In anticipation of Christmas, Graham Adams imagines what it might look like to put God the Child at the centre of our music and worship in the face of the world’s violence.
On the one hand, it’s no surprise that Christmas carols edit the truth. After all, we cannot bear too much reality. We don’t really want to face the violence of the stories or indeed the violence of the world we know. Christmas is a time for peace and joy – not to be reminded of too much horror. And churches cannot easily disrupt these yearnings for sanctuary – because we want to be sanctuaries ourselves.
Part of me has been frustrated by this for a long time. What if we faced the horror more directly? Several years ago, it angered me and led me to rewrite some of the carols, as others have also done –
O troubled town of Bethlehem,
with conflict still you lie;
above your deep but restless sleep
indifferent stars go by.
Away in a manger we choose to find Christ,
away from the stresses to keep Christmas ‘nice’;
wrapped up in his stable our Jesus shall stay –
so safe and unreal, asleep on the hay.
However, on the other hand, part of me has come to realise that the ‘truth’ of Christmas slips through the cracks, even when it is clouded by spirituality which seems so opiate-infused. While suspecting that our religiousness helps us to avoid the force of reality, I wonder whether it also enables us to face the horror too. For the very power of the child is precisely their smallness – they can get through the gaps in our religion no less than the gaps in our social landscape. They are small enough to creep in, surreptitiously, even under the majesty and magic of an idealised Christmas, in to the sad and deadly ordinariness of life. They break in and distract us from our efforts to hide the truth.
As Isaiah proclaims –
The wolf shall live with the lamb … and a little child shall lead them.Isaiah 11. 6-8
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
This is precisely the story we bear within us, as followers of God the Child: that it is a child who leads us, not in Tinseltown but in the midst of a world where wolves ravage lambs, adults use their unequal power to do such horror to one another and to children, and in the midst of the weeping. A child leads us – even in their fragility, but with agency, audacity and daring.
I began to explore this tension – between violent structures of domination and the agency of God as Child – in Holy Anarchy, where I suggested that God’s power might best be understood as ‘awesome weakness’. I speak of this in terms of chaos-power, an agency which, despite its smallness, is nevertheless capable of evoking greater ripples of transformation; not determining them but releasing the possibility of them. I develop this in God the Child. When contrasted with the brute force of domination systems, it is a vision of a divine capacity which is limited and fragile, and yet can build solidarities of mutuality and subversion.
This is not meant to idealise such smallness or fragility, but to see it immersed in the ordinariness of horror and violence. The lectionary readings offered during Advent can speak to this. For example,
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.isaiah 9. 5-6
For a child has been born for us …
Referencing these prophetic words, in the context of Advent and therefore the approach towards Christmas, helps to remind us of the childness of the messianic promise. The one who comes, even in the midst of violence, is first of all a child. This is no idyllic picture of an innocent child surrounded by cuddly animals – but instead impresses on us a sense of the fragility and risk of the child’s presence.
This painful interaction between childness and violence is heightened by Advent’s use of the mini-apocalypse (Mark 13: 24-37), in which we are warned –
Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn …mark 13. 35
In each case, those moments (evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn) are the same as in the passion narrative (chapter 14), impressing on us that the ‘coming’ is to do with his crucifixion. So childness (as at Christmas) and violence (as at Good Friday) cannot be separated. My point, though, is not that ‘we should really remember that he came to die’, as some carols and churches insist – but that children themselves, as represented by the Child, are no strangers to danger and death.
This is horrifically resonant in our current world, in which children are at the heart of the brutality of armed (adult) conflict – whether forced to be soldiers or bearing much of the violence. All they want to do is be children, fly kites, play football – but adults have stolen these dreams from them.
So when the prophet dares to imagine a child leading the way to a different future, this is no rushing away from the harsh realities. It is not a naïve glamorizing of childhood, but an audacious and defiant assertion that if we are going to move towards a new horizon, it will not be adults who make it possible. It is a little child: bearer of adult violence, witness to horror, one born for us even where bloodied garments are burned.
Matthew’s gospel (Chapter 2) takes us to a similar place: the frightened Herod demands the death of children, an echo of the Egyptian massacre, and the evangelist picks up on Jeremiah’s cry – ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.’
But surrounding these children, and this child, there are dreams – dreams of a different future, to go by another road; and because of God the Child these dreams germinate, like seeds of that different future, buried and in danger, but waiting, crying, stirring, imagining.
For a little child shall lead us –
O daring child of Bethlehem,
empower us all, we pray,
to work for peace that wars may cease
and love be born today.
Graham is tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at Luther King Centre for Theology and Ministry, in Manchester, and programme leader of the postgraduate degrees. He is particularly interested in decolonising mission, the kingdom of God as holy anarchy, and childlikeness. Before being a full-time theological educator, he was minister of a Congregational church in Manchester.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.
 See Jan Berry & Andrew Pratt (eds), Hymns of Hope and Healing, London: Stainer and Bell, 2017, p. 64 – though it was originally written in the year 2000
 See Gillian Warson and Janet Wootton (eds), First Flight Feathers: The Best of Worship Live, Durham: Sacristy Press, 2023, p. 8, but it was written at least 15 years previously
 Graham Adams, Holy Anarchy: Dismantling domination, Embodying community, Loving strangeness, London: SCM, 2022, p. 67 etc.
 Graham Adams, God the Child: small, weak and curious subversions, London: SCM, 2024
 See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll: Orbis
 Graham Adams, in Berry and Pratt (eds), Hymns of Hope and Healing, p. 64