Had legendary, recently departed vocalist Andy Williams lived long enough to see Christmas 2012, he might be weeping under the holly-and-ivy today. His much-crooned-about “most wonderful time of the year” has been violated by a grievous surge of depravities this season. December 14th’s hideous Newtown, Ct school massacre, a Geeseytown, PA killing spree which left four dead and a number of state troopers injured and a Christmas Eve atrocity, in which a Webster, NY felon set his house afire and then ambushed firefighters when they arrived, slaying two, wounding two more – all heaved a grisly pall over the nation’s festive mood.
These enormities, and something else admittedly quite a bit less ghastly, starkly underscore a grim fundamental which helps account for so much else: darkness in this life, in this age, will always co-exist alongside the light; the best will perpetually bump up against the nastiness of the worst.
Weeks ago, I heard Kenny Rogers and Wynnona Judd’s 1997 cover of the modern holiday music staple, “Mary Did You Know?” (trust me, I’m going somewhere with this). It’s a potently beautiful piece directing a series of interrogatories to the mother of the Savior, crescendoing with “Did you know/your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb?/This sleeping child you’re holding /Is the great I am.”
Lovely stuff, profound stuff. And it came to mind, once again, while I was contemplating this month’s harrowing holiday horrors — because, thirteen years previous to “Mary”, the same Kenny Rogers produced another memorable Yuletide duet with another country/pop songstress: ” A Christmas to Remember”; this time featuring Dolly Parton; and a decidedly less elevated theme.
That song recounts the experience of a man and a woman who meet while holidaying in Lake Tahoe. “Strangers when we met, lovers as we leave” warble the duo. Purring about her newly encountered “fast talking lover and some slow burning wood,” Parton (who takes writing credit for the number) confesses, “[E]ven in my wildest dreams it never got this good”. “Though it’s cold outside, ” she further pledges, ” we’ll just stroke the burning embers”.
Now, call me over-sensitive, but — is tacky, musical double-entendre about two “mid-December” vacationers’ rutting like rabbits (or maybe reindeer) really an appropriate canticle for a season commemorating the birth of the Holy One sent to rescue humanity from its self-destruction? Tidings of great joy transformed into tidings of great sex?
Say what you will about the December 25th festival, it was originally designed to focus the hearts and minds of spiritually perishing men on the birth of the God-Man, Jesus Christ — His redemptive arrival on the planet, fulfilling centuries old promises of a conquering, miracle-working Messiah’s appearance. Celebrating that holiday with a sexually-profligate couple’s ode to their fa-la-la-la-la-ing fornication? Classy that ain’t.
The saintly, heaven-descending-to-earth plot lines are the very ones, you’ll recall, Rogers highlighted over a decade later with “Mary Did You Know?” — a Hot-100 charter as sublime as his previous effort with Ms. Parton was salacious; one luminous, the other lewdly libidinous; one urging hearers to look up, the other extolling the thrills of hooking up.
I can’t help but wonder if superstars Rogers and Parton (who openly professes herself a Christian) ever recognized the moral incongruity of their involvement with the earlier song? Maybe came to regret it? I hope they have.
Just as likely, however, they’ve never spotted any inconsistency at all.
Why “just as likely”? Not because Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton are, particularly, more spiritually calloused or hypocritical or careless than most folks. Rather, because people, all people if left to themselves, can be that way: bewilderingly complex, inscrutable, contradictory.
The biblical worldview chalks it all up to one of the many repercussions of — dare I say it? — the “sin” problem. It’s not a new doctrine, but an old one. Conservative Christian theologians like to style it “the fall of man” — and it’s authenticated every day on news broadcasts, in newspaper headlines, at the office, in the classroom and the marketplace: men are born with a streak of intractable evil in them and, given enough time, it surfaces in the conduct of every one of them — Tom, Dick, Harry, Sue, Beth and Sherry.
“The doctrine of original sin [man's inborn sin nature] is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved, ” wrote G.K. Chesterton. It’s “confirmed every day,” someone else has elaborated, “by empirical observation.”
The same earth-dwellers fashioned in “the image of God” according to the Old Testament’s book of Genesis and the New Testament writer James, carry with them a contrary and exasperating knack for defacing that sacred image. God’s highest creation screws up regularly with acts of thoughtlessness, cruelty, selfishness, ungodliness. Everyone, at some point, scandalously flouts the ways of the very God Who created him/her to reflect those ways.
It’s a dynamic a lot like 2012’s Christmas: the most luminous colliding with the most egregious.
Sometimes it reveals itself in a marquee recording artist who lays down a lubricious little ditty about illicit sex and sells it as a Christmas standard in the mid- ’80’s; while, many seasons down the road, he records another holiday piece — this one a soaring hymn of worship to the newborn Son of God.
Sometimes it’s unleashed in a heart-shatteringly more vicious manner; literally, a more murderous one: men who inexplicably cut down school children or bystanders or public servants — in the very heart of the Christmastide, merriment meeting mayhem; the “Season of Lights” ruptured by a spasm of soul-wracking darkness; the “Happy Holidays” debauched by a curse as old as humankind.
Identifying the sin principle doesn’t make these ugly intrusions easy to accept; it does, however, offer a diagnosis. Columnist William Murchison asserts bluntly, “It’s the rock-bottom Christian doctrine that explains everything worth explaining.”
And — paradoxically yet gloriously — this last Christmas’ homicidal eruptions demand we cling to another truth, this one hopeful: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined … unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:2, 6).
The Lord and Savior who was the object of Kenny Rogers’ curiosity in “Mary Did You Know” showed up not only to expose men’s sin dilemma — He came bringing in Himself its remedy. Life’s ominous shadows aren’t all that rear their daunting heads. Where individuals will receive it, Light breaks in as well, challenging and dispelling those shadows.
That’s worth singing about.
Lower Image: Adam and Eve Driven Out of Eden; Gustave Dore; http://catholic-resources.org/Dore/Images/OT-003.jpg;public domain/copyright expired