Oh, What a Wonderful Child!

“Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child” is a Christmas gospel song, likely of African American origin (see Dean McIntyre’s hymn study for more information). It gained popularity in 1994, when Mariah Carey sang it on her Merry Christmas album.

The video below features a duet performance by Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia Barrino for the 2004 American Idol Christmas special, filmed in Pasadena, California.

 

The “largeness” of that performance, I think, really expresses the celebration aspect of Christmas. But if you prefer your music more pared down, you might like Pageant Music’s a capella version “Jesus,” from their 2007 album Word>>>Flesh.

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The Two Genealogies of Jesus, the Curse of Jeconiah, and the Royal Line of David

Several passages in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) prophesy that David’s throne will be established forever: 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalm 89:3–4, 132:11; Isaiah 16:5; and Jeremiah 33:17. Jews, therefore, have taken that to mean that the messiah, the future deliverer of Israel, will be descended from David. Christians interpret these prophecies as having been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, to whom they attach the title Christ (Gr.; Heb. Messiah), the “anointed one” of God.

Christians also make the unique claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, per the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (which Jews say Christians have misunderstood, the Hebrew word almah not necessarily referring to a person who has not had sexual intercourse).

The Christian confession of these two truths—that Jesus is the messiah in the line of David who God promised to Israel, and that he was conceived by a virgin—creates some complications of ancestry and inheritance.

How does one reconcile the two very different genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke?

The Bible contains two different genealogical records for Jesus: one in Matthew (1:1–17), the other in Luke (3:23–38).

Matthew, whose purpose is to present Jesus as king of the Jews, starts with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and traces the line of descent through the royal line of David all the way down to Jesus. He skips several generations, though, omitting the names of some of the wicked kings of Judah.

Luke, in backward fashion, starts with Jesus and moves all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of all people.

The problem is, the two lists don’t match. Not even close. Well, they match up until David’s name, then they diverge, with Matthew tracing a line of descent through David’s son Solomon, and Luke tracing a line of descent through David’s son Nathan. They come together again at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but then they diverge again until finally arriving at Joseph.

Biblical scholars have developed various theories to account for such differences. I’ll summarize the two most common ones.

OPTION 1: Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph’s biological father, whereas Luke’s goes through Joseph’s legal father by levirate marriage.   Continue reading

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Jesus as the Root/Shoot/Branch of Jesse

The Tree of Jesse—a representation of Jesus’s genealogy in the form of a tree—was a popular subject in medieval Christian art. Its name derives from the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 and 10: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

Paul paraphrases this passage in Romans 15, linking it explicitly to Christ: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. . . . Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope’” (vv. 8–9a, 12). Here Paul drives home the plural peoples and nations that Isaiah uses: the messiah has come not just for the Jews but for the whole world.

Tree of Jesse stained glass

The upper section of the 12th-century Jesse Tree window at Chartres Cathedral in France showing Jesus at the apex and Mary below him.

Tree of Jesse illumination

Tree of Jesse with the Madonna and Child (Cod. St. Peter perg. 139, Blatt 7v), from the Scherenberg Psalter, ca. 1260. Held at the Badische Landesbibliothek (Baden State Library), Karlsruhe, Germany.

Tree of Jesse engraving

Jan Wierix (Flemish, 1544–1625), Tree of Jesse, 1573. Engraving [MH 223] after Peter van der Borcht (1530–1613). Published in Antwerp by Christoph Plantin.

Tree of Jesse icon

Russian icon of the Tree of Jesse, 17th century.

