Christmas Spirit

St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

Yesterday, on the fourth day of Christmas, we watched Elf. I like Elf. My wife likes Elf. She particularly likes watching me watch Elf. Last night, a corollary to my thesis ‘Santa Claus is Jesus’ emerged. In the film Elf, Santa’s sleigh is, by nature, powered by ‘Christmas Spirit’. But since no one believes in Santa anymore, there is not enough Christmas Spirit to power the sleigh, so it has a jet engine installed underneath.

Now, I’m not going to argue as to how much or little Christmas Spirit we have today. But I do think it’s interesting to equate Christmas Spirit with belief in Santa Claus. This is not exactly the idea of Christmas Spirit we get from other sources.

As a button my mother-in-law wears says, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. But we’re not going to start with the Nativity, for the novelty of ‘belief in Santa Claus’ = ‘Christmas Spirit’ is not merely relative to Christianity.

For example, in the great classic A Muppet Family Christmas, Christmas Spirit has something to do with togetherness and gift-giving, which comes out when Robin explains Christmas to the Fraggles. In A Christmas Carol (best viewed not with Muppets but with Alistair Sim in Scrooge), it is self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, and great-heartedness that represent the Christmas Spirit. In most Christmas episodes of TV shows, Christmas Spirit is either self-giving or forgiveness combined with togetherness.

And I think that perhaps this is the Christmas Spirit, especially given that Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.

At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We recall the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God the Father Who flung the stars in the sky. He ’emptied himself of all but love’ (Charles Wesley) (this might not be true, but it’s poetic); he, who had the very form of God, took on the form of a slave (Philippians 2). ”Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies’ (also Charles Wesley).

He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace (Charles Wesley), and Lo! he abhors not the virgin’s womb (O Come All Ye Faith). And why does He set all this aside? Why does love come down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine? (Christina Rossetti)

Self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, great-heartedness, forgiveness, combined with togetherness. God desired not that His good creation (humanity) would continue in the path to death and destruction, so He came himself (St Athanasius, paraphrased), for God desires not the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23). God became human so that humans might become god (St Athanasius again) — that is to say, togetherness.

So our response to this? Well, he gave everything to be with us. So, what shall we give Him? Give him our hearts, first of all (Christina Rossetti, paraphrased). Second, give to others. Self-giving, self-sacrifice, service to others, and great-heartedness. Forgiveness. Togetherness.

This is Christmas Spirit, not belief in Santa Claus.

(That said, I still like Elf!)

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The Conciliar Theology of Christmas Carols

For the past month, everywhere you go you will have heard Christmas and winter songs, ranging from ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Some of these are actual carols, unlike ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, following my good friend the OED (with whom my wife agrees), sense 3:

a. A song or hymn of religious joy.

b.esp. A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions.

A vast number recast the events of the Nativity. But some of these carols have obviously ‘conciliar’ verses and phrases — conciliar being the adjective used for that which is related to and derived from the theology of the seven ecumenical councils. The most obvious example is in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created

This is pulled almost word-for-word from the ‘Nicene’ Creed (my translation here). Many other carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, assert the divinity of Christ, no doubt intending a Nicene sense. One hymn that undoubtedly intends a Nicene sense is ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’*, which reads:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

But to cite J M Neale’s translation of Prudentius (348-after 405) as evidence for how conciliar theology has impacted our Christmas carols is perhaps too easy. Yet the fact that people still sing this carol demonstrates that we are not all allergic to Nicaea yet.

One of the carols that actually provoked this post was Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.’ Several modern ‘revisions’ (including the CyberHymnal!) of the hymn have changed the second-last line of verse two to, ‘Pleased with us in flesh to dwell’, although the original was ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell.’ This line comes in the most theological of the carol’s verses:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!

This change was inevitably made to remove Wesley’s ‘sexist’ language. However, unlike some such modifications (e.g. ‘Good Christians All Rejoice’) this has changed the sense of the line. What the original line is stating is that Jesus became a human being, just like us in every respect. The revision makes the line repeat the fact that his flesh is real — thus opposing the Docetists, I suppose.

‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell’, however, takes aim not at Docetists but first at Apollinarians, who denied the full humanity of Christ by claiming he had no human soul. It also has in its sights, I imagine, Eutychianism, in which the human nature of Christ is swallowed up by the divinity — the heresy often confused with the ‘Mono/Miaphysitism’ of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches (see my post ‘Wait — Monophysites?‘).

I imagine that this line as composed by Charles Wesley could have had Chalcedon in mind; the Wesley brothers were knowledgeable in patristics. But to say, ‘This line makes “Hark!” Chalcedonian!’ is to miss the debates about Chalcedon that ensued in the following decades and centuries. It is as much ‘Chalcedonian’ as it is ‘Miaphysite’ — asserting the complete and utter humanity of the Incarnate Word. Nonetheless, that Christ was a perfect Man in the midst of men (archaic usage meaning ‘human persons regardless of gender) is the point being made here as well as in the ecumenical councils from Ephesus 1 (431) to Nicaea 2 (787).

