I’ll never forget the first time I was introduced to a bitter and long-standing dispute about a certain line in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I was in college and we were caroling at a nursing home, and, for the very first time in my life, I felt a growing sense of tension mounting in the air while singing a Christmas carol. People began to glance up and make eye contact with one another. Some gave knowing nods of the head.
What in the world?
The problem, of course, was that one pesky verse, that verse that contains a line that doesn’t rhyme:
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
This is enough to make the average Christmas perfectionist an absolute basket case. How are our more fastidious brothers and sisters to pronounce “misery”? What principle shall they cling to? Should they grit their teeth and bear the inconsistency? Or ram that word into its rhyming box, protesting all the way, loudly and with feeling:
And close the path to miiiser-IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII’m-looking-at-all-of-you-and-judging-you-if-you’renot-singing-this-my-way…
That’s what I experienced for the first time at that nursing home. Half the poor old folks nearly jumped out of their seats, all because a couple disgruntled Christmas curmudgeons decided to make a point, loudly and with feeling.
But you know, the older I get the more I think it’s kind of awesome that one of the best Christmas hymns of all time upsets our expectations with such a glaringly bad rhyme. In fact, I kind of hope whoever translated it centuries ago did it that way on purpose, and I hope he got a good laugh in every time he heard it sung in church or at parties. And I like to think I’m in on the joke. (I mean, I’m sure it actually rhymed when he wrote it, but humor me.)
Because a good dose of lines that just don’t rhyme could turn out to be a really nice antidote for the kind of Christmas expectations you get from watching too much Hallmark Channel, where the trees are all perky, there’s always snow on the ground, and every line rhymes. (The truth is Lifetime and Hallmark don’t exist to give you warm fuzzy feelings about how things are. They exist just to make you discontent and bitter about how things never actually turn out.)
I don’t know how it’ll work this year. Maybe there won’t be any snow on the ground, or maybe your Christmas tree will look a little too Charlie Brownish, or maybe that present you thought so carefully about will be left unappreciated under a pile of discarded wrapping paper. Whatever happens, if you’re not careful, your Christmas will amount to nothing more than unfulfilled expectation upon unfulfilled expectation. Utter misery. But misery doesn’t rhyme, and that’s kind of funny when you think about it.
Because you know what? As far as expectations go, no one expected God to be born as a man. And if they did they didn’t expect Him to be born to a peasant girl. And if they did they didn’t expect Him to be born in a barn. And if they did they didn’t expect Him to be hailed by shepherds. And if they did they didn’t expect Him to be chased down to Egypt or to live in utter obscurity in the backwaters of Nazareth for thirty years or to be crucified by the people He came to save so that He could do just that. And even if someone somewhere managed to expect all of those things, they certainly didn’t expect Him to rise from the grave three days later.
Christmas teaches us a lot, and one of those things it teaches us is that our expectations can be pretty dumb.
It’s true, your super special new cookie recipe might turn out awesome. But, you know, cookies do tend to get burned from time to time. It is possible that your estranged relative might show up at the last minute through a blizzard for a tearful reunion having finally understood the meaning of Christmas while all the bells (yes, all of them) chime in the distance. On the other hand, he might not.
But, no matter what happens, thinking that all of those things turning out just right will finally make for a good Christmas is just silly.
So laugh, drink some eggnog, eat some fudge, open some presents, love your neighbors, love Jesus, and get over it. And sing the word however you want (loudly and with feeling), just do it with a smile on your face, because now you’re in on the joke.