Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Proclamation

Christmas Proclamation

© copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Christmas Eve: December 24, 2007

Comedian George Carlin said he once entered a bookstore and approached the clerk to ask where the self-help books were located. The clerk responded, “If we told you, it would defeat the purpose.”1 The implication being, of course, that in the end, the only one we can really count on to help us is ourselves, we are in this business of living alone.

After all is said and done, Christmas is a sort of divine declaration that self-help won’t/can’t do the whole job, will never get us where we need to be. There is no question that anyone can work on personal issues, personal improvement is always a worthy goal, but the gift of a Savior — which is what this night represents after all — is a powerful declaration about the very nature of God, that God recognizes our innate inability to rescue ourselves from everything that life has done to us, and that we have done to one another. We need help. We need a Savior.

One of the most ancient Advent carols, with words dating clear back to the 4th century, offers these words to people seeking the child who will be the salvation of us all. The first line of this song was sung by the choir from the rear of the church at my home church almost every Sunday of the year during my childhood and youth, as the choral call to worship. I can hear it today, reverberating through the gothic stone sanctuary:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,

Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;

He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,

As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,

That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

Let’s think for a moment about this ancient affirmation, how it describes what the Christ child comes to do for us, and the unique way in which he does it. The first stanza declares that Christ comes to us — the carol says he descends, as from the sky perhaps, but you are free to imagine him coming to you across a windswept meadow or from the other side of a crowded parking lot, the effect is the same. He fixes his gaze on us, and he comes to us. Without our having known it fully, we stood in need of a Savior, and one was provided, entirely apart from our ability or inclination to conjure one up. This is the caring love of God, expressed the same way one feeds their own children, without regard to questions of their deserving or not deserving food, we come to them and we feed them. It is the way we move to warn someone who is about to step off a curb into the path of an oncoming bus. They didn’t know they needed saving, but that made their plight no less desperate, and we come to them nonetheless.

Which brings to my mind the second stanza of the carol. “King of kings, yet born of Mary...” The sheer incongruity of the image of the highest king our minds can conceive, brought to birth by the merest peasant girl; this combined with “He will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.” He comes in the most inconspicuous way, and in coming, delivers himself entirely into our deepest place of need, making available his very body, the very blood of his veins, everything he has and is. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper we remember this one who comes to us, unbidden, rescuing us, devoting on our behalf the very essence of his life to our well-being. It’s an astounding thought if we stop to think about it.

The third stanza takes Christ back to heaven, but not without his having changed what happens on earth for all time. “Light of light,” he causes the brooding powers of all that is evil to recede in his light, and clears out the darkness the way a housekeeper removes the dusty bed sheets covering the beautiful furniture in a long-neglected home before it is restored to its old glory.

Why does the Christ child come to us? “That the powers of hell may vanish.” Anyone who lives in this world knows there is plenty more vanishing that needs to be done before that task of the Christ child is accomplished. Still, the Christmas celebration of his first arrival reminds us that the work of Christ is underway at this very moment in every nation on every continent. The King of glory comes to us this night. Let all mortal flesh — which is everyone here and anywhere the word is proclaimed — let us all offer our full homage to the King of kings.

1. Publishers Weekly, October 18, 2004.
2. From Liturgy of St. James, 4th century.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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