Christmas is a time that evokes feelings of peace, joy, serenity, love, beauty, goodness and hope. We are very familiar with the story of our Lord's birth, especially as related in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: the census, Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem, the rejection at the inn, finding room in the stable, the angelic hosts, the guiding star, the shepherds and wise men and, most of all, the babe lying in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The creches in Christian homes, the decorations and tableaux in churches, the sermons and music matched to the season create an aura that helps lift our minds to God. Yet the images, as beautiful as they are, are so well-known that we don't fully appreciate the thoughts and meanings they present. Throughout the ages, inspirational carols have been composed that help us visualize the scene and understand the significance of the incarnate birth.
As you anticipate the Lord's arrival, think of the 700 years the Jewish people waited for the coming of the Messiah. Remember what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us." Join in the prayerful plea in the 12th-century hymn: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear ... O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan's tyranny, From depths of Hell Thy people save, And give them victory o'er the grave."
In the evening, stand in the hills of Palestine, as did Phillips Brooks in 1868, view the houses in the distance and recite, "O little town of Bethlehem ... in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight ... in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in." What beautiful imagery to set the tone for that wondrous evening.
Join the shepherds in the field keeping a night watch over their flocks, when suddenly appear a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." Their reaction is described in the 1818 Christmas carol "Silent Night": "Shepherds quake at the sight, Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!"
Now intone with the angels the words, written in 1739, of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing": "Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies, With th' angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem ... Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth." Can any theological tome be more explicit?
Heed the call in the well-known French carol "Angels We Have Heard on High": "Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come, adore on bended knee Christ, the Lord, the new-born King, See Him in a manger laid Whom the angels praise above; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, While we raise our hearts in love."
Now in quiet tones pray in the very simple, almost childlike words of the 1885 carol "Away in the Manger": "Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, Close by me forever, and love me, I pray! Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care And take us to heaven, to Live with Thee there."
Accompany the three visitors from the East following a star in search of the newborn king until it stops over the house where the child resides. Pause and listen to the words of the 1847 hymn "The First Noel": "They entered in these wise men three, Full reverently upon their knee, And offered there, in His presence Both gold, and myrrh, and frankincense. Then let us all with one accord, Sing praises to our heavenly Lord, Who hath made heaven and earth of nought, And with His blood mankind had bought."
Join in the elation of the 1719 hymn "Joy to the World": "[T]he Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room ... No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground, He comes to make His blessings flow ... He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness."
Dwell on the delight of reconciliation, regeneration and the expectation of things to come that our Lord's birth brought about, as described in the 1847 carol "O Holy Night": "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! ... Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace."
With this vision of transformation, contemplate our journey on earth as described in the lyrics of the carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear": "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; Oh rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing, For lo! The days are hastening on, By prophets seen of old, When with the ever-circling years Shall come the time foretold, When the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace, their King. And the whole world send back the song Which now the angels sing."
A Blessed Christmas to all.
Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar at Catholic University's School of Philosophy.
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