P. H. Greenleaf preached this sermon on Christmas Day, which was published in 1843.
DELIVERED ON THE
EVENING OF CHRISTMAS DAY,
SAINT JOHN’S CHURCH,
By P. H. GREENLEAF,
RECTOR OF THE CHURCH.
“By festival solemnities and set days, we dedicate and sanctify to God the memory of his benefits, lest unthankful forgetfulness thereof should creep upon us in course of time.”
Augustine De Civit: Dei 16:4.
This sermon, prepared in the ordinary course of parochial duty, was not originally intended for publication. But some strictures upon the Church for her observance of the Christmas Festival having been recently made, it is now published, in accordance with the wishes of some, who judge that its circulation may be useful, and to whose judgment the author feels bound to defer.
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit, through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
THE GLORY OF LEBANON SHALL COME UNTO THEE, THE FIR-TREE, THE PINE-TREE, AND THE BOX, TOGETHER, TO BEAUTIFY THE PLACE OF MY SANCTUARY; AND I WILL MAKE THE PLACE OF MY FEET GLORIOUS.
These are the beautiful prophetic emblems of the glory and the eternity of Christ’s kingdom.
It was no new thing thus to shadow forth the coming and the kingdom of the Redeemer. The ancient prophecies, looking onward to his advent, declare, “Behold the man, whose name is the Branch;” 1 it shall be “beautiful and glorious;” 2 “a Rod shall come out of the stem of Jesse,” 3 and “a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” His Church is represented as a “choice vine,” 4 and he whose hope the Lord is, as “a tree, whose leaf shall be ever green.” 5 It was predicted, that the Messiah should make the “wilderness to blossom as the rose;” 6 and that the cedar and the myrtle should spring up “in the solitary place,” 7 and the brier and the thorn pass forever away. 8 The scenery of the earth gave the prophets of God beautiful imagery, in which to clothe their predictions, and by which the faith of coming generations should be confirmed.
Hence, when the evangelical Prophet is opening to future faith disclosures of the ultimate triumph of the gospel, and the eternity and glory of the Christian Church, he employs, in the language of our text, the illustrative imagery of the material world. As though he had said, “amid those changes in human affairs, represented by the succession of the seasons,–when other institutions and religions have, like summer flowers, faded and gone,–when, amid the desolations of earth, all other vitality shall seem destroyed, the Kingdom and Church of the Redeemer shall still survive; its ministry and sacraments, its faith and gospel, shall have a visible existence; and, like the unchanging verdure of the fir, and the pine, and the box, shall continue to beautify the sanctuary, and make the place of his feet glorious, until his coming again.”
And, still, the same beautiful emblems are employed to shadow forth the same truths. Annually, at the birth-time of Jesus, when we specially commemorate the coming, the glory, and the eternity of his Church and kingdom, we perceive a peculiar propriety in bringing from their wintry abode these wreaths, in their unfading beauty and their unchanging verdure, that they may (as in prophetic days) testify of the Messiah. Fit emblems of eternal life! This day they entwine Christian altars, visible tokens of our undying hopes. Fit representatives of perpetuity! They show forth the eternity of the gospel faith in the gospel-church. And as such, as fitting emblems of truth, dear to Christian faith,–truths, we would consecrate in the memory of ourselves and our children, we bring the cedar, which is “the glory of Lebanon, and the fir-tree, and the pine-tree, and the box, to beautify the sanctuary, and make the place of his feet glorious;” because, on this day was born, “in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.” 9
Nor are we solitary in this festival commemoration. To-day, the Christian world presents the sublime spectacle of one vast cloud of incense ascending from earth to heaven. Men of every clime, and every language, and every tongue,–men differing widely in opinion, in interest, in intellect and position, do homage to the Saviour. Wars cease. Not an hostile weapon is raised this day in Christendom. Even enemies suspend their feuds, and, whatever of unholy strife burns and rages in the bosom of wickedness and the depths of sin, the surface, at least, is calm; and to-day, there is “peace on the earth.” What but the power of the gospel, and the energy of its life-giving principles, could bring together so many discordant elements, and send up, at once, toward heaven, the homage of the earth. Nay, think not,
“Though men were none,
That heaven would want spectators, God want praise;
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night.” 10
And these ‘glad voices of the sky,’ which sang in Judea of old, still chant “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”
The incarnation of Jesus, and the glory of his kingdom, are still the wonderful themes, into which “angels desire to look,” 11 and are not able. Redeeming love causes 12 joy in heaven, as well as upon the earth, and no theme more stirs the deep fountains of gladness among all the servants of God. And, therefore it is, that we keep this festival season. We would give one day to its distinct and joyful remembrance. We would connect it with our holiest hopes, our best affections, our most endearing and time-honored associations. And, therefore, our families are gathered,–affectionate greetings interchanged,–in the sanctuary, anthems and glad voices swell the notes of praise,–near and dear ones surround us,–the absent, too, are remembered, and the day is linked with family gathering and kindred love.