The revisers will tell me that the problem of the sexist language persists. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the world that, although I think a contemporary writer should avoid using the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ to refer to human persons generally, this is its etymological definition, and one it maintained parallel to its being taken over by the other sense ‘male human being’ for many, many years. Therefore, why change the wording of something from the 1700s that was meant to include the whole human race? This hearkens back to my post about the scandal of the incarnation’s particularity — Jesus was a man in both senses, and feminists just have to deal with it. (Read also my post of a few years ago, ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!‘)

Anyway, hopefully this will help us sing our carols with gusto and meaning, perceiving the deeper truths that lie behind the poetry.

*Fouled by the Anglican Church of Canada hymn book Common Praise as ‘Of Eternal Love Begotten’.

Easter, Day Five: ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,’ by Charles Wesley

Our trek through the Easter Octave brings us to one of my favourite Easter Hymns, by Charles Wesley (saint of the week here), ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’:

‘Christ the Lord is risen today,’
Sons of men and angels say;
Raise your joys and triumphs high;
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply.

Love’s redeeming work is done,
Fought the fight, the battle won;
Lo! our Sun’s eclipse is o’er;
Lo! he sets in blood no more.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal;
Christ has burst the gates of hell:
Death in vain forbids his rise;
Christ hath opened Paradise.

Lives again our glorious King;
Where, O Death, is now thy sting?
Once he died, our souls to save;
Where thy victory, O grave?

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted Head;
Made like him, like him we rise;
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Hail, the Lord of earth and heaven!
Praise to thee by both be given;
Thee we greet triumphant now;
Hail, the Resurrection thou!

And since hymns are for singing:

Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”

Collect of the Day: John and Charles Wesley, Priests, 1791, 1788

From the Daily Office blog.

Lord God, you inspired your servants John and Charles Wesley with burning zeal for the sanctification of souls, and endowed them with eloquence in speech and song: Kindle in your Church, we entreat you, such fervor, that those whose faith has cooled may be warmed, and those who have not known Christ may turn to him and be saved; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.  As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.  They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.  Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.  Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.  She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.  To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”  For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).  This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).  Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.  To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.  May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.  To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.  She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.  To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.  May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!

Saint of the Week: John Wesley (Pt. 1)

Today is the feast day of John and Charles Wesley  in the Anglican calendar.  John Wesley (1703-1791) is the more famous of the two famous Wesley children.  He is quite famous these days for being an “Arminian”, and thus figures in the endless theological debates you will find out in the internet.  Nevertheless, just as Calvin was more than predestination, so Wesley was more than freewill.  So if you are a Calvinist, read on.

John Wesley studied at the University of Oxford and was ordained to holy orders within the Church of England in the year 1728.  He spent a brief time helping out his father, also an Anglican priest, before returning to Oxford.  At Oxford, he discovered that his brother Charles had begun a “Holy Club.”  It is my understanding that this club consisted of young men who met together to read the Greek New Testament and to life lives of holiness.  Their standard of holy living was set so high and their lifestyle so reflected a holy method of living that they were called “Methodists.”*

John Wesley’s “method” of life ran thus:

  1. Begin and end every day with God; and sleep not immoderately.
  2. Be diligent in your calling.
  3. Employ all spare hours in religion as able.
  4. All hollidays [should be devoted to religion].
  5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
  6. Avoid curiosity, and all useless employments and knowledge.
  7. Examine yourself every night.
  8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
  9. Avoid all manner of passion.

At Oxford, the Wesleys also encountered the Church Fathers, classical literature, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the recent bestseller A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law (see my post here).

In the Fathers, Kempis, Taylor, and Law, the Wesleys will have found a high call, a call to live holy lives centred upon Christ and his love for us, lives of faith that produces good works.  In his sermon on fasting, we see that John Wesley strove to steer a course between the extremes of those who believe that good works are nothing and those who believe they are everything.  He believed that they were the result of faith but that faith is what saves us.

After graduation, he went to Georgia where he met with little success.  In 1738, after his return to Britain, he started hanging out with the Moravians, and at a Moravian Love Feast on May 24, his “heart was strangely warmed.”

Wesley now knew that none of his holy living, no amount of partaking of communion, none of his prayers, none of his theology, no success as a missionary would or could save him.  All that could save John Wesley was Jesus Christ and his gift of grace freely given.**  He was truly converted to Christ.

And so, from 1739 to the end of his long life in 1791, John Wesley was committed to evangelism, to bringing this Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of England, and to waking up the Church of England.

More on John Wesley to come . . .

*I have also heard people say that Wesley was called a “Methodist” because of his method of organising the movement he started.  Somehow that is less convincing.

**To people who want to argue against Arminianism with some Augustinian arguments about grace being inescapable and therefore freewill illusory — not here.  Not now.  Embrace Wesley as a brother, see how much like you he is.