Unlike the schematic family trees with which we are familiar, which place the first ancestor at the top and the present generation at the bottom, the Tree of Jesse is read from bottom to top, so as to give Jesus top billing. The figures depicted underneath him, taken from Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, vary, but because the Tree’s main purpose is to map the messianic line, most depictions at least include David and Solomon, two of the few godly kings of Israel. Taken altogether the Tree represents a dynasty whose rule has been established eternally in Christ. As God promised David,

And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)

Jesus is the one who has fulfilled this promise, which the angel Gabriel emphasized to Mary during his annunciation visit:

The Lord God will give to him [Jesus] the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32b–33)

The Tree of Jesse is not to be confused with the Tree of Life, another botanical metaphor used elsewhere in scripture to stand for Christ himself. Though the analogies are certainly related, their iconography is different: the Tree of Life usually has the crucified Christ as its focal point and oftentimes a river flowing from its base (based on Revelation 22:1–4), whereas the Tree of Jesse, in addition to having a much larger cast of characters, features Jesus as a babe in arms or enthroned, and the trunk is usually growing out of Jesse’s side. Both trees speak of the salvation wrought by Christ, but one via the ultimate act of atonement, and the other via the Incarnation, with an emphasis on the long period of waiting Israel had to endure.

The root/shoot/branch imagery of Isaiah raises several questions for me.

Why is Jesus called the root of Jesse? Isn’t Jesse the root of Jesus?   Continue reading

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A new song on the Beatitudes

The Beatitudes are a catalog of blessings that form the introductory portion of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Disappointed by the lack of musical adaptations of this important Gospel text, some musicians at Hope College in Holland, Michigan—whose students have been studying the Beatitudes this semester—decided to write their own. The result is an EP of four songs, released last week under the moniker Hope College Worship. Among them is “You Are Blessed,” cowritten (with Naaman Wood) and sung by Bruce Benedict.

 

The collaborators on this project have said that as they’ve followed the news cycle this fall the Beatitudes have been for them a much-needed tool for gospel reorientation, helping them see that God’s grace is most especially available to those who are poor and weak, those who lament and mourn, those who are meek and mild, those who are starved for right, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are filled with peace, those who are pierced for good, and (in a timely addition to the source text) to the stranger, the refugee.

“You Are Blessed” starts out slow and heavy, driven forward mostly by piano chords. But after the line “God will fill you with his goodness,” the tempo becomes plucky, buoyant, as the mandolin, banjo, double bass, and drums kick in with the “Rejoice” chorus. From timid to confident, sorrowful to exuberant, the song traces for us a common trajectory in the spiritual life, which we don’t conquer once and for all but rather walk again and again, as circumstances bring us back to the front end. The Beatitudes, with their language of lament and promise, help us pray with those who need God-given confidence and exuberance once more.

Beatitude window

Blessed are all those who feel their spiritual need (window 2 of 9), designed and painted by Siegfried Reinhardt and produced by Emil Frei, 1957. Seedy antique glass, 35 x 6 ft. Sanctuary of the Beatitudes, Second Baptist Church, Richmond Heights, Missouri.

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Instead of Santa, Christkindl

In many parts of Germany the secret delivery of gifts on Christmas Eve is attributed not to Santa Claus but to the Christkind (“Christ Child”)—or, in diminutive form, Christkindl. The idea that the baby Jesus is responsible for such a service originated with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who wanted to shift the association of gift giving away from St. Nicholas. Up until this point in history, gifts were exchanged in St. Nicholas’s name on his feast day, December 6; this was the major gift giving holiday, which children especially looked forward to. Luther, however, promoted December 24 as the primary date of gift giving, to link the receiving of good things with the receiving of the greatest thing: God in Christ, a savior.

Christkind with angels

Illustration from a children’s book published in Germany in 1905.

The Christ Child driving a sleigh

German postcard, 1899.

Christkind at the window

This detail image of the Christkind entering through a window is found on an antique metal Christmas tree stand. The inscription translates to “The Christ Child comes to our house.”

Christ the King

Since Luther’s time the popular conception of the Christkind has evolved from a little blonde-haired boy (a Germanized Jesus) into a feminine angel, whose relationship to Jesus is unclear. Some say the Christkind is a messenger of Jesus; others say she is simply one who demonstrates Christ-like virtue. The angelic representation of the Christkind likely arose as a conflation of characters from nativity plays and Christmas parades, in which the Christ child is attended by angels.

