One of the holiday albums in heavy rotation in my Spotify app every December is David Bazan’s Dark Sacred Night. It’s no Gene Autry or Vince Guaraldi Trio record, but I find the honest, aching album riveting.
David Bazan grew up in a devout, fundamentalist Christian home — his father was a pastor in a Pentecostal church. He began performing in the Seattle indie rock scene with a band called Pedro the Lion, before eventually releasing material under his own name. The candid, disarming songwriting Bazan’s become known for narrates his struggles with, and eventual loss of faith. And in 2016, after having publicly renounced Christianity several years prior, he released Dark Sacred Night, chronicling his strange relationship with the Christmas holiday.
My favorite song on the album is a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” he does. He plays the song to its traditional tune, and covers the first verse as-is. But in the second verse, he describes the Christmas tradition of his family when he was a child:
After Thanksgiving our folks
Unpacked the manger scene
With Joseph, Mary, shepherds
And three kings on bended knee
But left the manger empty
Till we slept on Christmas Eve
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
Then, in the song’s closing verse, he describes carrying on the tradition, now himself a father:
And now my wife and children dream
Of gifts beneath the tree
While I place in the manger
Baby Jesus figurine
Sipping Christmas whiskey
Wondering if I still believe
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
I think there’s an awful lot of people who resonate with this.
Jesus, Frosty, Olaf
One of our family’s December traditions is to stroll through our neighborhood in the evening to take in the lights and lawn displays together. I was struck as we walked one night by particularly by a neighbor around the corner: he’d set up a nativity scene with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph- and with Frosty the Snowman and Olaf from the movie Frozen mingled right in with them. This, to me, is a picture of how many look at the Christmas Gospel: fun for the kiddos, but not really for real life. There’s a lot of people who wonder how the Christmas tidings have any more to do with the pain of their lives and the plight of the world than Frosty does.
This is why the Incarnation is such good news.
The Christian story offers people comfort and joy, because at it essence, it’s tidings. News, in other words. News of the Creator’s resolve to heal this world. And of God’s refusal to do so from a distance. As the ancient Church leader Gregory of Nazianzus put the logic of the incarnation: “that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” The Christmas Gospel is the news that the invisible God, to unveil God’s beauty and glory, actually assumed the stuff of a helpless infant life.
That God would come all the way in, all the way down, into human frailty, fragility, finality.
That the Almighty would know and share exhaustion and pain, descend into death.
That the Lord of all would put things right by willingly suffering injustice.
That God would take up a solitary human existence that began as a Middle Eastern refugee, and ended as a disgraced, tortured, executed criminal.
John Calvin, in a Christmastime sermon that he preached on Jesus’ family fleeing Herod and living as refugees in Egypt, says that “Christ, having just been born, begins to be crucified for us, both in himself and in his members.” The shadow of Golgotha loomed all the way back through Jesus’ life, right to the manger. All of the life he experienced for us was a cross — from the first day to the last.
In a world staggering beneath the weight of a refugee crisis, soaked in the bloodshed of innocent Palestinians and Israelis and Ukrainians and countless others, wracked in conflict and isolation and darkness, these are the only good tidings that I think can bring anybody comfort and joy.