Christmas 2C Sermon 2015
During this sermon, I talk a lot about the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” If you’re not familiar with it, you can hear a beautiful version by clicking this link.
This is the Second Sunday after Christmas Day—which means, my friends, that Epiphany is near (it’s on the sixth! Come worship! Tell your friends!). And that means that the liturgically appropriate time for singing Christmas carols all the livelong day is technically about to end.
Now, if you’re like me, this won’t actually stop you from singing Christmas carols. It’s just that when you’re travelling down the highway belting out “O Holy Night,” more people will look at you funny in July than they will in January.
But, my friends, I refuse to leave the season of Christmas without singing one of my favorite Christmas carols of all time with you: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
This wasn’t always on my list of favorites—I won’t be surprised if it hasn’t made your lists either. I actually didn’t even know it very well until I was in high school.
The story is this: during middle school, I decided to try out for my school’s auditioned choir. I was a very shy kid in middle school. I had pimples and glasses and thanks to serial growth spurts, I could do a convincing impression of a stick insect. But I really loved to sing.
So I went out for the choir. And let me tell you: I don’t think there is any hazing experience yet devised for a middle school kid that could possibly be worse than standing up in front of an auditorium full of other middle school kids and singing by yourself.
I immediately transformed from a halfway decent soprano into a quivering pitchy pile of nerves. I didn’t get into the choir, at least not that year. And for years after that, I didn’t sing in public at all. Any time I tried, I nearly fainted.
It was singing in church that rehabilitated me. My choir director became my voice coach, and a few years after the traumatic audition, she invited me to since “Lo, How a Rose” on Christmas Eve. Which I did. I was only a little off-key. And I didn’t faint. Major victory.
One of my pastors came up afterwards to thank me for offering that gift to the congregation and to God. And smiling, he told me that “Lo, How a Rose” was his favorite Christmas carol—next to “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
And with teenage hubris, I immediately thought, “What is this other Christmas hymn that is stealing my hymn’s thunder?”
So I looked it up. And that’s how “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” became one of my favorite hymns, too.
It’s like the ugly duckling of the Christmas hymns. First of all, it doesn’t sound like any of the other hymns. There’s no jaunty change in rhythm, or dramatic leaps in pitch. This isn’t Irving Berlin; this is a tune is borrowed from a medieval monastery.
It doesn’t read like other Christmas hymns, either. There’s just one verse that mentions a baby. Everything else is all about Alpha and Omega, ‘ere the worlds began to be, hymn and chant and high thanksgiving.
And for this reason, this misfit Christmas hymn reminds me very much of this morning’s gospel reading. Because this morning, John tells the nativity story. And it doesn’t exactly remind us of what has gone before.
Think about it. To Luke belongs the story of the babe born in Bethlehem, complete with angelic announcement to the shepherds. To Matthew belongs the story of the magi coming from afar to bring the child frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The gospel of Mark has no baby Jesus at all: our first glimpse of Jesus is when he turns up at the Jordan River as a fully grown adult, ready to be baptized. These pictures of Jesus, all three of them, paint a picture of someone whose first impression is very, well, human. A baby. A child. A man who gathers at the river with lots of other men and women.
But not so with John. John starts out with the evangelistic equivalent of the big brass band. “In the beginning!” he trumpets. Sound familiar? It should. John is going big here—Genesis big.
Instead of talking about a baby, or swaddling clothes, or a manger, or even the shepherds or the kings, John goes straight for the sweeping theological claim: In the beginning the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us.
John seems overwhelmed by his own efforts to capture what’s really going on in the incarnation, in this marvelous, impossible moment when God entered the world in flesh—or at least, that’s what I imagine is behind this gorgeous passage, where these incredible statements of faith are lined up, one after another, pushing and jostling against one another in their haste to be announced to the world, like a torrent of good news breaking out of a dam.
“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
The cadence of John 1 reminds me of the cadences of the hymn: this waterfall of words about the Word made flesh matches the hymn’s waterfalling sound as we sing about the world’s Redeemer.
This hymn is very old—older, even, than it sounds. It was written by a guy named Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, who lived in the fourth and fifth century. He lived during a time when people were spending a lot of time arguing about the nature of Christ’s divinity and his humanity—which makes a lot of sense, when you think about the lyrics. This isn’t just a hymn, it’s a creed: a statement of faith.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t compose this hymn in English—shocker—and that in the original Latin, the hymn’s title is “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten.” Which is beautiful. Like Jesus was a piece of God the Parent’s heart that came to earth in the shape of a human man. Which, of course, he was. That’s what John means when he says that it’s the Son, who is close to God’s heart, who has made God known. Jesus is God’s final Word about what God desires for the human race and all creation: a Word that says that God so loved that world that if the world couldn’t lift itself to God, then God would come down to it.
But wait, there’s more! The tune that we’ve set this poem to was borrowed from a special part of the liturgy called the Sanctus. That’s the song we sing every time we celebrate communion, “Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of power and might.” And we sing that song every time we have communion because this is the song, in scripture, that angels are singing around God’s throne eternally. In that moment in communion when heaven and earth touch, and God comes to us in common things like bread and wine, we join in that eternal song.
And in the medieval church, there was a monastery somewhere singing that song to this tune, and I don’t think it was an accident that someone thought, hey, that would make a great setting for this “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten” thing. Because just as God comes to us in common things, God came to us in flesh and blood in the form of Jesus Christ.
And while all of that history is really pretty nifty, what really gets me about this song is that it reminds me that Christmas is so much bigger than what can be held in a Bethlehem manger.
When we come to celebrate Christmas, it’s a joy to picture Jesus coming to us as this little baby, born in a particular time and place and body. But the song reminds us of something important, something John was getting at too: even though Jesus was born in a particular time and place, and body, Jesus is also the second person of the Trinity; a member of the Godhead. Christ was there at the beginning of all things; Christ will be there at the end. This is the source and ending of all things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see.
The little baby who was born in Bethlehem was also there at the birth of the universe, and will be there at its death. And the child for whom the magi came looking was been seeking us out, too, from the very beginning.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” reminds us of a Christmas truth that is ours not just as this time of year, but every second of every day, whether January or July: that God in Christ is with us, and for us, and endlessly gifting to us life and love, all the time, evermore and evermore.
So sing out. Let’s join our voice in a song that’s been sung for hundreds of years. No, longer: for thousands. Ever since the prophets spoke. No, longer: ever since David sang, or Sarah laughed, or Miriam danced, or Adam agreed that it was good. This is the gift of beloved hymns; they can fix our hearts on what God is doing, has done, and will do, evermore and evermore.