On Christmas Eve night children are told to wait in their rooms for the arrival of the Christkind, who announces her delivery by ringing a bell. By the time the children run out of their rooms to greet her, she is gone, and the living room is filled with freshly laid gifts, which the children proceed to open right then (rather than waiting till the morning, as in America). In some homes it is the Christkind who sets up the family Christmas tree, or is at least the one who decorates it.   Continue reading

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Roundup: Jazz Advent medley, whitewashed Jesuses spark lawsuit, Christ as Shanti Data, Kitschmas gift ideas, and a South Park ditty

Jazz Advent medley: The video below is taken from a 2012 Advent service at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston. It features a jazz arrangement of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” by Sam JC Lee (he’s the one on the double bass) combined with Terence Blanchard’s version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

 

Man sues the Met for its “racist” Aryan Jesus paintings: One recent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to sue the museum because the “anti-Semitic, racist, and offensive aesthetic whitewashing” of Jesus he encountered there (that is, the Jesuses of the European wing) has caused him emotional distress. Plaintiff Justin Renel Joseph, who is of Hebrew and African descent, is eager to build up a network of supporters and therefore has created a website, www.takedownaryanjesusart.com, where you can read in full the complaint he filed on November 30. Here is one of the offenders he cites:

The Holy Family

Sebastiano Ricci, The Holy Family with Angels, 1700. Oil on canvas.

“Christ as ‘Shanti Data’ (Peace Giver) for Advent”: Last Sunday many churches around the world lit the second of four Advent candles, the “Peace” candle. Paul Neeley shares a teaching his friend gave on the peace of Christ at a Christian satsang in India.

“15 Bizarre Jesus Stocking Stuffers”: Includes an inflatable Jesus doll, a Jesus rubber duckie, a Grilled Cheesus sandwich press, action figures, finger puppets, and more.

Inflatable Jesus

And lastly, Jesus sings “Happy Birthday to Me”:

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The Christmas song that gets me every time

I am very rarely moved to tears by music. But “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one song that consistently evokes that reaction in me.

The acclaimed American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words on December 25, 1863 (some sources say 1864), in response to the violent state of the nation, which at the time was entrenched in civil war. He had recently received news that his teenage son, Charley—who had run away from home to join the Union Army—had been seriously injured, with doctors saying that permanent paralysis was a possibility. Longfellow rushed to his side in Washington, DC, and while Charley’s recovery and the outcome of the war were still uncertain, he penned this poem, which gives expression to the internal struggle he was experiencing between doubt and belief, despair and hope.

In 1872 Jean Baptiste Calkin applied to Longfellow’s poem a tune he had composed in 1848 for, ironically, “Fling Out the Banner! Let It Float,” a nationalistic Christian hymn written for a flag-raising ceremony at the all-girls boarding school of Saint Mary’s Hall in Burlington, New Jersey. “Fling Out the Banner!” has since passed out of public consciousness, but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” still stands as a classic, an ever-relevant inquiry into the nature of Christmas peace. In most modern-day recordings and church hymnals, stanzas four and five, which reference the American Civil War, have been removed so that we can read our own context into the song. Also, some hymnals move stanza three to the end, where honestly, I think it makes more sense.

We sang “I Heard the Bells” in church on Sunday, and it being a year of so much murder and hate (what year isn’t?), it tapped into my deep, deep longing for peace on earth. That expression—“peace on earth, goodwill to men”—is compelling but seemingly flaccid: a beautiful ideal, but so far from observable reality. Derived from an angelic pronouncement made on the night of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:14), the phrase is repeated throughout the poem as the speaker wrestles with its meaning.