Let it not be supposed, that we attach an undue importance to this festival, or are disposed to revive or continue its superstitious observance. Its antiquity might prove the piety of our fathers; but unless we could show its practical utility, unless we had some important truth to commemorate, some salutary influences to be sent forth in its observance, we would not ask it to be preserved, nor could we expect it would retain such hold upon the public mind as to be of any real value in the subserving of truth.
We do not profess to be of those philosophers, who affect to despise “subsidiaries in religion,” [as though men could go where these are not,] and who would live independent of external influences. On the contrary, such is our nature, so are we constituted, as that we are incessantly acted upon by the men and things which surround us. Hence, from the time when the morning stars sang together for joy, 13 and angels chanted the glad tidings of salvation, music and voice have been employed to awaken devotional sentiment and enkindle piety. And not only eloquence and song, but painting, and architecture, have lent their aid to awaken pious feelings, and produce, as well as increase, devotional sentiment. Hearts, hard and perverse, insensible to argument and reason, are sometimes softened and swayed by the influence of sensible objects and sounds. And the power of these influences you cannot measure. They are not confined to a single spot, or a single mind. They spread on every side, like the undulations of the smitten water. They reach those who never saw or heard them. They extend their impressions, circle after circle, to distant generations, “as the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake.”
To such influences, we would give a direction; we would address the eye as well as the ear; we would employ these subsidiaries in the preservation of truth, and to promote and cultivate the practice of piety. And, therefore, because we judge that the festival and its attending circumstances present truth, send forth healthy religious influences, produce good affections, and promote godliness, we retain it; and only while it answers the end of its institution, would we observe it.
Our festival commemorates the incarnation of God for the salvation of men. Can you select an event more wonderful than this,–one fraught with richer blessings,–one better deserving our commemoration?
Consider, for a moment, the condition of the world in the day when Christ was born. The remains of that age are the admiration of our own. Its marbles, it paintings, the magnificent fragments of its genius, its learning, its poetry and song, give proof of man’s intellect and skill. And however moderns may vaunt of their improvements in Christian philosophy, and their advance in the science of a God, much of both is older than Christianity, and, too often, is but a revival of pagan wisdom. Yet these monuments of antiquity are also monuments of man’s ruin. Vestiges enough remain of his genius, his wisdom, his intellect, to show the impress of divinity; yet, disjointed and turned from the purposes of their creation, they betoken his fall. The whole world lay in moral ruin. The knowledge of a true God, his law and will, had almost faded from human tradition, and though conscience still lingered in the soul, like a spirit of the departed, “unwilling to leave even the ruins of the palace which it once occupied;” 14 the mind was debased; the man was lost.
Under these circumstances, God, at this time, became “manifest in the flesh.” 15 Jesus was born at Bethlehem. The angel, who sang at his birth, called him “a Saviour;” and he proved to be, as the holy Simeon said, “the light to lighten the Gentiles, the glory of Israel.” 16 He came—the predicted Messiah—the Way of life 17 –to sanctify the soul, 18 to forgive the sins, 19 and to save and bless mankind. God, who, at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake, in time past, unto the fathers, by the prophets, in these last days, spake unto men by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom, also, he made the worlds; who, being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, 20 came to the earth for the redemption of men. The day, therefore, which ushered Jesus to the world, was the birth-day of all those hopes of reconciliation with God, of restoration to purity, of happiness beyond the grave, which to us, sinners, are the chiefest and choicest blessings.
