Christmas at the House of Prayer Episcopal Church was my favorite time of the year when I was growing up in Newark, NJ and the Negro Spiritual, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” had everything to do with that.
I didn’t look forward to the gift giving. I still don’t. Enough said.
It wasn’t about snow or Xmas revelry. In fact, I always felt a little “odd” because there was nothing about the trappings of the commercial holiday that appealed to me. Surely, Christmas had to be about more….
The popular culture trappings obscured and hid and distracted…and I stood on many a soap box-turned-journey-pulpit trying to make plain, uncover, de-clutter, refocus on The Gift.
There was just something about “Sweet, Little Jesus Boy” that served as the antidote to all of the mindless Xmas songs I had to endure. And now, the season of endurance starts earlier and earlier as stores bypass Thanksgiving and move right into erecting their Christmas displays in September. It’s October and I’ve only been in a few stores but I already feel assaulted by mindless Xmas clutter. Listening to Mahalia Jackson sing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” tonight helped me to remember the work we have to do daily to battle the way popular culture obscures the truth about why God broke into human history, robed in flesh and “moved into our neighborhoods.” It wasn’t because we needed new jewelry, clothes or (why, Jesus?!) Chia Pets. If we really knew why, I’d like to think our response to the Gift would have been different….then and now. But maybe it wouldn’t have been.
Popular culture turns hope and God’s generosity into a product for profit. (And we should be mindful of the songs we pass down to our children. If we want them to be fit for the battles they will have to fight, we can’t immerse them in mindless songs that accommodate the no-justice Empire. Just saying.) There is nothing about this song that makes you want to string lights. No hint of deer or jolly men. Its words are arresting, indicting, and convicting because in the manger is a baby (God’s incredible gift to us), and looming on the horizon is our response to the Gift (the crucifixion).
Growing up, we sang it as a congregational song — an incredible feat! I also remember a soloist or two who would sing it for us. I was captivated by the melody, but also by what the words brought about in me — such clarity — clarity about poverty, meanness, shortsightedness…and The One who gave us such a Gift of abundant hope, joy and eternal love.
We didn’t know that Jesus was who he was. Unfortunately, that is why we treated him the way we did…and still do. We have no clue about the children in our midst…why God sent them to us and what God has for them to do. If we did, I like to think we would treat them better.
Sweet Little Jesus Boy
We made you be born in a manger
Sweet Little Holy Child
We didn’t know who You was
Didn’t know you come to save us, Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know it was You.
You done told us how
when You were dying.
Master, You done showed us how
even when you were dying.
Don’t seem like we can do right
look how we treated You!
But please, Sir, forgive us, Lord.
We didn’t know it was You.