Sunday, December 2, 2007

Christmas: The Day and the Doctrine

In 1676 an anonymous tract was published entitled, The Holy time of Christmas defended against non-conformists and all other of its prophaners and opposers. These prophaners and opposers were our dear friends, the puritans. The opening lines of this book kind of tell it all:

‘Unhappy times in which we live! That we should all believe that sixteen hundred years ago, a certain man, who was also God, called Jesus, was born in a stable for the Salvation of mankind; and yet that there should be certain amongst us, who should count it a piece of Religion not to keep Holy the Day on which our said Great Redeemer was born. O unhappy times! O cross Manners of mis-instructed Zealots!’

The work has all of the balance and nuance normally associated with anonymity. However, reading this made me take a moment to think about Christmas ‘the day’ and Christmas ‘the doctrine’. I wondered if the puritan rejection of the day might give us pause to examine our own reception of the doctrine.

I love Christmas. Our tree has been up for over a week! I like lights, Jimmy Durante narrations, early experiments with clay-mation reindeer, and carols of most descriptions. I like to walk in the city centre with my family and watch shoppers. I confess I can be a trappings kind of guy. That is why when I read of the puritan rejection of the day, I immediately think, ‘Spoil sports!' But deeper thoughts beckon...

Puritan sermons, tracts, and confessions tell us that they treasured the doctrine of the Incarnation. They gloried in the Word made flesh. They simply rejected a day that had been so closely associated with the Catholic ecclesiastical calendar. Our dear anonymous critic made the mistake that many contemporary believers do: he so treasured the day that it actually became the doctrine. Thus he surmised that to reject the day, with all of its feasts and fancies, was to belittle the doctrine.

The question is, if the puritans treasured the Incarnation and appropriated it into their entire year, why then would believers (like me!) be offended that they did not celebrate the day? Could it be that we have made the two inextricably linked? If a day should come when economies fail, Bing Crosby is forgotten, and carols cease – would the glory of the Incarnation be enough? Or are these just the ramblings of ‘mis-instructed Zealots’?

Obviously, I do not believe that celebrating the day belittles the doctrine. I will also grant that puritan rhetoric erred many times by vilifying those who celebrated the day. But I do believe that Christmas the day can be dangerously sentimental. In these days of advent the world sings together as though this child in the manger made no demands. We talk of His peace, but forget that he also brought a sword.

To celebrate the beginning of the season when we focus on the Incarnation (and the Salvation it promised!), I offer this parting thought:

Wonted scenes and ancient sounds
bring word of Mary’s treasure found
by shepherds dazed and rapt by the sight
of a child, still, and wrapped in night.

When God said ‘hush’ to pride and fall
through a Babe asleep in a lean-to stall,
prophets smiled at the angels’ delight:
The Word, flesh, and wrapped in night.

As subjects bowed and heavens danced,
Joseph touched gold and sensed fragrance,
but none could dim this wakeful sight:
The Son, here, and wrapped in night.

The stillness came and sped away,
the sun emerged and birthed a day;
through many more he knew our plight -
The Man, once still, and wrapped in night.

From stall to cross, a span so brief -
from Mary’s arms to the side of a thief,
from splintered stable to Roman spike -
The Lamb, once held, and wrapped in night.

Today with shepherds we attend
a Child at rest in her arm’s soft bend ,
come down to rise to Calvary’s height-
in darkness deep, but wrapped in light.

Have a merry and doctrinal Christmas,

Tim Bridges

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