Chains Shall He Break

This is an excerpt from “12 Days of Christmas Carols,” a devotional which unpacks lines of familiar Christmas carols you’ve sung for years but perhaps have never really thought about.

So often, the holiday tidings of peace and love and joy can seem like hollow sentiments. In a world of profound darkness, the Christmas cliches of “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” feel like nothing more than silly twinkle lights. They’re pretty, but they don’t provide any protection against the night. 

At first glance, “O Holy Night” seems replete with these glittering platitudes. “The light of faith serenely beaming”… “a star is sweetly gleaming”… “sweet hymns of joy.” This saccharine sentimentality is no match against the onslaught of sorrow in a groaning world.

But look again, and you’ll see there’s more to “O Holy Night.” In fact, this carol, more than many others, owns up to the “wrongness” of the world and stares its brokenness straight in the face. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining”… “the weary world rejoices”… “He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger”… “in all our trials born to be our friend.” It turns out there is real hope here, a real message of restoration for a bent and broken world.

The third verse straddles this line between sentiment and salvation:

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break
For the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease

I’ll be honest: these days, this verse feels farther out of reach than ever before. For the last few years, it’s been increasingly tough to believe in the realities of Christmas. I know that the church is the reign of God breaking into this world, the hands and feet of Jesus in the here and now. But day by day, we seem to look less and less like the King we claim to follow. If his law is love, throw the American church in prison as a lawbreaker. If his gospel is peace, then we’ve tuned out the good news and changed the channel.

But… what if it’s true? What if the moral arc of the universe– though so achingly long– really is being bent toward perfect justice and redemption by the nail-pierced hands of the King? What if the kingdoms of this world really do become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ in the end? What if the hollow hypocrisy of the church is simply hiding the real work that the Spirit is doing? What if, behind the facades of our religiosity and pride, Satan’s empire really is being plowed aside, the new creation really is rising in our hearts, and a new humanity really is being called out of every nation and formed into a kingdom of priests? What if it’s all true?

The incarnation is a reminder that God’s purposes don’t look like we expect them to. We want to see tables turned, chains broken, and the wrongs made right. In response, God sends a baby. This baby grows up and goes to a cross and dies. Not what we expected.

But on the other side of the manger and the cross is an empty tomb, which tells us that God’s unexpected purposes really are unstoppable. The King really is building his kingdom, the gates of hell are crumbling in headlong retreat, and the King really is breaking chains in our hearts and churches and neighborhoods and nations. Easter makes all the Christmas promises true. The tomb is empty, the King has conquered and is coming back, and now oppression has an expiration date. 

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