Five Reasons to Meditate On Andrew Peterson’s “Labor Of Love” This Christmas

We at REO join a mighty throng of Christians throughout the ages in celebrating the enormous catalog of worship-inspiring Christmas music we have in English, often highlighted by timeless beloved favorites like “O Holy Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We have done polls on our site on this topic and have written about modern additions like “Mary Did You Know?”

Today we celebrate a very recent yet worthy song that has captivated a significant number of Christians for years, Andrew Peterson’s “Labor of Love”. From the very first phrase, this song undermines one of the most popular Christmas song titles of all time and sets a tone that is completely perpendicular to most of our favorite carols and church hymns this time of year. By doing so it does the modern church a huge favor in not allowing us to get too comfortable with the story of Jesus, but instead, by pushing back against some popular conceptions, it forces us to think about the truth, however uncomfortable it may be.

We highly recommend the entire concert and you can read Phill’s short review of it here. It is a true Bucket List type of experience for Christians. Today we give five reasons why this contribution to that concert is so special to us and why we recommend meditating on it this Christmas season (and beyond).


1. Great songs are worth celebrating, and this is a great song

Before we dive into the implications of what the song teaches us, we would be doing it a disservice to not talk about the song itself. I am not a musician. I do not pretend to understand all that goes into creating a song like this, but I do know when I am hearing something beautiful and unique. The first time I listened to Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God”, this was the song that captured my attention. I appreciated the rest of the album and eventually fell in love with all of it, but from the beginning, I loved “Labor of Love.” It was so different from any Christmas song I had heard.

The song is deeply authentic – Jill Phillips sings with a passion that seems to channel the very emotions Mary felt that night. While other songs on the album go big with grand arrangements and productions, Peterson wisely opts to scale this song back to the basics – acoustic guitar, gentle piano, subtle rhythm section, and beautiful harmonies. It is not flashy. It is grounded and simple – which effectively complements the lyrics. This is, after all, a peek into a very human moment – the birth of a child. It is not about grandeur and glory. It is about a girl, who is away from her home, giving birth to her first baby. The only moment the song gives itself a little room to go big is when the lyrics focus on the Christ-child. It is a wonderfully constructed song, with every element working in tandem. Before you focus on what the song says, take some time to focus on how it says it.


2. It Creatively Helps Our Imagination With Details of That Night

Do we know for sure if Mary’s mother was there or not to hold her hand? No, but there is nothing wrong with using our imaginations to picture what happened that night. The image of Joseph holding her and praying while she is going through what was certainly the most traumatic event of her young life is a touching lyric.

Many details of that night are not for us to know, at least through Scripture. But we can imagine them and I think that is a good thing, especially through our art.


3. It cuts through the serene Christmas night imagery to communicate the harsh yet beautiful truth about the night Christ was born.

Let’s be clear, our lives in 2018 are completely foreign to what Mary and Joseph experienced in first century Palestine. If you are reading these words right now, you have access to the internet, which means you probably have air conditioning, running water, and all sorts of other amazing technological and societal advancements. Their day-to-day lives would look impossibly hard to us. Yet that in no way should diminish what they went through leading up to the birth of Christ. The journey itself – over 90 miles. The lack of a place to stay – no room in the inn. Going into labor and giving birth in a foreign place. Regardless of what their lives were like back then, what they went through that not was uncommon, even for people of that time.

All those things are captured so effortlessly in this beautiful song. “It was not a silent night.” It was difficult. It was uncomfortable. It was beautiful and wondrous and sacred. In a season justifiably filled with light, joy, and hope, it’s good to be reminded that the event that is at the root of all it, was bloody, lonely, and very human.


4. It is an appropriate yet sobering testimony of Mary and Joseph

Mary and Joseph do not need to be exalted as their child was, but they do need to be celebrated as significant players in God’s plan of redemption in history. We need to tell the world of their integrity and sacrifice. Those things can be messy in real life. For the plan to work how God intended, some young woman had to give birth, an undignified even if glorious experience, and suffer the pain it brings. Some man had to be the one who supported his wife even though the baby wasn’t biologically his. And this song reflects what Matthew 1 and Luke 1-2 tell us about these two incredible servants of our God.

It is a song of worship and praise of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But we would be remiss if we didn’t see it as a significant way to see it through Mary’s eyes and ears. The title alone tells us that.


