A lovely mountain in New Zealand

A lovely mountain in New Zealand

Don’t get me wrong; I really love Christmas music, but there are a few Christmas songs in particular that just annoy me. The two that come to mind specifically are “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. In both cases, I think that the main reason I don’t like them is that, as a child, I was forced to sing them a few too many times when I would have much preferred to sing something like “Savior of the Nations Come”, which was always a favorite of mine. You know, something with Jesus in it. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” never even mentions Jesus. The first time I had to sing it in Sunday School, I had no idea what it had to do with Christmas or Advent or God. (Fun fact: it was written in 1962 and probably actually alludes to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I’m not even making that up.) I still hold to my little-kid opinion that a song isn’t really church music if it doesn’t have Jesus in it. Granted, the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is the only pseudo-religious Christmas song I can think of offhand that doesn’t mention Jesus at all, but an awful  lot of Christmas favorites are much more shallow than the awesomest of the hymns in the hymnal.

Baby JesusI mean, where’s the cross in hymns like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”? Where’s the law and gospel; where’s the part that tells about what cute little Baby Jesus did when he grew up? As certain English professors would say, where’s the “so-what”? “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” are beautiful songs, and maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about them, given the fact that my sisters and I had a good time singing them all the way to and from church on Wednesday night. (But that was just because my sisters didn’t know the words to “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People” and I didn’t know the Christmas song they like that’s either in Spanish or Portuguese, they can’t remember which one.)Christmas carols, even shallow and/or secular ones, are perfectly valid ways of enjoying the holiday season. I’m just sayin’, you don’t really appreciate the awesomeness of Jesus’ birth unless you keep in mind that he grew up and lived a sinless life and died for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead.  Only a few favorite Christmas carols have all that in them.

From "The Sound of Music"

From “The Sound of Music”

“Go Tell it on the Mountain” technically isn’t any worse than certain other Christmas hymns that I actually do like. In fact, I just checked and it even has the word “salvation” in it, and the word “salvation” is a good sign. It’s just that you have to get through an awful lot of lines about the mountain before you get to the salvation line, and after that, you’re back to singing about the mountain again. Not only does this song not bring to mind the cross for me, it doesn’t even bring the manger to mind. All I think about is that scene at the end of “The Sound of Music” with the song “Climb Every Mountain.” That’s another example of a beautiful song that doesn’t have Jesus in it and consequently isn’t good church music. (Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no one has argued that it is.)

Good FridayThis is what I have to say about that song: Go tell what on the mountain? “Jesus Christ is born” is a good message, but you don’t want the “Jesus Christ” part to be overshadowed by the “Go tell it on the mountain” part. I have the same complaint against the principle that the sole goal of the church is to recruit new members. That’s technically true; evangelism is of the utmost importance, but it’s important to remember that the word “evangelism” means “good news” and that attracting people to the church building isn’t really evangelism unless they’re hearing that good news there. If I was visiting an unfamiliar church and heard a sermon that was just about the importance of evangelism, I’d feel like I had accidentally walked into a meeting of the advertising department in a business. I probably wouldn’t be interested in coming back again. For the benefit of non-Christian visitors, Christian visitors, and members alike, church should be more about what we believe (that Jesus died to pay for our sins) than about what we’re going to do to persuade more people to come to our church. Faith comes from hearing the Word, so the Word is what people should be hearing.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to hold all that against a cute little children’s Christmas song like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” But think of it this way: Martin Luther’s idea of a cute little children’s Christmas song was “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”, which is all about Jesus and the incarnation and salvation. Twentieth and twenty-first century little children are just as capable as sixteenth century little children of understanding and liking hymns with some depth and substance to them. I can say this based upon personal experience, for I used to be a little child myself in the not-so-distant past. ‘Twas in those aforementioned days when I was saddened by the fact that grownups thought I should be singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” when there were other hymns I liked better.

If you want to sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” this Christmas season, go ahead. It’s not an evil song. In fact, it’s certainly better, both in terms of religious significance and in terms of aesthetic coolness, than a lot of Christmas songs I could name.  But don’t forget that Christmas is about more than images of mountains and/or Baby Jesus; it’s about the God who became human and died on the cross for us.

Merry Christmas