Here is Longfellow’s poem in full, as originally published in 1866.   Continue reading

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Nicholas Mynheer’s Glass Screen at Islip

In 2013 I wrote on Mynheer’s etched-glass screen of St. Nicholas and St. Edward the Confessor, which I had the privilege of seeing in situ. ArtWay has just published an adaptation of that article today, St. Nicholas’s feast day: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2008&action=show&lang=en.

We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of St. Nick as a secular figure—rotund, rosy cheeked, with a train of reindeer carrying him in tow. He invites wishlists but dispenses gifts based on the recipient’s degree of “niceness.” The historical saint, on the other hand, is characterized first and foremost by his Christ-like love and generosity, given regardless of merit. As bishop of Myra, he was also an attendee of the Council of Nicaea, where his theological rigor allegedly came to a head in a somewhat humorous encounter with Arius.

To learn more about the man and the legend, read “The Real Saint Nick.”

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Jesus home lighting devices (a little kitsch for your day)

Let Jesus light up your life with one of these nifty night-lights.

So handsome.

Jesus night-light

Way to go; Jesus gives you two thumbs up.

Jesus night-light (thumbs up)

Good Shepherd.

Jesus night-light (Good Shepherd)

His Sacred Heart burns passionately for you.

Jesus night-light (Sacred Heart)

Now allow me to introduce you to Cyclops Jesus . . . Jesus of the All-Seeing Eye. (He’s watching you.)

Jesus night-light (Jesus is watching)

And Vampire Jesus . . . ?   Continue reading

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Roundup: Why I celebrate Advent; Advent songs for kids; the dark shadows of Christmas; new research on the Star of Bethlehem; adoring Christ

“Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent” by Ryan Shelton: Many Protestant churches, including the one I grew up in, forgo the celebration of Advent and other seasons of the church year, unconvinced of their value. Like Mathis, I wasn’t introduced to Advent until my early twenties, and also like him, I’ve grown to love it. Here are seven reasons why.

New Advent album for kids: Last month Rain for Roots released Waiting Songs, a collection of (mostly original) Advent songs for the whole family. Including tracks like “Isaiah 11” and “Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait),” the album goes beyond a narrow focus on the Nativity to encompass ancient messianic prophecies and the present-day anticipation of the church for Christ’s kingdom to come in full: “These songs are about making time for waiting. The King is coming and He is already here. So we practice listening, quieting ourselves, celebrating, whispering good news, and yelling shouts of joy. In the Rain for Roots family, we practice most of all by singing to ourselves, to each other, and to our children about true things. He is coming—the Joy of Every Longing Heart. Our longing hearts. Grown-ups and children; we are the same in this. Through these songs, may God call us closer into conversation with Himself while we wait and hope with expectation. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

 

“The Annunciation: A Really Weird Story” by W. David O. Taylor: I can’t speak highly enough of David Taylor; everything he writes or says is gold. In this article he reminds us that at the edge of every part of the Christmas story is a dark shadow, which many celebrants conveniently ignore, preferring its sweet and sentimental aspects instead. As a church we need to embrace the weird and haunting quality of the Incarnation and the events that surrounded it.

The Great Christ Comet by Colin Nicholl: This book has been getting a lot of positive attention since its release in September. The fruit of four years of research, it posits a new theory of the Star of Bethlehem: that it was actually a comet. At first I was hesitant to consider the findings of a biblical scholar on such a specialized topic in science, but actually several astronomers have endorsed it, calling it “a remarkable achievement,” “erudite,” groundbreaking, “a significant contribution . . . worthy of serious consideration,” and certain to “stimulate important new lines of scientific enquiry.” If you’re interested in finding out more, click on the hyperlinked title above (which will take you to the book’s Amazon page), or check out Tim Challies’s book review, Christianity Today’s printed interview with the author, or the video interview below given by radio host Eric Metaxas (discussion of the book starts around 0:22:39).

 

“Let Us Adore Him” by David Mathis: Mathis holds up the magi (sorcerers) as a model of how to worship God in spirit and in truth.

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