Good Hymns Take Time

As part of this morning’s devotions, I decided that I would sing a Christmas hymn that (a) I don’t often sing, (b) is still appropriate on the 11th (i.e. not of the “this night/morning” variety), and (c) is really, really good.

Alas, such hymns are not so easy to find. Not chiefly because I know so many Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns(criterion [a]), but more so many are written for the day rather than the season (criterion [b]). Also, too many are not altogether fantastic as hymns (see [c]), especially those written during and after the nineteenth century.

So, in my search, I gave up on Lutheran Service Book (LSB) and turned instead to Matthew Carver’s marvellous Walther’s Hymnal.* There, I found what I was looking for.

Not only does it contain Paul Gerhardt’s We Sing, Immanuel, Thy Praise, which was inexplicably left out of LSB (and its predecessor, Lutheran Worship), but it includes the whole hymn.

In this case, the whole hymn means all 20 (twenty) stanzas.** Now, in spite of my Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns, even I would hesitate to include a 20-stanza hymn on a Sunday morning. At the very least, I would engage in some serious preparation and forewarning beforehand.

Continue reading Good Hymns Take Time

Putting s back into Christmass

Here’s a brief article I wrote for the Christmas issue of the magazine of a local Baptist church. It’s distributed to hundreds of homes in the area where our congregation worships.

What’s missing from Xmas?

The answer: the second ‘s’.

Get it? If not, bear with me, and I will explain.

It’s coming up to Christmas time. At the time of writing, I’m preparing the first church services in December, including the first carol service of the year.

Now, whether you love Christmas or hate it, it’s probably for the same reason: all the Christmas traditions. It’s the carols, the decorations, the food, the cards, the presents, the TV specials, Father Christmas, as well as all sorts of family traditions that have developed over the years. Some love them, others detest them. And for some people, they are a cause of regret or sadness or grief—bringing home the realities of loneliness, tragedy or loss in a particularly painful way.

There’s one other tradition, a more recent one, that I didn’t include in that list: Christians complaining about the fact that for most people there is no more Christ in Christmas. It’s all Xmas, Christmas without Christ: the jolly bits originally there to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but without Jesus. Santa, not God’s Son, is now the central character.

It’s all festive season without the Reason for the Season. Add the grotesque commercialisation of Christmas, and even those who aren’t Christian will begin to complain.

To be fair, I’m with the complainers. Up to a point. Contrary to what you might have read or heard, Christians never did steal Christmas from the pagans—but in these latter days, the non-Christian world does seem to have taken over Christmas and pushed out its real meaning altogether. And that’s regrettable, to say the least.

On the other hand, there’s this to consider: why should someone celebrate the birth of Jesus if they don’t believe in Him? And it doesn’t seem right to insist that shops, supermarkets and public broadcasting companies should take responsibility for teaching the real message of Christmas—their job is to make money or to attract viewers and listeners. They are just doing their job, even if they sometimes do it almost too well.

No, putting Christ back into Christmas isn’t a matter of forcing the general culture, or commerce, to talk more about Jesus—even though, if they did, I would be the first to be pleased.

Just as much as we need Christ instead of X in our Xmas, we also need the second ‘s’. The real meaning of Christmas is ‘Christ’s Mass’—the church service to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Church at Christmas is more than a tradition: it is where we encounter Jesus today in His word and in Holy Communion.

The Son of God who came to earth as the child of Mary comes to us today as we gather in His name to hear and meditate on the words of the Bible, to pray in His name, and to eat and drink the bread and wine of which He said, “This is my body, this is my blood.”

It’s when you put Mass back into Christmas that you will also get Christ back into Christmas—and with him, lasting joy. Not just for Christmas, but for every day of your life, and to all eternity.

Happy Christmas!

Losing the reason for the season

Christmas is prime time for Christian hand-wringing at the state of the world, more so it seems than Easter. It’s at Christmas that we find ourselves lamenting most loudly, persistently and at length at just how far secularisation has advanced. Not a single Christian carol at Tescos, no manger scene at Debenhams, cards galore with snowmen and Father Christmas, season’s greetings everywhere.

All people care about is the shopping, the presents, the food, while the Baby is left forgotten in the cold (to paraphrase a Finnish carol).

And then the inevitable city council which decides to celebrate Winterval and erect a Festival (or Winter) Tree, so as not to offend or appear Christian in a mixed community.

Ah, the degradation. Whatever happened to Britain (or USA, or almost any Western nation) as a a Christian country? Gone to the dogs.

Give me back my festival! Put Christ back into Christmas!

Sorry, folks, leave me off the bandwagon. I get hot under the collar about some things, but I just don’t get that bothered with the erosion of Christmas in the public square.

Why ever not? Lots of reasons, actually.

First, Christmas as a Christian festival is just that, a Christian festival. That is to say, it is a festival of the Church. It’s not the job of Birmingham city council to uphold the festival of Christ’s birth. They are responsible for bins and roads and public buildings and schools and such like—and community cohesion, law and order and that sort of stuff. If it promotes community cohesion to have a festival tree, so be it. If they do choose to promote the festival of the Church, well that’s great. But it’s not their job, so if they don’t do it, why complain. After all, I don’t complain if they don’t come and mow my lawn or change my light bulbs. (If they did, that would be great, but … you get my meaning).