Has it not always been an admitted public duty to acknowledge social blessings, and gratefully to remember those through whose instrumentalities they were obtained? Are not the names of Washington, Adams, Hancock, and Warren, the jewels of our country, familiar as household words? Do we not set apart times and seasons to their memory, and hallow the birth-days of our freedom as political festivals? It is wise, it is expedient to do so. These festivals exert an influence upon the public mind. They are the levers of public sentiment, the channels of healthy feeling, the means and modes whereby good principles and sound morals may be perpetuated. Much more, as the common recipients of blessings from the hand of God, are bound socially to acknowledge and specially to commemorate them. Indeed, the same causes, which bring us together in social worship would also make it right and expedient to consecrate a day to the express commemoration, by suitable signs and symbols, of the greatest of all blessings, the coming of a Saviour to a ruined world.
It cannot, with truth, be denied, that a religion, wholly spiritual, and wholly abstracted from sensible objects, would be unfit for mankind. Hence, our Lord instituted the ‘sign’ of water, and the elements of the Eucharist. Hence, our memorial columns, our festival seasons. Hence, we set up this day, as a tangible and sensible monument of the particular event it commemorates. It stands up, in the year, as a ‘pillar of witness,’ inscribed with, “God, manifest in the flesh.” It is designed and intended to act upon the public mind, to move as a lever of public sentiment. It offers, annually, to man, a sensible memorial of the miraculous birth, and the divine character of Jesus, our Redeemer, and their blessed results. And its effect is to perpetuate that which it commemorates, to deepen the lines of its memory, to interweave gospel-truth with dear and time-honored associations, and transmit that truth, unbroken, from age to age.
And, therefore, we have come hither, to-day; we have kept it as a great festival solemnity; we have set up the fir-tree and the evergreen, to beautify the sanctuary; we have brought hither our children to sing a festival song, 21 and join us in our praise, that, by tangible memorial, and sensible object, by all that can reach the eye and the ear, we may impress ourselves and them, with the great theme of the day.
There are some objections made to the observance of this day, as a religious festival, which, because they are current, and, to some, formidable, would seem to require, in this place, particular notice. It is sometimes said, that this institution, not being the subject of a divine command, or express injunction, has no warrant from Scripture, and no place in a religion which has abolished legal ordinances. To this, it may be replied, that the fact commemorated, and its attendant doctrines and influences, sufficiently indicate the Scriptural nature of the festival. There needs no express law to make its subject and theme interesting to the Christian mind. While men live, who trust in a Saviour’s cross, that which called forth angel-song should breathe in sacred harmonies on earth.
Nothing is commanded in the New Testament, which is not of the essentials of Christianity. Belief and obedience, faith and repentance, the word and the sacraments,–these were, at the first, enjoined. All else was left to Apostolic direction; where the Apostles left no direction, then to the decree of Christ’s Church; and where neither the Gospel, nor its Apostles, nor its Church, directed, then to the individual judgment. Now, the keeping of Christmas is not an essential article of Christian doctrine. Like the ritual of the service, and the mode of worship, this institution is left to the discretion of the various branches of Christ’s Church. In the exercise of this discretion, that branch of the Church catholic to which we belong has enacted its observance; and, in that enactment, we have the concurrence of the large majority of Christians, and, as we think, the warrant of primitive usage and common sense. Nevertheless, we prescribe it, not for others, but for ourselves. And though it is painful to know that any blame 22 us for the observance of an institution, which partakes of the nature of a domestic regulation, yet, as we base its observance only upon the expediencies and proprieties of the case, our rule is, here, as elsewhere,–“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” 23
Another objection to this festival arises from another and a better source. Apprehensive of the increase of popery in our country, alarmed at every co-incident between us and Rome, some fear to give currency or countenance to the observance of this day, because, from its origin and circumstances, they judge it has become identified with Roman superstition. In their apprehension and alarm, we could well join, at every proof of the growth of this schismatical Church, or the increase of its principles. But if the simple fact of either reception or original at Rome is good cause for the rejection of a Christian institution, many things, far from being objectionable, would share its fate. We admit neither its Roman origin, nor its identity with Roman superstition. It is identified neither with Rome, nor Greece, nor Syria, nor with any national Church. We claim for it that it is catholic, apostolic, scriptural.
