Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Once In Royal David’s City

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Once in Royal David’s City” by Cecil Frances Alexander and Henry J. Gauntlett

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.

Juxtaposed to “royal David’s city” is the “lowly cattle shed.” While the song is titled “Once in Royal David’s city,” the notion of royalty is rejected and focuses on Mary and Jesus in the wretched manger. The child is found lying in the shed, put there by his mother, rather than sitting up on a tiny throne in a royal position. Mary is not a queen, but the mother mild taking care of her child. Thus the song’s title is a veil to the lyrics in the first verse.

The incarnation, a doctrine defined much later, is the notion that God gives up Godhood to make those on Earth whole by becoming a baby. Commonly, the radical notion of incarnation is overshadowed by theological understandings of the cross. “Once in Royal David’s City” causes us to linger a little while longer. The second verse is front heavy with heavenly royal theological language that it becomes meaningless by the end of the second verse. The high christology of Jesus as “God and Lord of all” is undone when Jesus is “with the poor, the mean, and the lowly.” Jesus gives up divinity to be with the socially rejected, those dangerous to the Empire, and the down and out. This verse ends with a Jesus-among-the-people and not a far off Jesus-in-the-heavens, and divinity was pushed to the side.

In the final verse, “Once in Royal David’s City” focuses so much on the incarnation that the cross is skipped over. Through Jesus’ redeeming love, not blood, we shall see him. The writers suggest that the “child so dear and gentle” as well “is our Lord in heav’n above.” Hence, the incarnation is ridiculous, the lying babe is also the savior: a child-redeemer. In conclusion, Jesus never grows up in the hymn, but stays a child who “leads his children on.”

What foolishness!

A powerless powerness.

A God-babe.

An incarnation through a weeping and poopy nursling!

Israeli Wall

Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” by Johnny Marks
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
It’s the best time of the year
I don’t know if there’ll be snow
but have a cup of cheer
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
And when you walk down the street
Say Hello to friends you know
and everyone you meet

Oh ho
the mistletoe
hung where you can see;
Somebody waits for you;
Kiss her once for me
Have a holly jolly Christmas
and in case you didn’t hear
Oh by golly
have a holly
jolly Christmas this year

Johnny Marks wrote “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” in mid 1960’s. He is famous for many other Christmas songs as well,, i.e. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silver and Gold . Ironically Johnny Marks practiced Judaism, yet stayed true to his tradition in that he never wrote songs that mentioned Jesus, only the time of year. I consider “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” one of those universal Christmas carols that anyone can sing on spot. The most famous version of this song was performed by: Burls Ives in 1965.

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described ethics as “a call without a caller.” We act toward and treat others, keeping their well-being in mind as we act in the world. The same could be said for this song.

Winter can be a miserable time of the year especially for those with season affective disorder. Christmas also can bring to mind horrible memories of Christmases past. Religious groups every year hold Blue Christmas services to mourn our past loved ones. Polls have shown that people feel the saddest and loneliest around the holidays. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” subverts the individualism of Christmas and demands a new communal existence.

The opening lyrics are ripe with hope in the face of disappointment. Every year we sing carols romanticizing having a  snowfall for Christmas (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”). These songs place a desire within us that if not filled, we become disappointed. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” helps as our holiday therapist, letting us know that even if it doesn’t snow, we can still have an enjoyable time with a “cup of cheer.”

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” calls for us to see the humanity in others. In the second part of the first verse, whenever we leave our homes we should greet our friends with gentle welcome. Friendship is good and important, but if the verse stopped here, it would keep the status quo of relationships. Yet, the song takes it a step further and calls us to greet everyone we meet. In other words, we are asked to speak to everyone. This is an act of radical hospitality! We see the humanity within strangers and acknowledge them with love and respect.

Lastly, the mistletoe is the universal sign for loving physical contact. Thankfully, the gendered language in recent years has changed to “em,” short for them. Under the mistletoe one voluntarily escapes the world and is transported to the arms of another with great affection. This is a hiccup to the very system of consumption and replaces it with the reality of love and affection. 

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” wants us to engage with neighbors, known and not-yet-known. It posits a new ethical life and grants us public spaces for affection. Our communal ethic stretches us to be as human as possible–without technological distractions and emphasizes hospitality.

Holly Jolly Christmas!

Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Little Drummer Boy

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“The Little Drummer Boy” by Katherine Kennicott Davis

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born king to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the king, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then he smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

My first church music performance was “The Little Drummer Boy.” At the time I was in fourth grade and I played the snare drum while my dad sang and played guitar. Of course I was nervous so I wanted to look nice and wore a festive tie, just in case I messed up the rhythm. Everything went well and I haven’t stopped playing music in church. Trying to pick on version that I find to be my favorite is difficult since there are over 220 versions. Here’s a new version by Pentatonix.

Upon looking into “The Little Drummer Boy,” I found no history in the anti-war movement or even being overtly political. Originally it was titled “Carol of the Drum” written for chorale groups in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. So let’s take a look at the lyrics:

The song itself holds many assumptions about the Christmas narrative. Clearly, the songwriter had in mind Matthew’s Gospel, since his Gospel is the only one that includes the Magi. In the song, the Magi ask the drummer boy to accompany them as they bring their finest gifts. Our first radical eruption comes by way of “a new born king.” A king who has just been born does not have power. He can’t speak, act in an intelligent way, or think cogently. Everything the king does is done through the will of his mother.

Second, why would these Magi bring their finest gifts to a newborn king who cannot appreciate them? This is not wise, but wasteful. These Magi are trying to gain honor and respect through such an act and upholding the status quo.

Now we arrive to the little drummer boy. He tells the king-babe that he is young, poor, and without any gifts for him. Let’s pause here, the little drummer talks to the little baby? His breath is wasted. When he asks if he can play his drum for him, it is not the child who responds, but his mother. We should too acknowledge that Jesus is never named. The only person in the carol named is Mary!

Then, when the tiny drummer plays his drums for the baby, the surrounding community contributes to it. The drummer’s small gift grows vastly when he begins to play. The ox and lamb are essentially playing the kick drum. Mary both gives a nod for him to play then too enjoys it by continue nodding to the beat. And the baby-king smiles for the drummer.

The most important point in this song is that everyone is enjoying the drumming. The Magis gifts are forgotten. It is the presence of the drummer and his song rather than the presents of the Magi. It is not the consumption of gifts that fulfills the king-baby, but through the presence of others. This song thus mocks the Magis for their gifts, and upholds the drummer for his gift that is not seen as precious as the gifts of the Magi.

little drummer

Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: The Friendly Beasts

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“The Friendly Beasts” by Robert Davis 

Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
I carried his mother uphill and down,
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town;
 said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

I, said the cow, all white and red,
I gave him my manger for His bed,
I gave him hay to pillow His head;
 said the cow, all white and red.

I, said the sheep with curly horn,
I gave him my wool for his blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
 said the sheep with curly horn.

I, said the dove, from the rafters high,
I cooed him to sleep that he should not cry,
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I;
 said the dove, from the rafters high.

Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.

In some Christmas circles, this song is on the margins or not known at all. The Veggie Tales perform a pretty fun version. In past youth ministry jobs, I have taught “The Friendly Beasts” and kids seem to love it. The only time I have ever encountered a problem with it was a criticism of calling Jesus our brother, apparently it lacks a high Christology. Researching this song I have found that it has some radical roots with the low christology!

Between the 5th and 15th centuries, festivals were conducted in the name of social revolution. These include the Feast of Fools, the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Asses. At Christmas, people chose the Lord of Misrule (England) or the Abbot of Unreason (Scotland). This person was a peasant, lacking political and social power. Because the medieval church wrote laws, dictated society, and was in cahoots with the State, these feasts dismissed the church’s authority.

The Feast of Fools and the almost blasphemous extravagances in some instances associated with it have constantly been made the occasion of a sweeping condemnation of the medieval Church. On the other hand some Catholic writers have thought it necessary to try to deny the existence of such abuses.”

The feast of the Ass was celebrated on January 14th and recognized the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. In their liturgy, a donkey entered the church and stayed by the pastor during the service. The congregation would “hee-haw” during their responses, e.g. “The Lord be with you. Hee-haw.” How does all of this relate to “The Friendly Beasts?” The melody originated from these festivals and was called “Orientis Partibus.” During the Festival of the Ass, these great lyrics were sung:

From the East the donkey came,
Stout and strong as twenty men;
Ears like wings and eyes like flame,
Striding into Bethlehem.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Faster than the deer he leapt,
With his burden on his back;
Though all other creatures slept,
Still the ass kept on his track.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Still he draws his heavy load,
Fed on barley and rough hay;
Pulling on along the road —
Donkey, pull our sins away!
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;
All rejoice who see him pass;
Mirth inhabit young and old
On this feast day of the ass.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Out of these radical and revolutionary festivals, we sing “The Friendly Beasts.” These festivals were democratic, carnival-like, and destabilizing to the current church hierarchy. Originally sung in praise of an ass, the lowliest of creatures. Our current version adds more animals and deems Jesus our brother. In other words, the high christology disappears for a Jesus whose Mother has to ride an ass to birth a child in a crappy manger.

