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Carols of the Cross

3 years ago written by

Play a holiday album by Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr. or Vanessa Williams, and you may find the song “I Wonder as I Wander” that’s now considered a Christmas carol despite its summer origin. The song is credited to composer John Jacob Niles, but Niles wrote that he actually took the first few lines from words he heard a traveling evangelist’s daughter sing in July 1933: “I wonder as I wander, out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die…”

Niles expanded the girl’s incomplete song and let listeners know that “when Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall.” But before the lyrics turn to Jesus’ birth, the song begins by letting listeners know that the Savior came here to die.

At Christmastime, Christians tend to focus on the manger without saying much (if anything) about the crucifixion. Let’s instead follow the advice of Brett Heintzman in this month’s Vital Signs article and “keep the cross in Christmas.”

As contemporary group Go Fish sings, “The beginning of the story is wonderful and great, but it’s the ending that can save you, and that’s why we celebrate. It’s about the cross. It’s about my sin. It’s about how Jesus came to be born once, so that we could be born again.”

Catholic Priest Steve Grunow writes that one carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” uses “familiar Christmas decorations as symbols of the passion of Christ: ‘The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood. … The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn.’”

Grunow also notes that some of the original lyrics for “What Child Is This” often are skipped: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through. The cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made Flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” Perhaps these phrases aren’t familiar to you because leading Protestant hymnals — from Baptist to Methodist — leave out these lines. Thankfully, a few modern musicians such as Josh Garrels are bringing these lyrics back.

The new book “Prayers for the Seasons” compiles reflections and poetic prayers by Free Methodist Bishop Emeritus David W. Kendall. Here are Kendall’s words from Dec. 4, 2016:

“In an Infant who grew up, but never really ‘grew up’ to match our expectations.
Who went around doing good,
Who challenged the powers that oppress us, enslave us, and ruin us.
And Who indeed overpowered them, but with that gave His own self to the death, not to ruin but to redeem, not to demand their lives but to offer His own life.”

Kendall understands that Christmas is meaningless without the cross. His Dec. 23, 2018, prayer included these words:

“Self surrendering to Self to seek and save the many,
Self surrendering to show what is good, right, true, and beautiful; to accept
Dark and deadly challenge, to defy the odds, obeying against them, to give all
Until all lay exhausted and expired on a cross-shaped altar, twitching ‘til still.
Lovingly, surrendering Self to creatures whose love of power would kill Life.”

At the end of a year filled with unexpected horrors, we certainly need some “Joy to the World” through understanding “the Savior reigns” even as, Lydia Choi reminds us in in this month’s Focal Point article, “there are storms that might come our way.” As Bishop Matt Whitehead shares in the Leading Edge article, “mature Christians understand that loss, pain and suffering are a part of life.”

What do these stormy portions of life have to do with joy? The book of James reminds us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (1:2–3).

One person who understands life’s trials is Phyllis Sortor who survived kidnapping while serving as a missionary in Nigeria. Another is Chaplain Larry Lyons, who has experienced the devastating effects of COVID-19 in his own family and at the Detroit area hospital that’s been at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. Keep reading to learn more about how suffering hasn’t stopped Sortor or Lyons.

As Michael Simmons notes in this month’s Viewpoint article, the Christ of Christmas is our Savior and our Initiator who says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Don’t expect to find that message in a Hallmark movie or greeting card, but it’s key to following “the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

Article Categories:
[On Point] · Culture · L + L December 2020 · Magazine

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