But even if it had original at Rome, 24 is it good philosophy and sound argument to reject any thing, because it flows through an imperfect conductor, or an unsightly channel? May not the water be pure, though the pipe be leaden? May not the Scriptures be God’s word, though Jewish bigotry and Roman intolerance have been their keepers?
An objection like this cannot stand a moment’s examination. The real question is, not whence it came? But why is it used? And until its observance be shown to be unscriptural in its original, or mischievous in its tendencies, I claim your judgment in its favor.
It is sometimes further objected to this festival, that the day we observe was not the true birth-day of Jesus, and therefore its observance should cease. I deny both the premises and the conclusion.
Although we have no certain proof, as to the time, when this day was first observed in the Christian church, yet, because it was, at a very early period, kept as the true day 25 by those who, from their position, had ample opportunity for knowledge; because it was at so early a period, generally thus observed, 26 and because the Church, for so many centuries, has agreed in this judgment, we affirm, that it is the true day, and place the burden of proof to the contrary, upon those who deny it. The time of the officiating by Zacharias in his course, 27 and the conduct of Herod, in the murder of the holy innocents, 28 are strong collateral proofs; while the general tradition, and the absence of any other assumed day, strengthen our opinion.
But admit, that we are mistaken, does it therefore follow, that we should cease to observe it? We do not rest its expediency or propriety upon it, as a birthday, but as a conventional period, generally designated for commemorating an important truth. Christians, separated by wide seas, by many circumstances of condition, of language, and of clime, have agreed upon this, as a suitable period for uniting in this commemoration. They, and their fathers, for a thousand years, have so done. The day is endeared to them, by a vast variety of hallowed associations and tender recollections. And, it is more than probable, that there never has been a time, since the birth of Jesus, when so many immortal souls have united in one solemn religious exercise, as upon this festival day. 29
Does it add nothing of interest to the day, that almost a world’s population are sending up their anthems with ours? Does it form no reason for keeping this high festival, that it can, more than any other institution, unite the greatest number of souls in an act of religious homage? Surely, if so many Christians are agreed, in this great act of annual thanksgiving to God for the blessing of a Saviour, it forms good cause for our union with them to consecrate this day to the nativity of Jesus.
But here, again, the force of our argument is evaded by an allegation, that there is not such an agreement of men in an act of religious homage, but only in an act of festivity, often riotous and unhallowed.
He must be a bold man, who should review the thousands of Christian altars in the civilized world, where, to-day, prayer has been made, and gaze upon the kneeling millions who render to-day, their thanksgivings, and say, “there is no homage there.”
The ancient prayers, the hallowed services, the anthems, which peal from so many temples, and the ‘tables of the Lord’ spread in so many lands, sufficiently indicate the intention of the assembly, and the agreement of Christian minds in an act of religious adoration. The truth is, however, that the fountain of human action sends forth, even its purest streams, more or less contaminated, and no tide of human feeling long flows uncorrupt. And, therefore, you can never secure man’s best religious offerings from taint, or his best institutions from perversion and sin. The Christmas festival, like the thanksgiving day of New England, is a human institution; and both are frequently perverted by unhallowed festivities. But would it be fair argument, and good philosophy to say, that there were no grateful hearts, in this Commonwealth, upon a thanksgiving-day, because so many persons desecrate it? Or would such perversion be considered as good cause for its abolition? Clearly not. Rather would we save it from being corrupted, and sanctify it by acts of piety and devotion.
