord has “remembered His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our Father.” Day has dawned, and light has shone in the darkness – but the darkness is specifically Israel’s darkness.

What does Simeon sing about? When he takes the infant Jesus into his arms, he blessed God: “Let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” And what is that? Access to heaven? Forgiveness of sins? No: “the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

The angelic hymn to the shepherds should be understood in that context. Peace on earth is not some lefty pipe dream. It’s the promise of peace for Israel, and therefore peace for the nations. . . .

So, is he right?  Have we lost the political edges and Old Testament roots of the long-awaited promises of the Messiah?  Have we let our popular carols recreate the original scene, leaving out some important details and smoothing over some less tidy elements?

I agree with Leithart’s concluding challenge to rub our noses in those familiar yet strange songs of Zacharias, Mary and Simeon.  As he so eloquently puts it,

“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.”

And for his conclusion:

“As it turns out, Wright is no Grinch.  He didn’t steal Christmas.  What he stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas.  But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle.  Good riddance, and Bah humbug.”


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