Nor is it for Tesco or Debenhams to promote the Christian message. They are in the business of selling things to people. Christmas suits them well, thanks to the Magi and St. Nicholas and all that, but if they choose to do it in a non-religious way, I have no grounds for complaint.

Secondly, Christmas as a Christian festival is, ipso facto, a festival for Christians. That many pagans, for reasons of history, culture and tradition, have a glutfest that goes by the same name at the same time, and is based on the Christian original, is their business. How they profane their lives at Christmas time is their problem, and they are entitled. That they sing ‘Away in a Manger’ for the wrong reasons, and some even go to Church for those wrong reasons, is a bonus and I pray that the word accidentally heard may not return void but does its work in those lives.

Thirdly, being a festival for Christians, Christmas cannot, again ipso facto, be something that a country or nation should be expected to observe. For there is no such thing as a Christian country. In fact, as one UK Lutheran suggested recently on Twitter, the word shouldn’t be used as an adjective at all. In the New Testament, it’s a noun, describing persons. The rule of thumb is simple: if you can’t baptise it, it can’tbe or become Christian. Britain, the USA, Germany, Finland, wherever, never were Christian countries. There was a time when the Christian faith was predominant in culture and beyond, and almost everyone professed to be a Christian (however sincerely). Now they don’t. And they behave as such.

Which is a good thing: people are being more honest, no longer pretending. In the past (and still with older people), most people considered themselves Christian by virtue of not being Muslim or Hindu, and not wanting to consider themselves heathen. Now people are more honest: they don’t believe and they don’t pretend to believe. And so they celebrate a Christmas that fits in nicely with their non-faith: all food, family and presents. No more Christ in their Christmas than in their hearts and lives outside of Christmas. That’s helpful: when the Church encounters such people, it knows what it’s dealing with and can have open and honest encounters where everyone is open about what’s going on.

So if a pagan celebrates Christmas like a pagan, why get upset? It’s like getting upset that a Muslim fasts during Ramadan or a Buddhist meditates? What did you think they were going to do?

* * * * *

I have a much bigger complaint than all that. It’s not that pagans or politicians or merchants aren’t putting Christ into Christmas in places where Christ doesn’t wish to be worshipped. The real problems is at the other end of the compound word: that Christians are leaving Mass out of Christmas.

When I first spent a Christmas in the UK, I was shocked to discover near-empty churches on Christmas morning, with even the usually pious people absent. Why? Because for them, Christmas was family time above all, and they wanted to give the kids time to open and enjoy their presents, to get the turkey into the oven in time, and just to be able to have a relaxing Christmas morning. All of which a Christmas morning communion would have disrupted.

In other words, while we were wailing because the council and the shops were leaving Christ out of their Christmases, Christians were doing the very same in their own homes. Indulging in the paraphernalia, the feasting, the presents—while ignoring the Reason for the Season by staying away when He came down to them on Christmas morning in word and sacrament.*

Not that long ago, every Lutheran church in Europe would have held a Divine Service on each of the first four days of Christmas, as well as Christmas midnight, not to mention New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Epiphany, plus all the Sundays. There’s a carol still popular in my native Finland telling of the sleigh ride to church on Christmas morning. The first line: “The clock struck five, children wake up, John and Lisa, or you’ll miss the journey.” More remote farmers would have travelled literally all night to get to church in time for dawn (i.e. 9am).

Now the loss of that is something to lament. And, I suspect that Pastor Peters is right when he suggests that it is the loss of the Mass in Christmas that has most contributed to the loss of Christ in Christmas. The Church—yes, the institution, but above all Christians—have bought into the hedonism and the peripheral stuff and edged out Christ from the hearts of their celebrations (why, some churches even have Father Christmas, the bright red Coca Cola / Disney job,  appear in church as the gift-giver!). The world has watched and learned. Christians have left the Baby out in the cold, or at any rate only a cameo role, and so the world has stopped hearing the Gospel.

Give me back my festival! Put Mass back into Christmas.

*For the record, I should note that thankfully my current congregation do not fit the description but attend the Christmas services as they do all other services: in very good numbers.

A Season of Receiving

GiftI was planning to write a short post on why it is better to receive than to give at Christmas. However, a far more professional and prolific blogger beat me to it. Read it.

St. Augustine Christmas Sermon

St. Augustine
St. Augustine
Sermon 185

“It is called the Lord’s birthday when the wisdom of God presented itself to us as an infant, and the Word of God without words uttered the flesh as its voice. And yet the hidden divinity was signified to the wise men by the evidence of the heavens, and announced to the shepherds by the voice of an angel. And so we celebrate this day every year with great solemnity, because on it was fulfilled the prophecy which said,

Truth has sprung from the earth, and Justice has looked forth from heaven (Ps 84:12). Truth, which is the bosom of the Father (Jn 1:18), has sprung from the earth, in order also to be in the bosom of his mother. Truth, by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms. Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth, which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger.

For whose benefit did such sublimity come in such humility? Certainly for not of his own; but, if we are believers, totally for ours. Wake up, mankind, for your God became man!

Rise, you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you (Eph 5:14). For you, I repeat, God became man. You would have died for eternity, unless he had been born in time. You would never be set free from the flesh of sin, unless he had taken to himself the likeness of the flesh of sin (Rom 8:3). You would have been in the grip of everlasting misery, had it not been for the occurrence of this great mercy. You would not have come back to life, unless he had adjusted himself to your death. You would have faded away, if he had not come to the rescue. You would have perished, if he had not come.”