Date: December 25, 1938
Prayer for Christmas Day
Thou blessed Babe of Bethlehem, long-promised Redeemer of the race:
Our hearts are exalted in festive joy because on this sacred day we realize, as far as human understanding can grasp this mystery of the ages, that Thou didst leave heaven’s glories and become incarnate to make us eternally rich through Thy poverty. If on this anniversary of Thy birth we have but Thee, ours is indeed an immeasurable wealth of comfort. By Thy Christmas benediction we can be happy in the midst of sorrows, confident though surrounded by fears. All other holiday gifts are doomed to decay. Even the devotion that binds us most closely to our dear ones will come to an end; but the mercy which brought Thee to the lowliness of Bethlehem’s manger to grant us through faith the promise of the heavenly homeland,—that radiant love can never change. How can we ever thank Thee for the tidings of great joy that every festival of Thy nativity emphasizes? Help us give our hearts to Thee in living gratitude for the grace of Christmas. Enlighten us with the personal understanding that this day of Thy birth appeals to men in all conditions of life, particularly those afflicted by the manifold distresses and sorrows to which our age is heir. Let not these happy hours draw to a close without shedding rich blessing upon many lives. Hear us and fill our hearts with holy Christmas joy for Thy truth’s sake! Amen.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen. – Luke 2:20
HOW easy it is to misunderstand Christmas! It took the Puritans, despite their deeply religious life, half a century before they permitted the observance of this blessed day; and when the first Nativity celebration was held in Boston, 250 years ago, armed guards protected the worshipers against personal assault. Christmas is still misinterpreted and opposed, particularly in countries where Christian liberty is violently threatened by governmental interference, where masses of the youth have been mobilized sarcastically to belittle the reverence for the newborn Savior, the Son of God and Son of Man.
Even in our own nation the message of the Infant Jesus is sometimes misconstrued. In 1918 Christmas was of unusual significance to me personally. While attending the university, I devoted my leisure time to the spiritual care of several hundred enemy aliens and prisoners of war then confined in concentration camps. To me the Savior’s command “Love your enemies” and “I was in prison, and ye came unto Me” were a challenge to bring His Gospel to men who through no fault of their own were deprived of the privilege of worshiping their Savior and ours. Since it was impossible for me to visit all barracks on that Christmas after the Armistice, I wrote a lengthy telegram to the North Carolina camp, conveying the comfort of faith in the Christ-child to these interned sailors, separated for more than four years from their loved ones. To economize, I did not write out in full the various Scripture passages but referred to them, as is customary, simply by mentioning book, chapter, and verse. For example, rather than write each word, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,” I cited: “Isaiah 9, verse 6.” That telegram of Christian hope was never delivered. Instead, I was summoned before a board of investigators to face the charge of using a code to communicate with an enemy interned. It seemed impossible that such complete ignorance of Scripture could exist concerning the greatest event of all history, the birth of Jesus Christ; and I quickly explained that these abbreviations and figures, far from being sinister code messages, were simply Bible references to the holiest and happiest story ever told. A glance at the passage immediately proved my assertions, and within a few moments I was bowed out the room with profuse apologies.
I recall this incident to voice the plea that Christmas, its purpose and blessing, often misconceived, should certainly be understood aright by us today. We do not celebrate a day; for who can certify that Jesus was born on December 25? Older investigators recorded over a hundred different dates suggested as the birthday of our Savior and King. Christmas should also be more than a time of hazy, roseate good will toward men, more than a momentary peace that brings soldiers out the trenches for only a few hours’ truce, more than the excited hurry of a holiday with its gifts, its convivial eating, drinking, and merrymaking. To be a God-pleasing Christmas, it must be, and I pray God that in your heart it will be, above all the outward festivities, the day of all days, on which our souls sing
GLORY TO GOD FOR THE CHRIST-CHILD!
We must have the same desire to glorify our heavenly Father which filled the hearts of those who first beheld Bethlehem’s Babe and of whom it is written (Saint Luke, chapter two, verse twenty): “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.”
GLORY TO GOD THROUGH OUR CHRIST-CENTERED FAITH
No misunderstanding of the first Christmas disturbed the hearts of these shepherds. They had heard, not from the lips of fallible men but in Heaven’s message of the angel this glorious summary of Christmas truth: “Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” They had seen with their own eyes the mystery of the Incarnation, and they believed that in the cradled Child, God and man were united, heaven had stooped to earth, the Creator had become a creature, Deity had taken the form of humanity. Before that truth they bowed without doubt or debate. They refused to object: “How shall this be?” They made no attempt to analyze the glorious mystery of Christ’s becoming man, to interpret the hidden mysteries of the manger. With all their hearts they recognized in Christ their God; they believed Him, they trusted Him.
If on the birthday of Christ you demand proof that this Child is the Lord of lords, then ask yourself this question: If even the Bible insists: “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh!” how can you, with the restricted powers of human reason, hope to understand what the inspired penmen of God could not explain? If in the small circles of your experience you cannot account for a hundred marvelous chemical, physical, psychical forces at work in your body and mind, how can you hope to disclose the veiled truths of God? And if you cannot make human ingenuity answer a thousand questions in your daily life, why do you demand proof for the basic fact of Christmas, when God Himself has given you the immovable assurance that His Word is truth?
Don’t raise the objection that the shepherds were uncultured folk, ready to believe everything, with no scientific approach to the question of the first Christmas. I recall these words of John Gladstone, one of England’s foremost scientists, formerly president of the Physical Society, then president of the Chemical Society, the man who created an entirely new department which our universities now call Physical Chemistry: “We begin with Christ at Bethlehem. The first men who came to Him were poor peasants; but the next were the scientific men of the age.” Since the days of the Magi, leaders in various phases of human thought have humbly proclaimed their faith in the Incarnation. Jean Andre Deluc, inventor of the hydrometer, the scientist who first applied the barometer to measuring altitude, exclaimed: “The Son of God, the Lord of life, had to assume human nature and a mortal body as we have it. . . . I firmly believe that this is the truth because the Bible teaches me this. I say with Saint Paul, who directly called religion a secret, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!’”—Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, called “a prince in the world of science, one of the greatest physicists,” exults: “That the power and the love of God are brought into relation with the weakness and the sinfulness of man in the Lord Jesus Christ—of these great truths I have no doubt. . . . Upon Jesus Christ as the One who, for God, affiliated Himself with man, upon Him I rest my faith and hope.”
Take time to read the Cambridge Memorial, a declaration signed by ninety university professors of theology, history, law, and science, who in their own words “fully recognize the value of the statement of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.” These and a host of other noteworthy intellects have joined in the faith of Sir James Simpson, one of England’s outstanding physicians, who, with the trust based on an intimate, cover-to-cover knowledge of the Bible, confidently asserted: “I have unshaken faith in Jesus only. . . . I have heard men of science and philosophy raise doubts and objections to the Gospel of Christianity, but I never for one moment had a doubt myself.”
Geniuses in the arts of all ages have also dedicated their talents to the glory of Christ. The choicest poetry, the masterpieces of sculpture, the world’s costliest canvases, some of the sublimest compositions of all music, they laid at the feet of the Christ-child with a living faith in His divine power. To many the most majestic of all Christmas music is the incomparable oratorio of Handel The Messiah. Crowned royalty rises when its sublime “Hallelujah Chorus” is sung, and few commoners can hear its exalted strains without a deep inner thrill. George Frederick Handel glorified God not only in music but first of all by a firm trust in his Savior. His mother, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman, regarded the spiritual training of her son among her most sacred duties; and through her influence Handel’s faith was so strengthened that, though Rome and London asked him to join fashionable churches and popular creeds, he steadfastly replied that “he was resolved to die a member of the communion in which he was born and bred.” If we look for the heart of the Messiah, we must discover that intensely personal conviction by which Handel’s tears mingled with the ink as he penned its scores. In his own words he tells us that during the two or three weeks of composing The Messiah, “I did see the heavens open before me and the great God Himself.” As you see these heaped tributes to Christ as our God, don’t doubt! Don’t question! Don’t hesitate!—Believe! Accept! Trust! Acknowledge Jesus as your Lord, not because these gifted intellects have, but because the sacred Scriptures themselves, in scores of passages, proclaim Him God and King!