One last comment, the animals speak in our song. They have language to engage the Holy Family. This draws away from the uniqueness of Jesus, and lends to the beauty of non-humans.

friendly beasts

Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Do You Hear What I Hear?

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often overlooked. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

Do you hear what I hear? by  Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A child, a child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has consistently been my favorite Christmas carol. I especially love Sufjan Stevens’  version. On researching this carol, I was surprised to discover  this little nugget in the writer’s NYT obituary: “Written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was intended to be a plea for peace.” Thus we can gather two things from this statement. It is a rather new song, unlike Silent Night (1818), and it has political implications. This Christmas song was a creative way to protest for peace.

Now let’s take a look at the lyrics. The movements in the song are what I find most captivating: the night wind, the little lamb, the shepherd boy, the king, and all the people. In our political discourse, the political elite and the media hold the power of knowledge on current and world events. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” reverses this discourse and begins with the earthy, something anyone can engage: the night wind. The night wind is the first one to know and share the secret of peace.

We then find the little lamb listening to the night wind’s message. Again no human interaction has taken place. The Earth and her creatures know of Divine peace and love before humanity is even touched by it. Our first human touch of the peace secret comes to the socially lowest person in the world. In the time of Jesus, shepherds were the marginalized. They were sent to be with the sheep because society rejected them. They were the weak ones, the ones without political and economic power. Understanding this theologically, the Divine comes to the least of these before God/She appears to the elite.

In the next verse, we take a leap in social status. The shepherd boy appears before the king, the authority in political/social life, and offers him peace. The king listens to these words and takes them to heart. And in the last verse, the king gives up his kingship and tells all of the people that there is someone who will bring peace to all. The carol ends with the king singing that the child of peace “will bring us goodness and light.”

In conclusion, this song flips our notions of the Divine relation to humankind since the Divine first speaks to non-humans. Our concepts of power too must be overturned and reevaluated, possibly for a radical cosmopolitanism, where the Earth will be treated equally as a person.

Listen deeply to non-humans, their vision of Divine peace is radiating.

Night Wind to the Little Lamb

Advent, Beliefs, Christainity, Politics, Scripture

birth narratives overview: theological, political, historical (part two)

Matthew and Luke author the texts which are read every Advent and Christmas. A few things about these texts in general. First, they were written in the 80s-90s CE shortly  after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70CE). These writers have some major differences in their narratives, showing how each of them wanted to present Jesus to their community in a particular light. Lastly, it is generally recognized that Matthew composed his Gospel first and Luke copied and created afterward. Let us begin with St. Matthew’s version. 

St. Matthew

Matthew presented Jesus as the new Moses. Jesus’ birth and life reflects the Mosaic narrative : birth during time of crisis, political undertones, escape from Egypt, and people speak of them as one who saves/liberates.

The birth narrative begins directly after the genealogy. Joseph is the lead player in the Matthean narrative. He is the one who is told to marry Mary and name her baby Jesus. Angels communicate with Joseph in dreams. Two years after Jesus’ birth, Joseph takes his new family into Egypt to escape the massacre of the innocents and later goes to Nazareth when it became safe.

Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem. They travel no where to have Jesus, instead they have him in their house. Matthew makes it clear that they are married when they have Jesus. They only make their new home in Nazareth, according to Matthew,

so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ (2:23)

The scripture quoted is found no where in the Hebrew Bible. In the first two chapters of Matthew, you will find five Hebrew Bible prooftexts. This last one tops it off. These prooftexts lay the foundation for Jesus as the new Moses. Matthew is not trying to be professional, as we try to be in our Western culture, instead he is pointing to something new, something better. The Temple was laid to waste by the time he was writing his Gospel. Matthew was giving his community something to hope in, since probably many of them were Jew themselves. Matthew helped his readers to remember the one who brought the Law down from Mount Herob/Sinai, the one who was laid in the reeds, the one who liberated the people from Egypt (with God’s help, of course). Although, I think that these narratives speak theologically than historically these make them all the more important. If following Jesus was to only believe in historical events then I think we are not believing in God, but rather our  literal interpretation.

St. Luke

Luke’s Gospel understood Jesus as one who stands in solidarity with the poor, not just “the poor in spirit” as written in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. This explains why the birth narratives are different. Instead of Joseph having the main lead, Luke tells the story from Mary’s advantage. She is the one who is visited by an angel. She is the one who sings the Magnificat. She is the one who travels, and mainly takes care of herself.

