Last week I was asked to give a talk in one of the dormitories here on campus entitled “A Theology of Christmas.” Realizing that tired university students likely did not want to hear a three-hour theological discourse in the midst of finals week I thought long and hard about how to talk about Christmas theologically. To help me get at the topic I decided that the only sources I should use would be Scripture and hymnody (in my opinion, the two best sources for doing theology). After reading hymn texts for some time I realized that what I needed to talk about was sin and, in particular, the first sin of humankind. For, unfortunately, it was the presence of sin in the world that necessitated the incarnation of Jesus Christ — sin provides the reason for celebrating Christmas. This is clear scripturally in many places but especially in the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79):
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Here we are reminded by Zechariah (and Luke) that the coming of the Christ is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12. God is remembering, in fact, his holy covenant with all humankind by sending Christ to “give knowledge of salvation” and to provide for “the remission of… sins.” Zechariah clearly understands that the incarnation, our Christmas, is the result of sin since the covenant with Abraham would be non-existent were it not for the first sin.
Many hymn writers have made this connection over the centuries. For example, Cosmas the Melodist (d. 760) in his Canon for Christmas Day, Ode 1 writes,
Man, in God’s own Image made,
Man, by Satan’s wiles betrayed,
Man, on whom corruption preyed,
Shut out from hope of life and of salvation,
Today Christ maketh him a new creation,
For He hath triumphed gloriously!
Similarly in Ode 3,
The earthly Adam, erewhile quickened
By the blest breath of God on high,
Now made the victim of corruption,
By woman’s guile betrayed to die,
He, deceived by woman’s part,
Thou Who in my nature art,
Holy art Thou, Lord!
Thou, Jesus Christ, wast consubstantial
With this our perishable clay,
And, by assuming earthly nature,
Exaltedst it to heavenly day.
Thou, That wast as mortal born,
Being God adored,
Thou That liftest up our horn,
Holy art Thou, Lord!
And finally, in the sixth ode,
Christ comes, Incarnate God, amongst us now,
Begotten of the Father ere the day:
And He, to Whom the sinless legions bow,
Lies cradled, ‘midst unconscious beasts on hay:
And, by His homely swaddling-bands girt in,
Looses the many fetters of our sin.
This connection between the first sin and Christmas may be obvious to some and well known to many today but it is often not talked about at Christmas except perhaps by theologians. Sure, this is the “stuff” of Lent and Easter but not Christmas. Christmas is usually about a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, oxen, angels and men traveling from afar — and it is! But in the midst of the gifts and celebrations, we need to remind ourselves that Christmas comes out of catastrophe. The happiness of Christmas day is the result of the unhappiness of that Edenic day so long ago. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, makes this the theme of his Christmas message to the Anglican Communion this year. He writes, “‘He comes the prisoners to release, In Satan’s bondage held.’ These are words from one of my favourite Advent hymns, ‘Hark the glad sound!’ And they draw our minds towards an aspect of Christmas that is often neglected because we prefer some of the ‘softer’ elements in the story.â€ I agree. I need to remind myself this year that though Christmas is to be enjoyed (for the gift of salvation is always joyful) it is also the result of tragedy. As hymn write Philip Doddridge writes,
He comes the prisoners to release,
In Satanâ€™s bondage held;
The gates of brass before Him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
Come, Lord Jesus!