If now you ask,—and what question suggests itself more appropriately today?—“Why was Jesus born? Why did the Son of God become the Son of Man?” you are not left in any quandary. Jesus came, the Scriptures tell us, to reveal the Father, to show men that the God of grace and love seeks to win His disobedient, disgraced, deceitful children back to the blessings of eternal glory. Jesus came to take away forever all human iniquity, to remove from our stained souls the sin with which we daily offend God and increase our eternal punishment, to bear these transgressions on the cross, the high altar of all humanity, and there to sacrifice Himself, so that His holy, precious blood could completely cleanse us. Jesus came to destroy the hate-filled plans of hell that hold the world in their destructive spell, provoke misery in homes, churches, nations, blight your life and mine. This tyranny over men’s souls was broken through the first coming of Christ and will be broken forever in His second coming with power and glory. Jesus came—and this is the climax of His advent into the flesh—to destroy death, to bless you, me, and all believers with this promise, “I am come that they might have life.”
Pause before this Christmas Day all too quickly hastens to its end and ask yourselves whether you have ever realized how insignificant and puny and worthless you and I are under the appraisal of men today, yet how priceless everyone is in the loving esteem of our blessed Jesus. To the chemist, man is often a remarkable combination of various substances that ultimately decay and return to the dust. To the physicist he is only a mechanism moved by various forces that refuse to be controlled but that must finally stop and leave him lifeless. To the biologist we are accidental creatures that trace our ascent through a series of chance changes up from the primitive brute. To the astronomer we are infinitesimally small beings that cling to a world not much larger than a dot in the universe, a sphere that will be destroyed with everything in and on it. To the modern psychologist men and women are helpless things, swayed by emotions and the dictates of an unconscious mind that few can even partially conquer. To the sociologist man is simply the victim of his environment, with a hundred forces mercilessly hammering his life so that it fits into its surroundings. But to Christ—O blessed comfort of Christmas!—you and I are of such inestimable value and our souls such a priceless heritage of our heavenly Father that Jesus left the indescribable grandeur of eternity to come down to the poverty, the anguish, the vice, the death, of this sin-choked world to restore us to His Father’s love.
Without that faith in the Redeemer, Christmas is just another holiday, tinted with a vague cloud of good will but void of any tangible hope for anguished souls; but to hearts that adore the cradled Babe as the Savior of the race the birthday of Jesus is the climax of the year. Whatever else this day may have brought you, may the Spirit of God now bring into your hearts a resolution to glorify God through a personal faith, confident that Jesus came for all men, with endless mercy, with sure promises. Since He came with the only salvation that Heaven knows and on which we can build our hopes, I beseech you in that name above every name not to let night close this blessed day without receiving Christ’s Christmas-gift of Himself. The door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is only five feet high, so that those who enter must bow down; and in a more personal way a Christmas pilgrimage to the manger of Christ means that you humble yourselves, that as the shepherds left their sheep to worship the Christ-child, so you must forsake all earthly cares, kneel in spirit before the Prince of Peace, the Savior of your souls, the Christ upon whose shoulders all government rests, the eternal Immanuel, the God-with-us in the flesh, and glorify God with a childlike unquestioning faith in the Babe of Bethlehem, as your Lord, your God, your Savior.