Joseph could not find room in the inn for Mary to bear the child. Jesus, in the opposite manner as Matthew, was born in a stable with animals. This is place is not fit for a birth of a human, but of a calf or a goat. Mary and Joseph are so poor that they can only offer doves at the Temple as a sacrifice. For goodness sake, Mary and Joseph are not even married when Mary has Jesus. Matthew made sure that they were married for Jesus’ birth, Luke says that they were still betrothed. Probably Luke is suggesting that Joseph did not have efficient funds to get married!

The first people who visit Jesus in the stable were the Shepherds who were keeping watch their sheep at night. These were the ones on the fringe of society, the crazy ones, the outcasts. It was the heavenly messengers who came to them to say that the Savior of the World has been born. This Savior demonstrates power by giving up all power. This Savior was born in the worst of conditions yet we repeat it every year without giving anymore thought to its implications.

Birth of the Messiah

I could write about all the fallacies found in the texts and with their many differences, but I am not going to. There are books written already that can show you that. I think it is most important instead to say that Jesus was born, Immanuel has come among us. One phrase Jesus said that hits me time and again:

Be compassionate as God is compassionate. (Luke 6:36)

This is the reason why we read and reread these narratives. They remind us that God is compassionate, meaning “to suffer with”. God was in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, so that we may know that God is found in the margins, especially with those who suffer. This suffering does not lead to more suffering, but ends in Love. Victor Hugo was absolutely right when he wrote “Love is the only future God offers.”  May it be so.

Advent, Beliefs, Christainity, Scripture

birth narratives overview: theological, political, historical (part one)

This will be a two part series. The first post will concern the New Testament writers who are not Luke or Matthew because they actually have birth narratives. Paul, Mark, and John are the other writers who even mention that Jesus was born or at least has a particular town that he was from. Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are sandwiched in the Christian Testament timeline then these writers will give us insight to what communities of believers thought before and after 80-90CE. 

7th century Sinai Nativity Icon

During the Advent season, I read the birth narratives at least twenty times. I read them in preparation for Sunday School and re-read them to be clued into something new. This is me attempting to read with fresh eyes, which is a struggle for me. Instead,  I come back time and again to these glorious texts using a political and historical approach. In other words, I read them as historical theological documents influenced by the community of the writer. In the next post, much more of the political and theological interpretation will spill forth, but for now here are the other writers of the New Testament on Jesus’ birth.

St. Paul

The earliest writer in the Christian Testament was St. Paul. His canonical writings date from the late 40s to early 60s CE. Paul’s letters were believed to be holy script by the early 100s. In his letters, he was not correcting the early church’s assumption about the historical Jesus, but theologically explained Jesus’ relation with God. In addition, Paul demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whether you are Gentile or Jew, God’s redeeming all through Jesus. In Paul’s earliest letter to the Galatians, he had to confront some confusion as to whether Jesus was a historical figure or a god who floated down from the heavens. St. Paul responds Jesus was “born of a woman”(4:4). In other words, St. Paul believed that Jesus was born a historical person, lived in a particular time, and had a body.


The first Gospel written was Mark. This Gospel begins with Jesus’ adult ministry and makes no mention of Bethlehem. For Mark, Jesus was from Nazareth only (1.9;1.24; 10.47; 14.67; 16.6). Mark believed that Jesus was a historical person, since he was a child of Mary (6:3). No virgin birth, no census, no wise persons, just an adult Jesus who told parables, overran the Temple, and killed by the State.


John’s Gospel written around 90 CE was the last canonical Gospel to be written (many other Gospels were written after). It breaks with the Synoptic Gospels in many aspects. Bypassing the fact that all the major events in Jesus life do not occur (Baptism, Last Supper, Parables); John clearly denies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In John 7:40-44, it reads

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

This text pointedly shows that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem instead Galilee. Usually, the author of John explains theologically why s/he wrote such things, but not this time. Scholars believe that John had access to the Synoptic Gospels while writing the text, yet s/he blatantly ignores the Bethlehem birth narratives. My best guess is that Johannine community had divisions among themselves as to where Jesus was born and no one knew it for certain.

Nativity Scene Icon

These Christian Testament writers had no affiliation with the birth narratives. They either left them out or ignored them. The Christian Tradition still holds onto the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives and celebrate them every year by acting them out in churches, displaying nativity scenes and reading them aloud in church. For the next post we will closely look at those narratives and learn of their political, social, and historical situations.