Christmas Bells Song Story

When I sat down to write this song I had only one expectation. Write a Christmas song that told the full story. I love Christmas music for the simple fact that it creates the powerful feeling of nostalgia. It takes me back to a time when we were kids waiting for Santa Claus. Snowfall. Holiday parties with friends and family. Seeing the lights on people’s houses. All of it casts a beautiful shade within our rich heritage. I love it also because it teaches us about the story of birth of Christ in an almost fairytale-like fashion. Silent night…holy night…all is calm…all is bright

But was it though? Was it really a silent night as our hymns and stories portray? We love the picture of the wise men and shepherds gathered around Mary and the baby in a serene stable under the glow of starlight. I remember as a kid seeing the picturesque nativity scene and thinking to myself, something doesn’t seem right. Even at that young age something in my spirit didn’t add up with the imagery I was seeing. A young mother having just given birth with her infant outside in a manger in the middle of winter. And a group of shepherds surrounding her and her baby. Shepherds. A quick historical overview of 1st century Palestine. The shepherd profession didn’t exactly attract the familial types. The guys were often times viewed as scoundrels. They smelled. They were dirty. And they weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. What are they doing here? If you know the story then you know that the gospel of Luke records a host of angels appearing to them announcing the arrival of a new king. And so they go to see this new king. But why them? Why the scoundrels?

Simultaneously, we see three “wise men” surrounding the mother and baby as well. I remember thinking when I was a young boy, what makes them wise? What I didn’t realize until I was much older was that the term “wise men” isn’t really accurate. The term used to describe them is magi. That’s Latin for magician or sorcerer. Specifically it was a term used to define a magician or astrologer belonging to the priestly or kingly caste in 1st century Persia. So they aren’t really wise men. They are three magicians who have travelled from the geographical region of Persia (i.e. the region of Babylon for those are curious – Babylon plays a significant role in the scriptures). The gospel of Matthew gives us some more intel on these guys when he writes of them saying to Herod, “Where is the one who been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When I look at the nativity scene and think about the “wise men” the old Sesame Street song pops in my head, “one of these things is not like the other…” What on earth are they doing here?

And then when I think about this story as a whole playing it’s part within the context of scripture – then I really get spun around.. Here’s the baby Christ. The king of the Jews. Born out of wedlock and covered in scandal. Outside in a stable with animals in the middle of winter. And who do the angels announce the birth to first? A group of shepherds – people who are viewed as significantly less than the rest of 1st century Jewish society. And who else bears witness? Not high society figure heads of Jewish culture. Not the wealthy elites. Not the guardians of Jewish religion. Instead, a group of magicians who studied astrology in search of the answers to life from a faraway country. But not just any group of magicians from any country. These guys were from the region of Babylon. The place of exile for the Jews in the 6th century BCE. The place that symbolizes apocalyptic wrath in Old and New Testament prophecy. What on earth are these guys doing here???

And so here I am thinking about the historical contexts surrounding the figures placed at the nativity scene and it’s not adding up. It’s not adding up to the nostalgic hymns and stories of peace and glad tidings we’ve been trained to see this story through. And it really begins to mess with me when I take a closer look at Herod. When the magi ask Herod where the newborn king is located the first thing Herod does is try to deceive them. After saying he doesn’t know the baby’s location he tells them to come back to him as soon as they find the baby so he can go and worship him as well. But what Herod really does is consult every leading religious mind in his kingdom as to the whereabouts of this prophesied child. And then he dispatches a band of soldiers with orders to kill all the children surrounding Bethlehem under two years old. The words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah came to life, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (31:15). Or as it’s historically known, The Massacre of the Innocents.

Suddenly it all becomes a little less nostalgic. And what begins to happen for me is a shift to a fuller perspective on what was taking place during those days. What I see in the nativity scene is now a gospel message about a Christ who has come for those whom society has rejected, a Christ who transcends the religiosity of mankind, a Christ who isn’t afraid of our different ways of living, a Christ who identifies with the weak and lonely, and a Christ who is dependent on his family to keep him alive until the proper time for him to take his rightful place. So when I sat down to write this song I just wanted to include some of the themes that I believe are primal to the story of Christ’s birth and that tend to get left out (for reasons that belong to another blog..). A song that captures the urgency of the moment but at the same time one that invites everyone to join. One that tells the full story. So was it a silent night? No. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But it certainly was holy in the true sense of the word. So maybe this Christmas season take a moment to reflect on the realities that encompassed our King’s birth. Enjoy the nostalgia that it brings. In no way am I saying to disregard it. Just take a moment and reflect on the fullness of the story of Christ and the freedom he brings to our entire planet whether deserved or not. And in doing so I believe you’ll enjoy a richer and more realistic appreciation for your faith during this season.


Gratia Plena,

Tony Martelle

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