GLORY TO GOD THROUGH CHRIST-DIRECTED LIVES
When the shepherds left the manger and hurried back to their flocks through the hush of that sacred night, they carried the impress of the Child indelibly stamped on their lives. They had seen the Christ, and as the countenance of Moses, who beheld God in His majesty on Mount Sinai, gleamed with reflected glory, so the shepherds, who had seen God in His mercy, glowed with that Savior’s holiness. They kept on “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” You, too, cannot see Christ through the eyes of faith without being made purer and more courageous; unless you church-members radiate Christ so that on this Christmas Day and every day people in the circle of your influence are able to recognize you as a follower of Jesus, something radically wrong is weakening your Christianity.
As these herdsmen of Bethlehem hearkened to the angels’ proclamation “Fear not,” so may you praise God in banishing the battalions of fear that surround many lives—the dread of sin, the horror of disaster, the fright of sickness, the terror of poverty, the specters that relentlessly haunt some of you, rob you of peace, tear down the tissues of your body, and hold you in a slavery more terrifying than any human bondage. Today God sends you the promise from Heaven, signed in the name of Christ and sealed in His precious blood, “Fear not!” Bring your cares and your worries to Christ the “Counselor” and believe in Him! Deep Christian faith has always found high courage in every fear-gripped moment. When the Vandals swooped down on North Africa, they persecuted the Christian Church with appalling cruelty. In one of the chapters of this martyrdom we read that they dragged seven confessors of Christ before their inquisition. When these witnesses remained loyal to Jesus despite threats and promises, they were sentenced to death; but they marched the streets to the place of their execution with a song on their lips. “What song?” you ask. None other than the Christmas chorus “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men!” To the people who lined the streets they cried out, “Fear no threats and no terrors, but let us rather die for Christ as He died for us!” With this joy they strode into horrifying death.—You, too, can have the same triumphant trust for the smaller fears of your life if only your Savior becomes all in all to you and your faith, more than lip-worship, springs from a soul alive in Jesus!
Those shepherds, who earned but a few pennies a day, could return “glorifying and praising God” in the face of deep poverty. I hope that none of you, as undeniably hard as the yoke of money troubles may be, will permit the struggle against unemployment and mounting debts to destroy your Christmas joy or open your hearts to the radical agitators who promise everything but deliver nothing except delusion. Even though you can afford no Christmastree and not a single gift for your children, with Christ you have heavenly light for a future in which human vision cannot discern one assuring ray. If you recognize the meaning of His poverty, His exclusion from the overcrowded inn, His homelessness in a world that was His own, His death, which left, as human possessions are reckoned, only a crown of thorns and a few blood-stained pieces of clothing; if you know all this happened that through faith in Him and “through His poverty” you “might be rich,” Christmas can still be a day of immeasurable soul wealth.
During these trying times that border on destitution, God may be leading some of His children on blessed ways. Two days before the Christmas of 1857 Ulysses S. Grant came to Saint Louis to pawn his watch so that he could buy a few gifts for his children. He was bankrupt, a misfit, in whom nobody placed any faith; but the Savior whom Grant was later to confess and in whose name he was baptized on his deathbed was guiding Grant through the dark valley of discouragement. Within seven short years the “misfit” was the military leader of the nation and soon thereafter its President. In much the same way the God of unlimited grace can change your outlook on life within a short span of time if it be His will. If not, if in His divine wisdom He knows that your soul will be imperiled by wealth and your reliance on God broken by luxury, through Christ your hearts can beat in tune with God’s love and thrill with greater joy even in straitened circumstances than many who with their millions are still without God.