Christians, every where, consecrate this Sabbath, as holy to the Lord. And thus would we ever commemorate the birth-time of our Redeemer. 30 We hallow it annually, by the Eucharistic sacrifice, the highest act of homage known to our religion. We devote it to religious festivities and grateful acknowledgments of the goodness of God. It is, to us, the day of the incarnation of Jesus. His marvelous birth, his holy office, his divine character,–these re the themes of our thought. If he were only a man, we might turn over the remarkable circumstances of his birth, to the page of history. If he were only a man, we should consider his virtue and his obedience, but his bounden duty and reasonable service. If he were only a man, we should never dream it could be true, that his blood could cleanse from sin; 31 and truly, if he were only a man, the story of the angel-songs at his birth-time is but an embellishment of antiquity. But when we consider him as divine, as the manifested God, the event we commemorate is at once invested with an august and sublime character. It was an event, fitting to be a world’s wonder, and worthy to be ushered in by “a multitude of the heavenly host singing and praising God.” 32 And, therefore, because we would, on this day, commemorate a manifested divinity, because we would annually trace the distinct outlines of this truth, and keep it in memory forever, we set apart this day, and, by every endeared recollection and hallowed association, would consecrate it as the birth-time of our blessed Redeemer, and therefore as the beginning of that ‘mystery of godliness,’ by which the Word, on this day made flesh, gave us ‘the power to become the sons of God.’ “Come faith, and bend our knees and hearts to Jesus, the manifested God! Come hope, and spread above us thy many colored bow of promise, the token of God’s covenant. And thou, charity, the fairest daughter of heaven, come, gladden the poorest of Christ’s brethren by thy benevolence; and begin here, that work of divine love, which shall be finished where faith shall have faded before vision, and hope be lost in the fruition of the promises.” 33
Need we further argument for the festival season? Shall we gravely apply ourselves to apologize for our memory of the birth-time of the Saviour of sinners? No: rather let us rejoice, that we have opportunity to discharge a great social duty, by this public acknowledgment of our highest benefactor.
The Christian Sabbath tells of the Christian’s Saviour. It comes to us, teeming with memorials and sacred recollections; yet if it present any one fact in our Lord’s history, or any one truth of his Gospel, more prominent than another, it is the fact and truth of the resurrection.
The Christian “Communion of the body and blood of the Lord’ excites in the pious soul liveliest emotions of gratitude, and brings to ‘remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension,’ and in the memorial we make, and which he has commanded, as often as we eat that bread and drink that cup, we do show the Lord’s death, till he come.
But when we set apart a day, as the memorial of his birth-time, we bring into strong relief the specific event we commemorate. Its distinct remembrance tends to perpetuate the recollection of its supernatural character. It draws close the attention to its remarkable circumstances. The day stands up as a memorial column in the year, inscribed with the fulfilled prophecies. We make it distinct testimony to the divine character of our Redeemer, and it becomes, therefore, a witness to us, and to our children’s children, that the Word which was in the beginning with God, on this day, “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” 34
Every thing in the character of the day, its appropriate services, its ritual, and circumstances strengthen our belief that it had its original in the piety of the primitive Christians. It has stood the test of more than a thousand years of vicissitudes and changes. It has been approved, and owned, and blest among the people of God, in every part of the world; and Christian experience has tested, for many centuries, its utility as a mean of grace, its tendency to promote piety, its efficiency to preserve truth, increase religious affections, and give vigor to Christian hopes.
And now, my friends, as this holy day is passing away, and the shades of its even-tide are gathering thick and fast around us, as you depart from this beautified sanctuary, carry with you, as the lesson of the day, the reflection, how dark would be our world without Christ! No comfort for the living! No hope for the dying! None, for the loved and lost! Where could man look for strength, in the trials of life? Where could he fly for relief and support in its afflictions and sorrows? More than all, what would he have ever before him, but an unknown and dread hereafter,–the more dreadful, because unknown!
You know not, you cannot know, how much of all your earthly happiness,–how much of all that is noble, and intellectual, and refined in civilized life,–how much of all that makes your home comfortable, your life desirable, and your hearts happy,–you owe to the event we commemorate this day. And oh! If any children of Adam can have adequate impression of that deep and dark-swelling tide, which would have swept generation after generation of Christless spirits into eternity,–if any of our fallen race can gain a lively sense of that redeeming love, which to-day manifested a Saviour to the lost, it must be, and it an be only those, who have “looked unto the rock whence they were hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence they were digged,” 36 and have made Jesus the strength of their heart and their portion forever.