5. It magnificently contrasts Christ the Sovereign God with Christ the Helpless Baby.

This is a crucial aspect of our theology and this song nails it:

For the baby in her womb
He was the maker of the moon
He was the author of the faith
That could make the mountains move

He was 100% God—He created the world and everything in it and had the authority to move mountains, and to give that authority to us by faith; He was 100% Man—He existed as a flesh and blood baby, supernaturally conceived yet very naturally carried and born. Amazing. That should never become something we fail to contemplate with awe. “Immanuel” is very much a Christmas name. God was with us, in humble baby form.


“Labor of Love” is a beautiful and genuine statement of faith and love in action. The focus shines on the role Mary and Joseph played in the story of redemption but wisely, and masterfully, ends with that focus shifting to the very source of our redemption – “the Author of the faith” that was in Mary’s womb. In a perfect world, “Labor of Love” would be a Christmas classic loved by believers everywhere.

 

 




Five Reasons “Away in a Manger” is the Worst Christmas Song Ever

I love Christmas music. I believe my unblemished record of staunch Christmas musicophilia on Rambling Ever On says it all. Yet, not all Christmas music is created equal. For every transcendent O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, there is a painfully awful Last Christmas. For every majestic Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, there is the horrifyingly terrible Christmas Shoes. So, while I love Christmas music and celebrate it every year, I don’t embrace every Christmas song out there. Case in point: Away in a Manger. As bad as the previously mentioned songs are, they aren’t nearly as terrible as the manger song, due to its insidious nature. It poses as a beautiful, sacred song. It gets played on Christian radio. It gets sung to small children. It even has the audacity to get sung in church! I reject it. Yet its soul is as black as night. I reject all of it. Here are my five main reasons.


It is biologically fraudulent

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way. Jesus was fully God and fully man. Which means He was fully baby. If Jesus had been born and then placed in a manger, and did not cry at any point, as the song states, something would have been terribly wrong with Him. Babies cry. It’s a good thing they cry. Doctors make sure they cry as soon as they are born to test their lungs. Babies cry when they are hungry and thirsty. They cry when they need to be held. If Jesus did not cry then He was developmentally stunted. And we know that is not true. Which leads me to point number two.


It is emotionally manipulative

At its core, Away in a Manger is a lullaby. It seems to have been written for the express purpose of convincing children to go to sleep. So the wording used in the song is deliberately manipulative to that end. The thinking behind must have gone something like this – “Good little children want to be like the “little Lord Jesus”, right? Well, He didn’t cry so they shouldn’t either. And if they do cry, then they are not like Jesus at all.” That is almost unconscionable.


It is poorly written

I get really irritated with songs that change perspective. Away in a Manger is a big offender in this regard. It starts off third person for the first three stanzas but suddenly goes into first person on the three final and climactic stanzas. Why? Because the writer ran out of more drippy examples of insipid, idealized first-century life? Or because the writer wanted to really pour on the guilt trip for the listening children that were struggling to go to sleep like good little boys and girls? Or was it because the songwriter wanted to include some lame declaration of love to the “Lord Jesus.” I say lame, not because loving Jesus is lame, but because tacking it on at the end like that is sloppy, ham-fisted, and obsequious, not to Jesus, but to the listeners in an attempt to convince them that this is truly a good, Christian song.

And the line, “no crying He makes” is just bad poetry on every level. Did Yoda get co-writing credit on this or something?


It is patronizingly ordinary

The incarnation of Christ is one of the most miraculous and amazing things to ever happen. It is good to sing songs about it. It is good to be brought to worship thinking about it. What Away in a Manger does is take that magnificent event and turn it into a sickly-sweet, mushy, touchy-feely mess. Shepherds, angels, and kings worshipped this child, and the best this song can do is celebrate his sleeping, his sweet little head, and that he didn’t cry? O come let us adore Him indeed!


It is theologically bankrupt

I don’t expect deep theological truths from every song. One of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, O Holy Night is not the most theologically impressive song out there. But it is poetic and beautiful and contains enough truth to make it worthwhile. Away in a Manger is none of those things and is most definitely not worthwhile. Beyond the silly stuff about Jesus not crying – which contradicts the rest of the Scriptural account of His earthly life – the final stanza is a hodgepodge of pseudo-religious sounding phrases mixed with shockingly modern day spiritual sentimentality. Let’s unpack it, shall we?