Again, if we with the shepherds have heard the angels sing, “Peace on earth,” we must be prepared to praise God by reechoing the spirit of that harmony and extending help to our fellow-men. God alone knows how our broken and bleeding age longs for that peace when class hatred, creed hatred, race hatred, and, in the smaller circles of life, family hatred make life unbearable for millions; when men persecute each other because they happen to be Christians, Jews, Negroes. What a protest the reconciling loft of Christ is to all the inhumanity we witness, not only in Europe, but with increasing force—sometimes with the support of the demagogues—in our own land! The very country in which Jesus lived is torn by disastrous warfare. The site of His birth is guarded day and night by two armed policemen. Yet we could well adopt one custom of century-old usage among the Christian Arabs of Palestine. When one tribe has committed a serious crime against another, the chiefs of the opposing parties, together with representatives of the involved families, gather—not in a courtroom—but in Bethlehem, in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity. There, before the huge silver star which marks the traditional place of Jesus’ birth, every effort is made to reconcile the opposing parties through an oath of peace. In the same spirit we ought to set aside the days of the Christmas week as a sacred period for the removal of strife in family circles and larger human relationships.
Fellow-pilgrims to the manger of the Christ-child, is your heart at peace, or has estrangement entered the doors of your homes? Husbands and wives, who ought to be welded together by a flame of love, has that devotion changed to cruel hatred? Children and parents, whom affection should bind together with strong ties of blood kinship, have you become separated through selfishness? I spoke the other night to a group of 400 destitute, homeless men, tossed about as they are by the cross-currents of life, without any haven or anchorage, and heard some of their tragic experiences. Even deeper than the tragedy of having no home is the sorrow of having a home, yet being exiled from it by hatred, as some of you are on this Christmas Day. Husbands, who know that you ought now to be with your wives; children who stubbornly refuse to write even your parents; fathers who with cutting cruelty have banished your sons and daughters, your flesh and blood, from your homes,—think on this Christmas Day of the Christ-child’s love, and may God give you the strength to magnify His name by returning to your dear ones and seeking reconciliation! Do not let this holy day draw to its close without stifling all pride and finding the peace brought earthward through the Christ-child!
The shepherds also glorified God by making “known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” They were the first missionaries of Jesus Christ. When your heart has been moved by the magnificent grace of Jesus Christ, will you not glorify God by telling others of the Savior? One of the best-beloved of all Christmas carols is Luther’s “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come.” Tradition tells us that on Christmas Eve in 1534, while Katherine Luther was busily engaged in the holiday preparations, she knocked at her husband’s study and asked the Reformer to rock their baby Paul so that she might finish her household duties. As the cradle moved to and fro, Luther peered at the face of the child. The memories of the first Christmas Eve were revived in his heart, and he thought of the Babe cradled in the manger. The rhythm of the rocking suggested the melody of an old folk-song, and soon he had written the words of the hymn which millions have sung since his day. We, likewise, must behold our children in the light of the Christ-child. While Christmas, through the hundreds of Madonna canvases emphasizes the Virgin Mary and has rightly been regarded as the day that exalts motherhood, I ask you fathers to reflect Christ, as Luther did, by becoming priests of God in your own families. All of you who know the grace of Christmas I beg to go beyond your home and break the deadly silence that keeps millions in ignorance of Jesus. Shout the glad tidings! Proclaim Christ, and the God whom you honor by your testimony will in turn honor you by His power!
Within a few hours another Christmas will have escaped into the irrevocable past. As years add to years, these blessed days seem to slip away more quickly. How we would cling to Christmas and keep it with us forever! In the fifth century Jerome, translator of the Bible and teacher of its truth, who had moved to Bethlehem to live at the spot where the shepherds worshiped Jesus, was offered a high position in a church far away from the city of the Savior’s birth. He pleaded: “Take me not away from the manger of Christ. . . . Here in this very spot where God gave His Son from heaven will I return my soul to Him above.” With love and zeal for Christ like Jerome’s, may God give us, in youth and in old age, in adversity and prosperity, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, always and ever, the grace to live in faith and hope and love with the Christ-child, our God and Lord of endless mercy!
Our Father, grant us the glorious Christmas gift of this faith for Jesus’ sake! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.