Why do the heathen rage,and the people imagine a vain thing?
Such a good thing as Christ’s Mass should be seen in context, if we are fully to appreciate it. Everyone knows what the context of this Feast is: It comes
In midst of coldest winter
At deepest midnight hour.
It is a joyous day, devoted to the worship of a Child:
To you this night is born a child
Of Mary chosen virgin mild;
This little child of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all the earth.
The holiday is also to be observed liturgically, in the spirit of the Gospel:
And she brought forth her first born son . . .
I was careful to set Christmas in the proper context by being careful not to prejudice the case in either direction. These three verses are not taken on the one hand from one of those pretty little carol books, full of cherubs, which we get with two box tops of this or that; on the other hand, they did not come from some High Church St. James St. Michael Liturgical Arts Society manual of arcane readings. They came from “German author unknown, c. 1500”; from “Martin Luther, 1535,” and from St. Luke. They are all to be found in the stanch, staid, blue-covered Lutheran Hymnal (or, better, The Lutheran Hymnal; why settle for anything but the best?)
We can be sure, can we not, that most of our worshippers legitimately concentrate on a winter’s night, a joyous event—the birth of a child, and a Christmassy liturgy. These make up the context of Christ’s Mass, don’t they?
The context of the event in which God mirrors His fatherly heart and gives of His very self in Jesus Christ is different and is greater than anything we have indicated so far. This context does not require us to be concerned about some details (the season) or to be obsessed with some features (the child-worship) or to be satisfied with a pure Christmas “order of service” and mood. Perhaps we can do ourselves a service so that we can better render God and our brothers their service if we wrest Christmas from the conventional context. I shall try to set a different stage for you.
The seasonal context. Every other year, at least, I wish preachers would have to prepare their Christmas sermon during summer vacation. The Christmas event stands out in a different kind of relief, then. A liturgical arts publishing firm in the city in which this university is located used to try, a decade ago, to convince the buying public that I was a liturgical designer. My assignment was to prepare a set of liturgical greeting cards for Christmas. My problem: the deadline for cards to be marketed in November is July. I would have to “think my way into Christmas” in the heat of summer, without benefit of Perry Como “Silent Night” records or Christmas tree lights, or anything. Meditating on the texts for those cards in July helped me think new thoughts about the context of Christ’s coming.
When I became a man, I put away childish things like drawing and regressed into new vocations, including book reviewing. There the old problems again confronted me: how to take note of a book of carols designed for November when it is published in July? When I tried, it was easier to empathize with our Australian Christian brothers who sing of the “midst of coldest winter at deepest midnight hour” in midst of hottest summer in down-under land. I could see something of the problem our Palm Beach and Sun City elders have conjuring up their childhood Christmases and could again understand why so many of them trek back north to the grandchildren for at least one weekend near the winter solstice. Why? Because they and we have a clear context in mind, and it includes the kind of white Christmases we used to know and the kind in which, “as everyone knows,” Christ was born.
Nothing of what I have said so far is very controversial or touchy. We all know well enough to “demythologize,” to extract the mythical elements out of the non-Biblical and purely human notions that grew up around Christmas. Really, we all know something about Palestine’s climate and nothing about the season of Christ’s birth, so we know that we tamper only with emotions and not with truth when we tamper with the season and the midnight hour.
Much more controversial and touchy is the idea of tampering with the child-worship which is integral to, central to all we think about Christmas. Here we cannot demythologize; we cannot pull out from history the history of the Child’s coming. The Old and New Testaments and all the ages of Christian history concentrate on this feature of Christmas. We like to put Christmas into the child’s context. We have Christmas programs and special services; we like to see children’s eyes light up as they open presents and as they reflect the little lights from Christmas trees (lights imported at great expense from Italy). We cannot forget how again and again Luke and Luther and others turn us to the childed estate of God’s Son at Christmas.
Is it possible that here again we can become obsessed with an idea and miss the context of Christmas?
A couple of years ago a very bad book with a very good title appeared: The Child-Worshippers. Author Martha Weinman Lear in it tried to show how in an insecure and valueless society we try to attach implausible values to child-society. In our pediocracy parents gain status through their children’s achievements. They make the child the center of the nothingness of life which they hope to stretch into an everything.
