Dispelling Darkness: A Christian Paradox

Tis the season. Christmas music is everywhere.

I’m not a complete Grinch when it comes to Christmas music, but really… “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? So much wrong with this…

I do sing Rudolf and Frosty with my kids, and I actually enjoy listening to my daughter pound out carol after carol from her beginning piano Christmas book. I especially love hearing her exclaim over the beauty of traditional lyrics for the first time.

As a historian, I suppose it makes sense that for me, the best Christmas music is historical—the older the better. There’s a real power, and even mystery, to music that joins believers across the ages, across distances of time and space, when nearly everything else separates us one from another.
One of my favorites is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” a text that may go back as far as the fifth century. I also love “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” another gorgeous ancient hymn.

And another favorite is an old Dutch song, “Come and Stand Amazed You People.” I grew up singing this one, and only recently realized that it’s an obscure song that anyone who didn’t grow up in the Christian Reformed Church, singing out of the gray psalter hymnal, is likely to have heard.

So allow me to introduce to you this hymn that draws on Philippians 2:6-8, Luke 2:7, and John 1:5 and 14, a song that dates back centuries.

You can listen to a modern rendition on YouTube, or simply reflect on the lyrics below:

Come and stand amazed, you people,
See how God is reconciled!
See his plans of love accomplished,
See his gift, this newborn child.

See the Mighty, weak and tender,
See the Word who now is mute.
See the Sovereign without splendor,
See the Fullness destitute.

See how humankind received him;
See him wrapped in swaddling bands,
Who as Lord of all creation
Rules the wind by his commands.

See him lying in a manger
Without sign of reasoning;

Word of God to flesh surrendered,
He is wisdom’s crown, our King.

O Lord Jesus, God incarnate,
Who assumed this humble form,
Counsel me and let my wishes
To your perfect will conform.

Light of life, dispel my darkness,
Let your frailty strengthen me;
Let your meekness give me boldness,
Let your burden set me free.

Oh, Emmanuel, my Savior,
Let Your death be life for me!

I’m drawn to the paradox here, to the profound truth that is the incarnation: the mighty, weak and tender; the Word who now is mute; a Sovereign without splendor; Fullness destitute.
I love that people—my people—have sung this across the centuries.

I like to imagine believers, facing the uncertainties of early modern life, finding solace in the power of the Almighty: Light of life, dispel my darkness, Let your frailty strengthen me.

And I like to wonder how Dutch folk sang these words around the time the lyrics were AB Flemish nativity artstorefirst published in 1645. (The words were likely penned not by my Protestant ancestors, but by the persecuted Catholic minority).

Life was precarious, but as a nation the Dutch were reaching the peak of their imperial power. The Dutch East India Company (and later its counterpart the Dutch West India Company) had established commercial interests across the globe. This tiny nation, barely rising above the sea, found itself a world power. (Wait, wrong verb: As any of their conquered territories—or their colonial competitors—would attest, they made themselves a world power. There was nothing passive about it.) How might the meaning of these lyrics have shifted in this context?
And then I think of the words I know, in English translation. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the song was translated into English, by Klaas Hart, a Dutch immigrant to Canada. According to the Psalter Hymnal Handbook, Hart was a pastor in the Netherlands who became active in the Dutch resistance during the Second World War. (His name stands on the “honor roll,” the list of those wanted by the German police.) After the war he served Christian Reformed churches in Ontario, Canada.

As the daughter of a Dutch immigrant who grew up in a Dutch immigrant community in Northwest Iowa, I was familiar with stories of the Dutch resistance. The stories were told and retold with pride, and a devout, fearless faith always took center stage. It seemed as though every family could claim a relative or two who fought in the resistance. (Only later, as a professional historian, did I come to wonder if some of these claims might be embellished, or even fabricated).

But some stories were indisputably true. There is of course the example of Corrie Ten Boom, a story where a family’s Christian faith inspired acts of remarkable courage. And my college professor, James Schaap, helped write a beautiful book telling of Diet Eman’s daring efforts to save Jews as part of the Christian underground resistance.

Reading these stories, I grew up believing that Christianity was a countercultural force for good, the source of strength in the face of tyranny. And it is—or at least it can be. But I realize now that I was missing something. Because of course the vast majority of German Nazis were Christians as well.

Were the Dutch simply better Christians? More courageous? Did they have a better theology? Perhaps.

But what really distinguished Dutch and German Christians at the time seems to center around the question of Christian nationalism. For Germans, their faith was thoroughly intertwined with their nationalist impulses. Like the Dutch, many Germans were devout Christians. But their faith fueled unimaginable atrocities committed against those deemed outside the fold. For many Dutch Christians, their faith was also intertwined with nationalism. But under Nazi occupation, Dutch nationalism stood in opposition to the Nazi horror.

Reflecting on this history, I’m left pondering what sort of faith equips one to speak a prophetic voice, a voice that can cut through nationalism, particularly when nationalism is turned to unchristian ends?

What Christianity can strengthen believers to refuse to seek their own interest first, to refuse to place others outside the fold?

Perhaps the words of this ancient song point the way.

Christianity is a faith centered around the incarnation, the greatest paradox. It is about divesting of power, not claiming power. Of emptying oneself. Of sacrificial love.

This Christmas season, may these words be a prayer for all followers of Christ:

O Lord Jesus, God incarnate,
Who assumed this humble form,
Counsel me and let my wishes
To your perfect will conform.

Light of life, dispel my darkness,
Let your frailty strengthen me;
Let your meekness give me boldness,
Let your burden set me free.

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