Christmas Proclamation

Paul F. M. Zahl
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2004

In some ways, Christmas decontextualizes the historical Jesus more than any other time. We do not know at what time of the year he was born. There was almost definitely no snow on the ground in Judea. And there is no proof, beyond strong and early tradition, that Christ was born at Bethlehem. Even David Flusser, so normally reverent in his handling of the Gospels, thinks Christ was born at Nazareth.

Yet I cannot give up on Christmas. Far from it, for Christmas captures basic elements in the centrifugal force of Jesus of Nazareth. It has for many hundreds of years carried, inside the long train of its tradition, signals of Christ "as he really was." Christmas bears the saving theme, the theme of human lostness, the theme of the smallest seed growing to stature, the centrifugal "magnitude of weakness" (Christopher Smart).

The continuity of every time with the discontinuous Christ of that particular time is expressed undyingly through two nineteenth-century American Christmas carols. These are still sung and heard today, from ice-skating rinks in Tokyo to almost all Christian churches in English-speaking countries to airports worldwide in December to shopping malls and Cracker Barrel restaurants. They are Phillips Brooks's 1867 hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and Edmund Hamilton Sears's 1846 hymn, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." Each of these carols is a pure example of the living centrifugal force of the historical Jesus.

Phillips Brooks wrote his hymn for a children's play in Holy Trinity Church, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. He envisaged the contextualized Bethlehem, a town which he had in fact recently visited, in decontextualized terms: "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." In theology, this is called "salvation-history," a phrase coined by the Germans.

It means that Bethlehem has significance beyond its particular existence. Its historical existence is given by virtue of Christ's birth, universal existence and significance. Christianity holds the concrete and the general here in perfect tension. Bethlehem is a town like no other. At the same time it is a town like all others, in which all other towns exist representatively.

In the third stanza of his hymn, Phillips Brooks, who was a liberal Evangelical Episcopalian, carries forward the main centrifugal idea of Jesus' historical ministry:

No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him,
Still the dear Christ enters in.

The world consists of sin. The two are almost synonymous. Jesus' damning anthropology is in force. It is at work in the idea. Brooks, despite his generally optimistic worldview, cannot deny the fact. Yet, too, the humbling repentance of the one to whom Jesus addresses his Word is evoked. It is the "meek souls" who receive him. It is not the "righteous" and "those who have no need of a physician." The Physician, the "dear Christ," comes to those who require his services. Repentance equals meekness. The world equals sin. The "dear Christ" is the Man Between, the One who is still "here" in force, because the second Son of Man has not yet come. The gospel of the historical Jesus is entirely, concentratedly represented here.

The hymn concludes with a prayer, the poet's response to the time- and place-breaking statement of universality springing from context:

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.

Context, be universalized right now! Like the old ones who needed a physician, who needed an exorcist, "Cast out our sin." Save us to the extent of rebirthing us body and soul.

This is a recognition of Original Sin and a statement of the human problem to the furthest degree. We must be born again. Phillips Brooks's Evangelicalism is in perfect harmony with the One whom he believed had called him. The hymn is a classic case of the First Christian's extended universal reach.

Edmund Hamilton Sears was a clergyman affected by the Unitarian controversy in New England, which so influenced American "high culture" before the Civil War. Sears wrote several hymns, but his most familiar one is a second, almost perfect example of the centrifugal force deriving from Jesus the Christian.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heav'n's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav'nly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov'ring wing,
And ever o'er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The context is "of old," yet "Still … they come"! The world is a tainted, troubled, guilty place, "its sad and lowly plain." Yet "ever o'er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.

Sears' anthropology is Christ's, but the stage is Maine, 1846:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath in heav'nly strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong."

Sears was an early "Social Gospel" man. He discerned the social or sociological factor in the (collective) heart which Jesus had described in the words concerning "purity control." Sears' context was "early New England liberal"; Jesus' was what it was. The two mesh perfectly because of the universalizing energy of Christ's centrifugal force.

At the same time, Sears knew the personal, individual side of the anthropology. Mankind is burdened and oppressed, the individual man is burdened and oppressed. Original Sin is social, but it is also personal.

O ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow, …
Look now! For glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This stanza, the fourth, is omitted in most hymnals today. It is considered individualistic. I don't know. I do know that it was in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal but was dropped from the 1982 edition. I do know that it is not to be found in most collections of Christmas carols. Sears's anthropology is clear. The oppressed lamed bent man is the one who hears.

For lo! the days are hast'ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Sears's last verse enters into the "open-ended" atmosphere of Christ's eschatology. One day, the "Peace on earth" spoken once at Bethlehem, the "salvation-historical" greeting that made Bethlehem a representative context: one day the "peace on earth" will address the whole world in implementation rather than hope. Then "shall come the time foretold."

We live in the second chapter of a three-part plan. We are deep in the second, stuck in it, stuck in the middle of it. There is time to hear, time to agree, time to give up, time to accept the Christ's diagnosis of total depravity, time to reckon ourselves among the tax collectors and sinners, time to resign from the company of all who have no need of a physician, time to join the sinners, the impious whom Christ justified by his intent and first presence.

Christmas is always the First Time, in Bethlehem of Judea, and always also the Last Time, maybe. "For lo! the days are hast'ning on." The universality of the Jesus-context broken and stretched and pulled out further to reach newly appearing contexts, will at one point of time become a single context. In retrospect, the universal context of the Christ at Bethlehem will be changed into the Christ of a single period of history, the period that lasted from his coming at the time of John to the Final Coming in the time of the Son of Man. After that, there will be no new contexts to inform. All contexts will disappear forever, as at the end of the Divine Comedy. They will all be swallowed up and out-shone by a blinding single lamp that is the Son of God.

1 [ Back ] The preceding sermon first appeared as an epilogue in The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus by Paul F. M. Zahl (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans and Cambridge, U.K., 2003).
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology