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A lot of schlock is peddled during Advent (popularly misconstrued as
“Christmas”….), typically of the commercial variety. However, not all
carols have particularly solid messages, either.

Listening to a collection of holiday music this evening, it struck me
that the carol “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” completely misses the entire
point of the incarnation story. The song asks Jesus to forgive
humanity, since “we didn’t know it was you.” The idea is, of course,
that G-d should have received a better welcome than sharing space with
some livestock, and if we had had advance notice, a palace might have
been proffered. Seems like a straight-forward, pious sentiment, no?

The idea of an incognito deity investigating humanity, however, has
several well-known parallels (even within the Judeo-Christian tradition
itself): Odin walks hooded and cloaked among his devotees, and punishes
a king who refuses him hospitality; Zeus and Hermes do the same. The
latter, of course, causes some Greeks to think Paul is a visiting
divinity. In the Hebrew Bible, the famous and much abused Sodom
narrative is another reflex of the same motif (only in that case it is
the “Angel of the Lord” and two “messengers”). In all of these cases,
what was the point of the deity vising in the guise of a helpless
person or outsider? To test human’s hospitality and generosity to the
weak, of course. In each story, humanity fails miserably–notice, though,
that the failure to treat the poor and the stranger properly is the offense. In each case the deity is angry that they were not given what is due to the
poor, not what would be their due as divine. Coming announced would defeat the entire purpose of the visitation.

It should be remembered that the story of the lack of accommodation
comes from the Gospel of Luke, in which a major motif is the treatment
of the poor. The Nativity narrative highlights both G-d’s willingness
to meet humanity where it is, but also our total failure to imitate the

Instead of “we didn’t know it was you” the chorus rather should say “we
don’t know the poor are you.”