First, Jesus is not “looking down from the sky” and if He were why would he look down from the sky “and stay by our cradles til morning is nigh”? I guess you could argue that the writer is trying to say that Jesus is everywhere, but if that is so, why start with the idea that Jesus is looking down from the sky?

Second, the penultimate stanza has the singer asking Jesus to be near them, or us. We don’t have to beg Jesus to stay near us. He has promised to be with us in his Word. Many times, actually.

Third, when you further examine that stanza, you come upon an even worse question –  “love me, I pray.” Once again, not necessary as it has already been promised. And to make this even more ridiculous, this song is about Jesus as a baby – His incarnation. What more proof did this writer need of Jesus’ love than this act of complete sacrifice? “Look, I realize that you just gave up Heaven and your power, and you came to earth as a human baby, with all the awful stuff that entails, but do you think you can do something else to prove to me that you love me?”

Finally, the last stanza closes things out in spectacularly wrongheaded fashion. It starts off okay with a request for blessing for all the children that are in Jesus’ care. I can get on board with that. It ends with a request for Jesus to take us all to Heaven to live with Him there. It doesn’t work like that. Jesus doesn’t just take everyone to heaven. That’s where repentance and salvation come into play, but let’s not get hung up on the very foundation of the Gospel or anything!


This Christmas, listen to as much music as you can. It is a profitable and worthy endeavor. Yet, for the sake of your soul, and the souls of those around you, avoid garbage songs like Away in a Manger. While there are probably more aesthetically offensive Christmas songs out there – I’m looking at you Christmas Shoes – there is no song that is as deviously evil as Away in a Manger. It cloaks itself in religious language and holy imagery, in a vain attempt to hide the utter darkness of it’s twisted and corrupt heart. Flee from it my friends. Flee for your lives.




Unpopular Opinion: Christmas Music

“I love Christmas music but I don’t want to hear it on the radio until December.”

“Christmas music before Thanksgiving should be against the law!”

“I hate Christmas, joy, peace, and every good thing all the time because I am a miserable, unhappy, grinchy Scrooge.”

I have heard variations of those statements every year for as long as I can remember. (I will concede the third one is probably just my loose interpretation when I hear people whining about Christmas music.) Each year around Thanksgiving, radio stations begin to play “all Christmas music all the time” and for some people, that is the worst thing ever. They rant and rave about it on social media. They write long Facebook posts about how awful it is to play Christmas music too soon. They bemoan. They complain. Then they pontificate about how it cheapens the season or some such nonsense.

They are wrong.

In their twisted little world, they believe that it is only acceptable to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world for about three and a half weeks in the month of December. Don’t you dare celebrate the SALVATION OF HUMANITY for longer than that! Don’t you dare sing songs to commemorate the incarnation – the coming of the Christ – until after Thanksgiving!

Is that really the world in which we want to live? Do we want to confine our celebration of this most sacred event to only one month of the year?[1. And if we are honest with ourselves, we don’t even get the whole month of December because as soon as the 25th comes and goes, Christmas music disappears again.] Do we want to be the kind of people that would mock and ridicule others for wanting to enjoy this time of year for all that it signifies?

In the spirit of the season, I am willing to be gracious and concede a minor point to the haters and scoffers. If you are ranting about hearing songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” then I’m with you. Those are flimsy, superficial things. They are the candy to the more spiritually robust songs main course. Mock those type of songs as much as you want – or at least, mock the too-soon playing of them as much as you want. They have a specific time of the year to be played and heard.

However, the same cannot be said about spiritually deep songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Those songs have eternal value far beyond one month of the year. Why is it okay for us to sing and listen to songs about Christ’s death and resurrection any month of the year but we recoil when we hear a theologically rich song like “Joy to the World”?

Stop being joyless Scrooges. Instead, be joyful Ebenezers[1. We used to sing a song in Panama called “Ebenezer – which the chorus translates to “So far the LORD has helped us.” That is what I think of every time I see that name.] recognizing all the wonderful things God has done for you – which includes what He did on that first Christmas two thousand years ago. Don’t confine that celebration to a few weeks of the year. Let it spill over to every time of your life.