This last Sunday, members of Hall Gate URC in Doncaster joined together after their morning service of worship for a meal and discussion. I’ve started a church history course with them that looks at old events to see their contemporary relevance. Sunday’s session was supposed to be on the Fourth Century as a whole touching on men like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo.
All our time was taken up with looking at the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that led to the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD). After a short discussion on whether Constantine was good for the church or not, we began to look at the Arian controversy and the first Nicene creed. It was a great time and led to some really interesting discussion. From the events of 1600 years ago we began to discuss modern worship, tolerance, evangelism and everything else you can think of. Christology and Trinitarianism became more than just dusty words in Systematic Theology books and became living realities.
I hope that our discussion will lead people to understand the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful a little more. The composer of the hymn, John Francis Wade and its translator Frederick Oakley were both Roman Catholics. Wade was a Jacobite who fled to France. Oakley was a Tractarian in the Church of England before following the logic of their position and joining the Roman Church. I’m sure I’d have some “pleasant theological discussions” with both men but there’s no doubting the orthodoxy of the second verse of this hymn.
With words taken from the Nicene Creed we sing:
God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Begotten, not created:
The third line is an interesting translation of gestant puellæ viscera meaning “carried in a virgin’s womb”. But the rest is fabulous stuff. Jesus, who we adore, is fully God. There was no time when he wasn’t. He always was and always will be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. O come, let us adore him this Christmas for who he is. God in flesh. God with us. Immanuel.
As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter. Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”. Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins. Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us. And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.
All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas. Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year. And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter. They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism. Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger. If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God. If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?
One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’. He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:
From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.
Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal. Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:
Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!
No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel! I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music: