Christmas Meditation: Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Birth of ChristIn the church’s engagement with Islam, a major point of contention is the idea that Christ is the Son of God. Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, rejected any sort of notion that there could be a “son” of God. In my study of Islam, this appears to be both because of his rejection of pagan myths that told of gods having sex with human women to produce god-man offspring, and because of his insistence on monotheism (belief in one God). Christians would agree with both of these points. There is no hint of Mary having a sexual encounter with a deity. And we are monotheists, too.

But Christians believe that God has revealed himself to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the mystery of trinitarian faith. It defies logic despite many learned treatises written to explain it. The core paradox may be expressed in what might be called trinitarian arithmetic:

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

But how can we understand this?

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius was a Spaniard, trained as a lawyer. He rose through the ranks of the empire as a judge and became one of the chief officials at the court of the Christian Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople. At age 57, in AD 405, at the pinnacle of his career as one of the most powerful men in the Empire, he retired from civic life to write religious poetry. At this time he wrote:

Now, then, at last, close on the very end of life,
May yet my sinful soul put off her foolishness;
And if by deeds it cannot,
yet, at least, by words give praise to God,

His greatest work was the Liber Cathermerion. It is a collection of 12 long poems, one for each hour of the day. The ninth of these has these words:

Corde natus ex parentis, ante mundi exordium

In 1854, the Englishman John Mason Neal translated this as “Of the Father Sole Begotten.” Neal used a beautiful medieval plainsong as the setting for his translation of Prudentius’s words, creating a Christmas song for his time. In 1861 this was revised by another Englishman, Henry Williams Baker, as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the world’s 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!

O that birth forever blessed, When the Virgin full of grace,
By the Holy Spirit conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heav’n adore Him; Angel host, His praises sing,
Pow’rs dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ to Thee with God the Father, And O Holy Spirit to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, And unwearied praises be;
Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!

Prudentius’s works were appreciated by that great 20th Century scholar, C.S. Lewis. I, too, love the words of this song, one of the most profound of the Christmas collection. It give clear, simple answers to some of the dilemmas of trinitarian theology. Consider:

  • How was Christ conceived? By the Father’s love.
  • What is the proper response? Unwearied praises.
  • Where do we direct praise? To Christ with God the Father.
  • What is the end of all things? Eternal victory.
  • How long should we celebrate? Evermore and evermore!

Let no tongueCelebration of the birth of Christ should be done with great joy, but also with an appreciation of the mystery of the incarnation. But never forget the center of it all: the Father’s Love!

So merry, blessed Christmas to you, all my friends.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Week 4: Melancholy Christmas

gemini viiIt was fifty years ago, December 1965, when Gemini VII was finishing its record-breaking 14-day mission orbiting the earth. Astronauts James Frank Borman and James Lovell requested that mission control play a Christmas song for them, Bing Cosby’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light beams.
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams

The song falls into the category sometimes called “melancholy Christmas.” It speaks to the lost spirit of Christmas, claiming that Christmas happiness and joy is only an illusion, only a dream.

Christmas is not a happy time for everyone, even for many faithful Christians. Sometimes we are acutely aware of our losses, of those who are not here with us. 

Christina RossettiChristina Rossetti was a member of the famous Rossetti family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became a celebrated artist during this period, the late 19th century. Christina was born in London, but her family was Italian. Her father was a university professor, but died early and left the family in great financial distress. She thus grew up in a very educated and cultured but very poor family. In her poetry, it can be seen that she longed to marry and become a mother, but she spurned two men who apparently loved her deeply because of her very strict religious beliefs. She was a devout evangelical. She sacrificed love for faith. Her health declined for many years, eventually causing her to be housebound. She died from cancer in 1894, only 64 years old.

Her Christmas poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was written sometime before 1872, before the worst of her health problems, but was not published until after her death in 1904. In this striking poem, one can sense her loneliness and disappointment with life.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Life is hard and cold. Snow and winter is unending. The only way to describe it is “bleak.” Although Rossetti portrays this as “long ago,” one senses that it is a present reality for her, and for her readers. As Amy Grant once sang, “Life’s hard!”  It can seem like misfortune piles on top of misfortune. We moan for loneliness, for our melancholy.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Although Rossetti’s faith in the glorious nature of her God is strong, the reality of this world is harsh. There is a great contrast here between the two Advents of the Christ. His second Advent, the second coming, would be with power and renewal. But the first Advent was stark and humble. It was at a bleak time in a stable. Rossetti does not try to explain this, but allows the paradox to stand, “The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” Such is the mystery of the incarnation.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ birth is continued in these verses. Rossetti pictures the deserved worship and acclaim due to the Son of God, and given to him by unimaginable hoards of angels and archangels. Despite the invisible presence of these heavenly beings, it is quiet in the stable. The animals make their contented sounds. The only “worship” given the newborn king is the greatest thing in all the earth, the kiss of his mother.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

One can sense the lost motherhood of Rossetti at this point. She wants to give something to the precious babe. She cannot emulate the rich Wise Men, or even the humble shepherds. She is poor, and would never have even modest wealth to lavish on the Savior. She is left with but one gift that has any significance: her all, her very being, her heart.

Christmas will doubtlessly be both a sad and happy time for you. I have two dear friends I am praying for who will celebrate the first Christmas without their beloved mother. I know what that is like. But even if your Christmas is melancholy, please, please don’t turn away from the Christ. Give him your heart. Even in the bleakest times, we can find joy. The joy of the Gospel often comes through the darkness of the blues.

Give him your heart!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Week 3: Politics in Christmas

herod and wise menEvery good story has to have a bad guy. Star Wars: Darth Vader. Christmas Carol: Ebeneezer Scrooge. Harry Potter: Voldemort. Wizard of Oz: Witch of the West. Last of the Mohicans: Magua. Of course these villains sometimes find redemption at the end of the story (Vader, Scrooge, but not Voldemort).

