Posts tagged ‘Nativity’

A Carol Turns 200

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200 years ago, on this night, the modern Christmas carol was born.  A small church in Oberndorf, Austria had an organ that was in need of repair, and the parish priest there, Joseph Mohr, wanted a Christmas song he could sing with his congregants sans the usual stops and pipes.  He composed some lyrics that a local teacher, Franz Gruber, set to music, and the two of them performed the song, accompanied simply by guitar, for the first time during their Christmas Eve service on December 24, 1818.  The name of the song was “Silent Night.”

The song’s appeal is indisputably enduring.  It was sung in the trenches as a part of an unofficial Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I by German soldiers to their British enemies.  It was sung again during World War II in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Rose Garden of the White House.  When Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1935, it became the third best-selling single of all time.  And, of course, tonight, millions will gather across the world to sing the song by candlelight with warm hearts and, by God’s grace, lively faith.

Part of the song’s appeal is its utter simplicity.  Both the tune and lyrics are extraordinarily unassuming.  But the song also tells the story of Christmas extremely well.  Everything from Jesus’ birth to the angelic announcement to some nearby shepherds to the truth of Jesus’ identity is contained in this carol.  The last verse is my favorite:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Here, in just this one verse, we find who Jesus is, why Jesus has come, and what He has come to do.  Jesus is the Lord who has come as a baby in a manger out of love to bring redeeming grace.  That’s more than a verse in a carol.  That’s the gospel.  That’s why, 200 years later, this is still a carol worth singing.  Because it tells of a birth that, 2,000 years later, is still most definitely worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas.

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December 24, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Every Day Can Be Christmas

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622)

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

The first Christmas was a work day.

These days, Christmas is one of the few days of the year widely marked by time off.  But for the first people to hear of Christ’s birth, Christmas day was not a holiday, but a normal day:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

There was no glistening tree, no holiday feast, no gift exchange, no melodic carols, and no time off to be with family when an angel appeared to some shepherds that first Christmas night.  There was only another day at the office of the open field, with lots of sheep milling about.  The first Christmas was a work day.

The holiday of Christmas is, of course, precious.  I love to open gifts with my family and enjoy all the traditions and accoutrements that accompany this time of year.  But if the message of Christmas is kept within the boundaries of the actual holiday of Christmas, the truth of Christmas will be quickly lost.

The heart of the Christmas message is that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  He “took and flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  But Jesus did not become human to give us a holiday, as wonderful as that holiday may be, but to change our everyday.   This is why Jesus poured Himself into twelve men for three years.  This is why He healed the sick and fed the masses.  This is why He taught the curious and rebuffed the self-righteous.  He poured Himself into the everyday lives, struggles, and sins of people not to give them another holiday, but to show them that He was for and with them every day.

Assuming the traditional chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is correct, I find it telling that the climax of Jesus’ work – His death and resurrection – occurred between holidays.  The Thursday night before Jesus died, He celebrated the high holy Jewish holiday of Passover with His disciples.  The Saturday Jesus was in the grave was the holiday of a Sabbath.  Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday.  He accomplished His mission not on important holidays, but during two common days.

The message of Christmas extends long beyond the holiday of Christmas, for the message of Christmas reminds us that Christ is with us not just during a day full of carols, decorations, presents, and food, but “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  So, as we celebrate Christmas today, let’s not forget why need Christmas tomorrow – and all year long.

December 25, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tale of Three Kings

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Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.

_______________________________

[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Merry Christmas!

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

On this Christmas Eve, I wanted to share with you a portion of a Christmas sermon from Martin Luther, dated 1521.  Interestingly, Luther never actually preached this sermon.  Rather, he wrote this sermon as part of a collection of homilies for other pastors to share with their congregations.  At this time, he also translated the New Testament into German.  Luther did this so people could read the Bible in their native tongue and pastors could faithfully preach the Bible to their congregants.

In this sermon, Luther beautifully brings out the centrality of Christmas – not just as a story that happened long ago, but as an eternity-shifting event which calls for faith.  Without faith, Christmas brings only condemnation, for the world’s Judge has arrived.  But by faith, Christmas is cause for rejoicing, for our Savior has come!

So, it is in faith that I wish you a merry Christmas!

The Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that He did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: “I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10–11].  From these words you see clearly that He was born for us.  He does not simply say: “Christ is born,” but: “for you is he born.”  Again, he does not say: “I announce a joy,” but: “to you do I announce a great joy.” … This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father.  For these things are, all of them, true and they come to pass, provided we believe them; this is the chief part and chief good in all the gospels … Christ, above all things, must become ours and we His, before we undertake good works.  That happens in no other way than through such faith; it teaches the right understanding of the gospels and it seizes hold on them in the right place.  That makes for the right knowledge of Christ; from it the conscience becomes happy, free, and contented; from it grow love and praise of God, because it is He who has given us freely such superabundant goods in Christ … Therefore see to it that you derive from the Gospel not only enjoyment of the story as such, for that does not last long.  Nor should you derive from it only an example, for that does not hold up without faith.  But see to it that you make His birth your own, and that you make an exchange with Him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive, instead, His.  This happens, if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Mary’s lap and are her dear child.  This faith you have to practice and to pray for as long as you live; you can never strengthen it enough.  That is our foundation and our inheritance. (AE 52:14-16)

December 24, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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