Today’s devotional is by Matthew Winning
“I’ve always liked the music of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. The jolly tune with its bouncy quavers and repeated melodic jumps was always nostalgic of past Christmases for me. Although, to my shame, I never listened to the words of the carol intently… not past the first verse anyway. My excuse was that, since this wasn’t the sort of carol you’d sing together at church, it’s easy to miss some of the details in the lyrics. I thought ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was mostly about the colourful decorations we put up in our houses on the countdown to Christmas day, the nature and the leaping deer and the music, rather than having any real substance like ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. To be truthful, I missed most of the references to sin and redemption, and the imagery of Jesus and His life and death.
The first verse of the carol has a rural setting. I imagine the sun rising one cold winter morning as people rise from their beds and gather into church, the sweet choruses from inside the church accompanying the deer leaping through the forest outside. And in the midst of the scene, the lyricist highlights the traditional Christmas decoration on the door separating the cold outdoors and the joyful warmth within: the holly wreath. Or, as the lyricist puts it, the crown of holly. Of all the trees in the garden, it’s only the holly that we’ve shaped into a crown. But why is that?
When we take a closer look at a holly wreath, as our lyricist reminds us, we quickly see that this isn’t the sort of crown anyone would want to wear. It’s a crown which “bears a bark, as bitter as any gall”, “bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn” and naturally, “bears a berry, as red as any blood”. The holly wreath appears to be a crown not of victory and majesty but of suffering and bitterness. And so for some, the imagery is obvious. This is the crown of a first century Judean carpenter; or, according to the inscription above His head in the three most widely spoken languages of the known world – Aramaic, Latin and Greek – the “King of the Jews”. A blasphemer claiming to be God by Jewish standards and an increasing political threat to the Roman authorities, Jesus of Nazareth was arrested and crucified in 33AD. But before He was nailed to the cross, He was beaten and mocked, stripped of his clothes and draped in a royal purple robe. The soldiers knelt in “reverence”, gave Him the title “King of the Jews” for the world to mock, presented Him with a sceptre-like reed in His right hand and crowned Him with a wreath of thorns. “You think you’re a king? We’ll show you!” was the idea.
It’s natural to wonder why a picture of ridicule and torture would come to be celebrated at Christmastime; why piercing thorns likely up to twelve inches long would be remembered by prickly, brightly, evergreen holly as a friendly household decoration. And to make the situation worse, the claim of the Bible is that this man was sentenced to death unjustly. That He was an innocent man, “a blossom, as white as the lily flower”, never tainted with deceit, vengeance or threats (1 Peter 2:22-23). But it’s not as though Jesus’ message was misunderstood, or that the crowds put words in his mouth and condemned Him for claims He didn’t make. No, the message of the New Testament is that Jesus did claim to be the Son of God, God himself, the Saviour and King of the world, but that He was justified and purely innocent in doing so. “A blossom, as white as the lily flower”.
Apart from the first and last, each verse of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is interrupted midway by the repeated line, “And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ”. Some have said that the soft, feminine ivy is perhaps a picture of Mary, which could be true as it explains the frequent mention of ivy with the emphasis on the holly, but it’s mostly speculation. The point is that the holly wreath and its (often sinister) description at the beginning of each verse lingers as the destined crown hanging over this baby boy. It tells us all we need to know about Him and His future. And the last line in each verse (before the “Rising of the Sun” refrain) tells us the reason for who Jesus is and what He must face. Why was that pure, spotless baby born of Mary that Christmas day? “To be our sweet Saviour”. Why must that baby one day grow up and sweat agonising drops of blood in the garden of gethsemane? “To do us sinners good”. Why must He one day be crowned with thorns and pierced with nails sharper than thorns to a cross? Why must He bear the scorn as bitter as the wine offered to Him from a hyssop branch to ease His pain? “To redeem us all”. In other words, to rescue us. To forgive us. To purchase us out of danger and reunite us to God. To uphold justice and at the same time mend the relationship between the rebels and the King.
Naturally, we wouldn’t want this sort of treatment to fall on our worst enemy, and yet it has fallen on our worst enemy. “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10, NIV). In any other battle, we would expect the exact opposite of what that verse says. “Since we were God’s enemies, we were punished through the wrath of his Son”, not “reconciled through the death of His Son”. But instead of inflicting the consequences of sin on His enemies, God takes the consequences of sin from His enemies. Because He loves them. The Son of God taking the just punishment for the sin of the world. “Every bitter thought, every evil deed crowning [His] bloodstained brow”. And this is all a gift for anyone who will believe.
Maybe it’s significant that our lyricist repeats the first verse at the end. Maybe the same words mean something different after we consider the verses in between. After we consider the suffering of Jesus and the effects of that suffering. The baby born on Christmas day grew into a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He was given a sceptre, crowned with thorns, robed in royal purple, spat at and beaten as the Roman soldiers knelt before Him in mockery. Despite the admission of Pontius Pilate – “I find no guilt in him” – Jesus was lifted up on a cross and declared King to the world beneath His open arms as He drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath. This day would be the deepest, darkness point of Christ’s suffering and humiliation, but also, ironically, the beginning of His glorious exaltation. Because the innocent dying King would soon be the resurrected, everlasting King; His lifted cross would soon be an exalted throne; and the universal message above His head would soon come to reality as a great multitude come to serve Him from all tribes, peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9). The cup of bitter wrath has become a cup of blessed celebration, the sceptre of reeds has become a sceptre of power, and the crown of thorns has become a crown of glory. Jesus now has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), and those who trust Him are pleased to humbly serve Him for this short time before they see Him face to face. Interestingly, it seems that our lyricist was happy to do just that. To “preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten” as His anonymous lyrics resound good news from generation to generation.
As Christmas approaches, I think not only about the holidays and celebrations in Christianity but also those celebrated in other religions, like Judaism, the religion looking towards the coming Messiah. Before His birth, it was tradition for Jewish people to annually celebrate the Passover feast. They would sacrifice a lamb and eat it as a family to remember the day God rescued the people of Israel from Egyptian captivity. After nine demonstrations of God’s power, the tenth plague to befall Egypt was the worst of all: the death of the firstborn son. But, out of love, God showed His people a way of safety and protection. A picture of substitution and rescue and redemption. Each family would be shown mercy if they sacrificed a lamb and trusted that God would see its blood painted on their door with a hyssop branch. The firstborn son would be safe, hiding under the lamb that was killed in his place. This Christmas, whether you traditionally hang an evergreen holly wreath on your door or not, think of the everlasting picture it signifies and think of God’s firstborn Son: once the lamb that was slain and now the eternal King. Are you trusting in Him as your covering before God? Do you believe He’s the risen King, the source of all joy, and the worthy object of all praise?