A line in “O Holy Night” encapsulates for me the reason to celebrate Christmas, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Two other hymns capture this same thought: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in the line “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” and “Silent Night” in the phrase “the dawn of redeeming grace” but not with the clarity of “O Holy Night.”
Long lay the world indeed. For centuries; nay, for thousands of years; indeed, for the whole of human history, from the first spark of human self-awareness and awareness of the creative force in the universe, mankind strove to fashion ways to relate to one another and to get right with God that took the form of detailed do’s and don’ts, with ever more harsh punishments for infractions and desperate attempts to appease a God perceived as angry and judgmental, demanding even human sacrifice. The rules were towering intellectual achievements, dealing with the finest minutiae of human life and reflecting profound insight into human psychology and a detailed knowledge of physiology.
“…in sin and error pining…” Error. It was all centuries of error before Jesus, but error itself born of centuries of pining, pining for right relationships with others and with God but looking in all the wrong places – in places that stunt and stifle the human spirit and subordinate ordinary human needs – to see, to hear, to walk, to eat – to religious rituals.
Then one is born who sees and says that’s not the way. What you need is much simpler. What you need to do is just treat everyone the way you would want to be treated. That one rule can fulfill all the others. Indeed he said as much in an encounter recorded in the Gospels that everything in the law and the prophets is meant to convey those two Great Commandments: love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
“Til He appeared…” and all of human history afterwards is changed – a “new and glorious morn.”
Sadly though the tendency to seek redemption in rules and rituals is all too human and in a way easier than truly loving your neighbor as yourself. And, even more sadly, there will always be among us the unscrupulous for which we will need the civil law to hold in check.
But let those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus make each Christmas our occasion not only to celebrate the coming of “the new and glorious morn” but to live into it by loving one another as he loved us.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 13-January-2015