© copyright 2010, Robert J. Elder
Christmas Eve: December 24, 2010
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, “Well, if we told you, it would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”1 The implication being, of course, that in the end, we can only really count on ourselves for help, we are all alone in this business of living.
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 in my memory to this day, reverberating through that gothic-style 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.2
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 people feed 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 hasten 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 call out 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.
“That the powers of hell may vanish…”
Reflecting on that, I want to share with you a recent reflection on Christmas from a young college student. He wrote the following note after the annual, beautiful Christmas season program on the Willamette University campus in Salem two weeks ago. My wife Christine directs the women’s choir, there is also a men’s chorus and a mixed chorus. In all about 120 singers and 20 or so orchestra players. With that background, I found this to be a remarkable reflection on this young fellow’s experience of college life.
Dear Choir Directors:
Thank you for another glorious Christmas in Hudson (Hall). I think that for many of us it’s the high point of the semester, and I know that these two days and the preceding months of preparation will figure prominently in my fondest and most vivid memories of Willamette. I want to share with you a short story, an experience I had that gave this Christmas in Hudson a very special meaning for me. So begging your indulgence, I’ll give you a little background.
Every weeknight a small group of friends and I gather to pray for our university – sometimes we sing in prayer, walk around campus in prayer or just sit in a room in silent prayer. Well, on Thursday night after the concert, we got to do something a little more unusual. A lady from a local church called us. She opens her doors to several homeless folks, sheltering them and feeding them. One of these had relapsed that day. After 14 months of sobriety under her care and influence, he gave in again, stumbling back to her, soaked, inebriated and ashamed. She was discouraged, obviously, and wanted our presence and our prayers. So she called that night.
Less than an hour after performing in Hudson, drinking in the warmth, the light, the radiant joy, the dignity, beauty, pageantry – after living in the wonderful celebration of worship for the infant king, I found myself surrounded by the darkness, the harsh city sounds, trying to stay warm, trying to stay dry, on the porch of an unfamiliar house with a drunken man at my feet, entreating God that He would make Himself known here, that He would intervene, heal and restore.
The dichotomy of the two worlds distracted me for a while, but as my friends and I prayed together, I began to understand something new, to get glimpses of a certain sameness between them. “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth." I had sung those words in a place of comfort and peace, amid excellence and splendor. But my removal from a building didn’t diminish the truth of the text. Omnipotent, He reigns. Everywhere. Here in the darkness His glory is undimmed – indeed, it’s the only thing shining. “The angels sungen the shepherds to.” To whom? Poor workers on the outskirts of a no-name town. To these, to the lowly ones, and to the discouraged woman and the ashamed reprobate, the angels declare a message of salvation.
More than this, I was struck with the realization that our celebration, as glorious and grand as it was, can’t approach the magnificence, the reckless and exuberant abandon that goes on in the throne room of heaven when this lady acts as Christ to the needy, or when the needy respond and welcome Him into their hearts.
So we prayed. After a time, we helped the man to a bed and took our leave.
In the comfort of my dorm room, I knew that I had encountered God in two profound ways – each one glorious, each one rich, but I don’t know that I would have recognized the beauty in the dark cold and wet had it not been for the wonder of the first. There are so many reasons to put on Christmas in Hudson: it serves the community, gives us a chance to sing great literature, it’s a mainstay of the university. But I need to thank you because it was something else for me this year. Thank you for your dedication to excellence, your sincerity, enthusiasm, vision, and most importantly your willingness to lead us in the adoration of the Christ child. You helped to make my experience transformative and revelatory; I learned something deeper about “our Lord and His Christ.” And every time God is glorified like He was on Thursday and Friday, there is the opportunity for transformative experience. So with all of my heart, thank you for Christmas and Hudson. I really can’t tell you how much it means.
- Dan Daly
The King of glory comes to us this night, in whatever place of need we may find ourselves. The Lord comes, whether in the shape of glorious angels, or a handful of ministering college students. The Lord came, and is coming still. 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.
Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1. Publishers Weekly. October 18, 2004, alt.'
2. From Liturgy of St. James, 4th century.