The composite Christmas story we enjoy this time of year has many players: Gabriel, Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus, Innkeeper, Shepherds, and Wise Men. But only one true bad guy: King Herod.

As found in both Matthew and Luke, the story of Jesus’ birth has political angles. Joseph must journey to Bethlehem to meet a census requirement of the oppressive Roman government. The magi visit the ruler of Jerusalem and are received as visiting emissaries from a foreign land. Behind it all, the idea that a new “King of the Jews” has been been born is a political threat to both the Romans and King Herod.

Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that the prince does not rule by virtue. The art of ruling for him is found in gaining and retaining power. Methods of gaining power are to be judged only on their success. Measures to retain power are likewise evaluated only upon their effectiveness. Herod’s career is a case study in Machiavelli’s much-later advice. Herod sold his soul and his people to the Romans for power. He retained his power by intrigue and murder of any family member who threatened him. He was not kept in power by loving citizens, but by unprincipled men who benefited from his ruthlessness.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells his readers that at the time of his death, Herod had a large group of Jewish leaders brought to Jericho where he lay on his deathbed. His plan was to have these men slaughtered when he died to cause national mourning. Fortunately, his son, Archelaus, released them and ironically created a national celebration at Herod’s death instead.

This cold-blooded-killer side of Herod makes his order to have all the little boys of Bethlehem murdered very believable. Some historians have dismissed this as a legend fabricated by Matthew to meet his desire of fulfillment of prophecy, but I find it plausible. Bethlehem was not a big place. This may have involved a dozen or so little boys, surely a tragedy, but not the hundreds or thousands of murders that might make it into the history books. Oh yes, Herod could have done this.

So what place should politics and politicians have in Christmas? Just this week I read of atheists in Lincoln who outmaneuvered Christians to cause a traditional nativity display to be removed from the Nebraska state capitol building by December 21 (link). This is not just a culture war or a spiritual battle. It is that. It is also a political battle waged in the halls of government using laws and regulations.

Current political rhetoric seems obsessed with demonizing or defending Muslims. According to some, Islam is not just a challenge to Christianity, it is a threat to the American way of life. Other voices defend Islam as a religion of peace, perhaps the epitome of “Peace on Earth.” Politics mix with religion freely right now.

Herod’s story has some ultimate lessons for us in this, I think. Let me offer three.

First, remember that Herod used his scholars of Scripture to determine where the Messiah would be born. They searched and found Micah’s prophecy that Bethlehem was the site. Herod accepted and used this truth of Scripture for his purposes. Lesson: not everyone uses Scripture to determine and carry out God’s will.

Second, remember that Herod told the magi he wished to visit the newborn king and worship him, too, but his desire was to kill the baby. Lesson: some who claim allegiance to Christ have hidden agendas, using persons of faith for personal gain.

Third, remember that news of the Messiah’s birth set Herod off into uncontrollable rage. He was threatened by this and rightly so. He knew his grip on power was based on terror, not loyalty of his people. Lesson: the news that Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords is not glad tidings for everyone.

But it is for me. So, in these confusing and contradictory times, let nothing you dismay. Remember, Christ the Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. Oh, these are tidings of comfort and joy!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Week 2: Little Bethlehem

bethlehem001Bethlehem is a key part of the Christmas story. We see this in two ways in the Gospels.

First, Luke’s nativity story explains how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem when he known as a Galilean from Nazareth. His father, Joseph, under some sort of urgency, travels to Bethlehem from his home in Galilee to be registered at the traditional city for the descendants of David. His new wife, Mary, goes with him even though she is “great with child” (KJV).

What is the urgency that causes this man to make a hard journey with his young wife when she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy? Luke does not tell us, but several ideas have been floated. Some think this might be to get Mary away from the social critics of Nazareth who might be counting the time between marriage and child, ready to pounce if it were less than nine months. Others think this show the insensitivity of Joseph, acting at a patriarchal man of his times, a classic knucklehead.

Could it be, though, that the urgency was that Joseph and Mary desperately wanted their son to be born in Bethlehem? Did Joseph, the proud descendant of David who might have been a little down on his luck, want his son’s life to start with the right birthplace? Or, even more audaciously, did Joseph know that the heir to David’s throne was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, so he decided to take matters into his own hands to fulfill the prophecy? Was this like taking his son to the stone so he could pull the sword?

Which leads us to our second way of understanding Bethlehem in this story. In Matthew’s nativity account, the magi come from the east seeking the newly born Messiah of the Jews. They go straight to the top, to the court of King Herod, to find out where the baby might be. This access is why some consider the magi to be “kings,” for Herod would have been unlikely to receive commoners so readily.

Herod roars to his scholars to find an answer from Scripture, and they pull out their Micah scroll:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel. 
(Matt 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2, 4)

Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” the tiny village a few miles south of Jerusalem, is mentioned by name in the prophecy! To me, this is one of the most remarkable prophecy/fulfillment sequences in the Bible. Maybe Joseph had already found this Scripture long before it was revealed to the magi.

So Bethlehem is a city of choice and a city of destiny for the Christmas story. Joseph chose it for his son’s birthplace just as the Heavenly Father chose it prophetically centuries before as his Son’s birthplace. It marked Jesus as a candidate for David’s eternal throne, the true Messiah. Destiny is realized by those who listen to God and do his will.

The star shines out with a steadfast ray;
The kings to Bethlehem make their way,  
Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The Kings are traveling, travel with them!  

This Christmas, may we make our spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the Royal City, and find our King there. May we too bend out knee in worship to the Heir of David, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College