Faithful, Joyful, Triumphant
“This day is born unto you in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
In more than fifty Christmas Eves at worship I cannot recall a single one that did not begin with “O Come All Ye Faithful” as the processional hymn during which the cross, candles, choir and clergy moved through the assembly toward the altar for the opening of the Midnight Service. That is quite a record in any one life for any single hymn, but I suspect that many of you have had the very same experience for as many Christmases as you can remember, whether few or decades upon decades.
John Francis Wade set the words and the music together, probably in the year 1743. The words were so good that they were sometimes attributed to a more noble source, to St. Bonaventure (14th century) or King John IV of Portugal (17th century – “the musical king.”) Wade was a “loser” on a least four counts: a British subject who supported the wrong royal house (the Stuarts), the wrong church (he was a recusant catholic), the wrong liturgics (he was an ardent devotee of plainsong.), and the wrong nation (he was an exile in France.) Like the shepherds of the Christmas story, he was an “outsider” whom God nevertheless favored and called to be an evangelist. Recall that it is the shepherds who receive the message of the angels and determine to go “tell.” (Luke 2: 17-18) As the great Middle Eastern scholar Ken Bailey reminds us, the shepherds’ work was necessarily on the margins, separated from the mainstream, often the youngest (like the eighth and last boy David in I Samuel 16:11.) In the same way that St. Matthew, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Paul shared identities as notorious outsiders, John Francis Wade did not fit into the norms of community expectations of who God could employ for His saving purposes.
Those who are outside often have the greatest appreciation of what it means to be included. The Latin verb adesse in its imperative form adeste commands “Be Here” or “Approach” or “Come in!” Would it surprise us then, that the outsider’s first insight about the Christmas story was that no one is so outside the story’s reach that the story itself says “Come in!”? In the Christmas Eve epistle chosen from St. Paul’s letter to Titus Paul writes: “The grace of God has appeared for the saving of all men.” [Titus 2:11] No one is outside this savior’s reach or desire. And the corollary seems to be this: that the more outside you are the more powerfully He will use you, if you agree to come in. My pastoral hunch is that the majority of us gathered in this Cathedral Church see ourselves as outsiders, even if others do not. The majority of those at the Christmas crib were outsiders. The shepherds were outsiders, Mary and Joseph were “out of towners,” the Baby was profoundly an “outsider” as concerns His divine nature. In one sense, the only insiders in the story are the animals! The Christmas story is a story of invitation. No one needs to be left out. Adeste! Come in!
Christmas preaching frequently leads me to the carols, as many of you know. This year is no different than many other years in that regard. The reason is simple enough. The best carols are packed with Biblical truth in a stunningly accessible way. O Come All Ye Faithful breathes with invitation from its very first words. The imperative Come! (in Latin both adeste and venite) occurs six times in the first stanza and refrain!
Yet there is much more in this carol and in this night than universal invitation. Simply put, the hymn invites us into something very specific, into both the Jesus story and the Jesus truth…into life in Christ Jesus There is the invitation into the story itself. Come see the angels. Come see the shepherds. Come see the cradle. Come see the child. Come “bend” [your] joyful footsteps. Come in: Adeste…Venite. But there is also the invitation to the whole truth about Jesus, to new life in Him, to abundant life in Him. God of God…Light of Light… King of Angels…Only Begotten…Son of the Father…Born for sinners…Loving dearly…Lord in flesh. Come in: Adeste…Venite!
In the Year of Our Lord 1223, Francis of Assisi set up a crèche in the village of Grecio in order that people might have a picture to enter into as he preached the story. Christians have been setting up crèches ever since, not least the famous crèche that fills one corner of this Cathedral. Creches have the same role as the carol. To invite us in. To help us to see. But the carol presents the theological truths as well.
It was announced in Iraq this week by the leadership of the Christian community that there would be no public or visible signs of the celebration of Christmas. No Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services. No gatherings. No crèches. No decorations, not even of homes. In October a church in Baghdad was bombed, with more than 60 worshippers killed, and many more injured. The Islamists have declared war on the Christian infidels. Imagine their plight without eucharist, without community, without carols, without the visible signs we enjoy here. Our hearts, our prayers, our love go out to our Christian brothers and sisters so besieged.
But the carol has another series of (almost hidden) truths that are universal for all who have accepted or will accept the invitation…today, tomorrow, even in their dying day.. Iraqi Christians today – true outsiders in their society – are just like any, in any circumstances, who know this story and have accepted its invitation to enter life in Jesus As the hymn declares, the “faithful” are also “joyful and triumphant.” There is nothing they cannot face. There is nothing that can take away the joy of relationship with their savior, or the joy of outsiders in this world having become insiders of Christ’s Kingdom. There is also the matter of triumph. In Jesus defeat is always turned to victory, alienation to community, disease to health, death to life. One thing my travels as Archbishop have taught me is that outsiders who have “come in” to Jesus – we call them the faithful – are always joyful and triumphant too, like the shepherds, like Matthew and Mary Magdalene and Paul, like John Francis Wade, and our Iraqi brothers and sisters. Everything else may be stripped away, but those who behold and adore Him have everything.
And one last thing. For those who still haven’t accepted the invitation to “Come in!” today would be a great day to do so.