John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | December

Re-Thinking the “Wonders” of Christmas

 A Christmas Requiem for Sandy Hook


Unidentified icon of Madonna and the Child; and the Crucified Christ

Note:  this Christmas Commentary is written in the context of the holiday observance, and as a requiem for the slaughter of the innocents at a place now known to us all as Sandy Hook. A pdf version to read and/or print is here.



In July, 1933, singer-songwriter John Jacob Niles found himself in the small Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina. He came across a gathering of evangelicals who’d been run out of town by the local police.  He watched as a young girl, whose name was Annie Morgan, stepped up the edge of a small platform attached to a vehicle. As he would later recollect in his autobiography:

“She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky …

As she sang, repeating the line over and over, additional lines of a verse and the fragments of an extended melody came to Niles.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky …
Why Jesus the savior did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I?
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Later, Niles would add the two additional stanzas, to become the familiar American Christmas carol. But at the heart of the rather mournful and haunting tune the puzzling question remains. Why — despite popular Christianity’s doctrinaire explanations — was a Galilean peasant child’s fate was sealed even before he drew his first breath? Was the only reason for the birth of Mary and Joseph’s child — God’s greatest gift and blessing to them — simply so he could die a miserable death; and somehow thereby make up for all the wretchedness in folks like you and me?

And what was Jesus’ consolation? That he is not only the sacrificial Lamb of God, but is God’s “son,” and somehow even God “himself?”  But if that is so, then isn’t he not only the very incarnation of God, but the abdication of all those absolutes (those “omni-everythings”) we like to attribute to God, as well?  After all, “if he’d wanted for any wee thing,” as the song goes, “he surely could have had it,” if he was the king.

Like little Annie Morgan, I wonder as I wander, about such nonsense.

I wonder: Since Jesus came into this world, just as every child of every mother and father comes into this world, then did he come with the same reason we came, as children of God; with that same spark of divinity that, in him, became a living light to this ornery, dark and shabby world?

And, if he were to come again, bearing the likeness of God, would he really come merely to judge this sorry world; simply to determine who would supposedly inherit the next? Or instead, bearing the light and likeness of God, is it up to us to instead hear his voice, follow where he has already led us, and transform the only world there is?

I wonder if we ought to reconsider another way to the manger, and rethink what kind of Christmas we ought to not only eagerly expect, pray and hope for most especially this year; but be as midwives to its birthing, as well?

I wonder if we ought to reconsider another way to the manger, and rethink what kind of Christmas we ought to not only eagerly expect, pray and hope for most especially this year; but be as midwives to its birthing, as well?

Given those recent events at Sandy Hook that can’t help but muffle the merriment of the Christmas season, we might do well to re-think the harsher realities of the original Christmas tale that has been retold again this season as such a stark and sober reckoning.


 A Wonder-Full Christmas?


A week after the onslaught of this year’s Black Friday’s kick-off to the national holiday shopping frenzy, the Rhode Island governor’s office announced at 11:31 AM on November 29th that the annual tree-lighting ceremony would be held twenty nine minutes later, at high noon in the state capitol building.

The reason for the short notice was meant to pre-empt a repeat of last year’s disruption, when protesters objected to Gov. Chafee’s generic reference to the “Holiday Tree,” instead of the more traditional term “Christmas Tree.”  While the Gov said he himself would have a Christmas tree in his own home, he believed a more inclusive term was appropriate for the government building shared by people of all faiths, or no faith whatsoever.

In response to the sparsely attended event, the state’s leading Roman Catholic hierarch, Bishop Thomas Tobin, suggested the “Gov” should instead have respected the “heartfelt sentiments of the vast majority of Rhode Islanders” by calling the 17-ft high spruce a Christmas tree. Never mind the inconvenient fact such holiday décor is utterly pagan in origin, I guess. But such is just one of the many  “wonders of Christmas” this year. So it got me wondering what other puzzlement could be found?

One thing I apparently won’t have to wonder and worry so much about is what I might get for Christmas. If my beloved fails to come through, happy retailers report the rising popularity of a recent trend known as “self-gifting.”  For every present I buy someone else, I’m encouraged to go ahead and pamper myself with another gift for lil’ ‘ol me. After all, whether I’ve been ornery or nice, apparently I deserve it.

And, if I have buyer’s remorse over any of my trinkets and bobbles, there’s always the now well-established modern tradition of “re-gifting.” If I were to draw your name in the Secret Santa gift exchange, for instance, I could unload some of the stuff I neither want or need.

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