Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve, 11 pm

John 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

Sure you have a favourite Christmas carol—we all have a favourite—but which one is the best?

Since you are here at the 11 o’clock service, and since you will soon stand in a circle and light your shiny new Christmas candle, some of you will no doubt argue that “Silent Night” is the best. Just a few short days ago the children reminded us of the broken organ at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, and the lullaby for guitar that fit these new and wonderful words. I have no doubt that more than one church in this city will recreate the scene tonight in the absence of electricity.

Now some of you are patriots, and will no doubt claim that the Huron Carol is the best, written by a Canadian saint, at a Canadian pilgrimage site, describing the idealized Canadian birth of our Savior “in a lodge of broken bark” and “wrapped in a robe of rabbit skin” ready to receive “fox and beaver pelts” which we seem to have in great supply. It would be an excellent choice for best carol.

This is the point, of course, that us anglophiles and bibliophiles would sharply disagree, and insist that Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” is not only a great carol but one of the finest poems written in the English language. Rossetti, who struggled throughout her life with melancholy, tells us that ‘as poor as she is’ she can still find hope in this scene of ‘maiden bliss,’ and give her heart to her beloved Jesus.

But I want to make another case, this one by another English poet, who—oddly enough—lived a century earlier in the same part of London as Christina Rossetti. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, give us what I’m going to argue is the greatest carol of the lot: “Hark! The Herald Angel’s Sing.” Before I make my case, however, you need a little background.

It is hardly surprizing that three Wesley brothers become priests, but not because of father Samuel was priest. It was Susanna, their mother, who from an early age spent time day with each of her children engaging in what we would now call spiritual direction. Both John and Charles experienced the conversion that created our tribe the Methodists, and while John turned to preaching to share the message, Charles wrote 6,000 hymns.

Before I say more about a hymn we won’t actually sing tonight, just a little more background, this time closer to home: I’ve been channelling my own inner Susanna Wesley over the last few years, attempting to share the core of the Christian faith to a group of intrepid learners, some of whom are here tonight. Last winter, in a class on advanced systematics, I tried to convince them that Easter was really a happy add-on, and that all we need for our salvation and spiritual completeness happened on Good Friday. As I’ve said from this space before, I was selling and they weren’t buying. So tonight I’m going to try again, but with a twist. First, a verse from Charles:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"

So, greatest carol ever and key to our salvation: Clearly I like to challenge myself while preaching.

In traditional atonement theology, the human condition means separation from God. How, then, can we become one again with God, how can we realize the ‘at-one-ment’ that is God’s greatest hope for humankind? In most theories it happens on the cross of Jesus: God’s willingness to suffer and die that we might have life. An exchange of sorts: dying for our sin and purchasing for us new life. It’s all true, but it disturbs us, as only such theories can.

So what happened on May 24, 1738 at 8.45 in the evening while some bloke read aloud Luther’s preface to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? Yes, yes, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed. But what few remember is that Charles experienced the same conversion as John, but three days earlier on the 21st. Already a priest, he was reborn and experienced the kind of joy that would allow him to write the line: "Till we cast our Crowns before Thee, Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise!”

The same wonder, love and praise that typifies “Love Divine: All Loves Excelling” compelled him to reconsider the birth of Jesus, to re-imagine the meaning of this event in the life of believers, to see the coming of the light in a new light: one that has consequences beyond the birthday of the one who would someday die for us.

At the moment of his birth, we were reconciled with God. This is no mere baby, and ‘king’ falls short as a description of his meaning. This is life itself, “born that [we] no more may die” and ‘born to give us second birth.’ The earth is reborn, we are reborn, and we live in the radiance of this divine light: made new, reconciled with God, ‘who works in us and others by the Spirit’ to share this message of new life. And for this we say ‘Thanks be to God.’ Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home