They can feel the gladness of gratitude, for they have been rescued by Jesus from the terrors of a broken law, and the apprehensions of a future judgment. They can rejoice at these glad tidings, for Jesus hath delivered them from the slavery of unholy passions, and the dominion of an ungodly world. They can rejoice, for, amid all the trials, and the difficulties, and the distresses, with which they must struggle in this ‘vale of tears,’ Jesus hath engaged, they shall be sustained by divine power, cheered by celestial comforts, guided by infinite wisdom, and saved by infinite love. They feel, that, if God hath so loved them in their transgression, and hath so blessed this scene of rebellion, much more will he bless, 37 with perfect and enduring happiness, those who, through Jesus, have become ‘children of grace and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.’ And, therefore, to them, the event of this day is indeed ‘glad tidings of great joy.’ And such it may become to you and ‘to all people.’
Take home, then, with you, as the lesson of the day, how dark our world, how sad the fate of man without a Christ! Strive to gain such knowledge of your own heart as shall make you feel the value of a Saviour. Behold him, not only in his humiliation as ‘made flesh,’ but in the glory of his mediatorial throne, as exalted to ‘make intercession.’ And go not to a prayerless bed! Give neither sleep to your eyes nor rest to your mind, until you have surrendered yourself to the Redeemer. And prove your gratitude for the inestimable blessing of salvation, by committing your everlasting interests to him, who was to-day manifested in Bethlehem to be both “a Prince and a Saviour.” 38
21 More than an hundred little children, of St. John’s Sunday School, were gathered before the chancel, in the afternoon of Christmas day. After the usual evening service, the Rector catechized them in the presence of the congregation, and presented each child with a Christmas gift. The children made an offering to God, in token of gratitude for a Saviour, and paid $20 18, (the results, in many cases, of earnings and self-denial,) to the General Board of Missions, to be expended in sending the knowledge of a Saviour to children who have it not.
22 See a little Sunday school book, published by the Massachusetts Sunday School Union, entitled, “Christmas,” and devoted to teaching the children of those who do NOT keep the festival, how unscriptural is the conduct of those who do!
24 This we deny, although its observance was enacted by Julian, bishop of Rome, A.D. 345. (Giesel. i. 292.) “It is found marked as such in a Roman calendar supposed to have been compiled in, or before A.D. 354.” Pilk. Evang. Hist. 45. Introd.
26 St. Chrysostom to. 5, hom. 33 (in 4th century) uses this language: “This day is of great antiquity, and of long continuance, being famous and known in the church from the beginning.”
It cannot be denied, that the fathers of the church, in the days here called “the beginning,” may have had as good ground for fixing upon that day, as men now have for celebrating the landing of the Plymouth colonists, on the twenty-second of December; the direct evidence of which may be as much lost to posterity, as that of the day of the nativity would be to us, had we no other testimony.
St. Augustine, also, mentions the same fact. Sermon 18, de Nat. Ch. De Trinitate, lib. iv. c. 5. Quoted by Dr. Pilkington, Evang. Hist. Chron. Disert. P. 46.
29 Reference is here had to the fact, that the festival occurred, in this year, upon Sunday. It is sometimes said, that Sunday, being the Lord’s day, is a sufficient commemoration of Jesus, for all practical purposes. But the Lord’s day can scarcely be said to commemorate any thing, unless it be the fact of the resurrection. It comes to us, filled with associations and influences. It is not, as this festival, a distinct and specific memorial of the birth of Jesus, of the time when Christianity “was not, and began to be.”
30 “This festival is the most improper season, (if there can be one more than another) for impiety and wickedness, and a most notorious aggravation of it; because contrary to the design of our Saviour’s coming into the world, who ‘was made manifest, that he might destroy the works of the devil.’” Comp. for Festivals (edit. 1715.) p. 72.