Christians indeed do engage properly in “child-worship” at Christmas, because they want to be sure that nothing they say about or do for Christ in worship be other than or less than what they say about or do for the God whose fullness dwelt in Him. But even this worship can become a sentimentalization or a fanaticism if it is torn from the larger context in which we have just seen it. We do not in any direct sense at Christmas “honor every mother and every child”; we do so only in the indirect sense that at this season we see how God has changed our whole estate because our race He “has honored thus that He deigns to dwell with us.” But Christ’s Mass is not Everychild’s Mass.
The purpose, for example, in Luther’s sometimes too imaginative and sometimes too realistic devotions to the child at the mother’s breast was not to stress the cuteness of the child but the condescension of God; it was not to accent the beauty of a domestic scene but to accent the completeness of God’s identification with our condition; it was not to stress the strength of family life but rather the weakness of God.
How do we set this unseasonal event into its larger context? We get good help again from the blue book and behind it the black book from which our texts above came: the Church’s ancient liturgy as it is received in our tradition and in our services. There we come across a larger context, one which helps rescue us from our own dim imaginations and sentimentalities. How helpless and hopeless are the hymn-book readings on pp. 55–56 for “Christmas Day, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.” (Fortunately for many, there are no readings for “Christmas Eve,” which is the time when more come to church. This makes it possible for ministers and music committees to do what a friend of mine called whenever he ventured: “To whip up a nice little liturgy of our own.”)
What do we do with the apparently random, haphazard set of readings which greets us? To our surprise, only one text is of the kind that would make its way into “nice little liturgies of our own” and that is the Gospel, from Luke 2. Except for the Epistle, everything else is from the Old Testament, and what did it know about the context of Christmas, asks our “midst-of-coldest-winter-at-deepest-midnight-hour-child-worshipper.”
Try this line from the Gradual: how helpful is it in a nice little Christmas Festival Liturgy:
Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power: in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning.
Only “womb” seems to fit the Christmas context. Or the Psalm in the gradual:
The Lord reigneth, He is clothed with majesty: the Lord is clothed with strength, wherewith He hath girded Himself.
Anyone could have picked a better Introit than that for the Candlelight-and-Holly Vespers!
Is any Epistle of the year more hedged about, fudged from, skipped over (except for Easter’s, when we have another context problem) than today’s:
For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11–14)
“Harrumph,” harrumph the boys in the balcony. What does that have to do with Christmas? Why not read The Other Wise Man or The Littlest Angel or something in context?
It has everything to do with Christmas! This is its context. Christmas means nothing about seasons or children except in the drama of all seasons for men of all ages. As the Epistle reminds us, we stand between Advents, remembering one and awaiting another. We will understand neither without renunciations and without hope. The accent is on “the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity.”
We have heard too many sermons about the commercialization of Christmas. Don’t bother about them. Let’s worry about what Erik Routley in The Man for Others calls “uncontexting Christ” at Christmas.
The very wide acceptance of the cult of the Child among people who otherwise have nothing to do with the Christian way is in its own way evidence that this cult can easily be an escape from truth. Popular forms of Christmas worship nowadays do much to foster the opinion that the Christian Gospel is a matter of sweetness and light. (Oxford University Press, p. 81f.)
Routley precedes us in suggesting that Liturgy will help us respond manifoldly and in context. He goes so far as to suggest that we will do best if we would begin a service with the words which begin the Psalm from which our Introit is taken:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
They do, we do rage because Christ-in-context violates all our preconceptions and pretensions. We worried about the Sunday School gym floor and we tithed and it did no good: we still have to be justified by faith. We took a Christmas basket to old First Immanuel Church and we still have to be judged for rent-gouging in the slum properties we hold in which its members live. We knelt at the side of the manger and we still have to make room for the Christian brother who kneels-in next to us. We already said we loved everybody in the world and we still have to revise our politics in order to find ways to do domething about that love.
It's enough to make a person rage.
It's enough to make a person imagine a vain thing.
But if we “renounce irreligion and worldly passions” we can “await a blessed hope” in the name of a man who was a child who became a man who was one in whom the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell. Whose giving of Himself in the temporary helplessness of childhood was merely “in context” and in harmony with the giving of Himself in permanent identification with us in our need.