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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XXII. CHRISTMAS DAY.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold



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JOHN i.10.

He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.

When we use ourselves, or hear others use, the term |mystery,| as applied to things belonging to the gospel, we should do well to consider what is meant by it. For our common notion of the word mystery is of something dark; whereas Christ and his gospel are continually spoken of as being, above all other things, light. Then come others, and say, |Light and darkness cannot go together: what you call the mysteries of Christianity are no part of it, but the fond inventions of man: Christianity is all simple and clear:| and thus they strike away some of the very greatest truths which God has revealed to us. Thus they deal in particular with the great truth declared in the text, that He who made the world visited it in the likeness of man. Now, if this truth were a mystery, in the common notion of that term; if it were a thing full of darkness, defying our minds to understand it, or to draw any good from it; then, indeed, it would be of little consequence whether we received it or no. It is because it is a mystery in a very different sense, in the sense in which the word is used commonly in the Scriptures; that is, a thing which was a secret, but which God has been pleased to reveal, and to reveal for our benefit, that therefore the loss of it would be the loss of a real blessing, a loss at once of light and comfort.

But we must go a little further, and explain from what this sad confusion in the use of the term |mystery| has arisen. There are many things relating to ourselves and to things around us, which by nature we cannot understand; and of God we can scarcely understand anything. Now, while the gospel has revealed much that we did not know before, it yet has not revealed everything: of God, in particular, it has given us much most precious knowledge, yet it has not removed all the veil. It has furnished us with a glass, indeed, to use the apostle's comparison; but the glass, although, a great help, although reflecting a likeness of what, without it, we could not see at all, is yet a dark and imperfect manner of seeing, compared with, the seeing face to face. So, when the gospel tells us that He who made the world visited it in our nature, it does not indeed enable us yet fully to conceive what He is who made us, and then became as one of us; there is still left around the name of God that light inaccessible which is to our imperfections darkness; and so far as we cannot understand or conceive rightly of God, so far it is true that we cannot understand all that is conveyed in the expression that God was in the world dwelling among us. Yet it is still most true that by the revelation thus made to us we have gained immensely. God, as he is in himself, we cannot understand; but Jesus Christ we can. When we are told to love God, if we look to the life and death of Christ, we can understand and feel how truly he deserves our love; when we are told to be perfect as God is perfect, we have the image of this perfection so truly set before us in his Son Jesus, that it may be well said, |Whoso hath seen Him hath seen the Father;| and why, then, should we ask with Philip, that |He should show us the Father?|

What, then, the festival of Christmas presents to us, as distinct from that of Easter, is generally the revelation of God in the flesh. True it is, that we may make it, if we will, the same as Easter: that is, we may celebrate it as the birth of our Saviour, of him who died and rose again for us; but then we only celebrate our Lord's birth with reference to his death and resurrection: that is, we make Christmas to be Easter under another name. And so everything relating to our Lord may be made to refer to his death and resurrection; for in them consists our redemption, and for that reason Easter has ever been considered as the great festival of the Christian year. But yet apart from this, Christmas has something peculiarly its own: namely, as I said before, the revelation of God in the flesh, not only to make atonement for our sins, -- which is the peculiar subject of the celebration of the season of Easter, -- but to give us notions of God at once distinct and lively; to enable us to have One in the invisible world, whom we could conceive of as distinctly as of a mere man, yet whom we might love with all our hearts, and trust with all our hearts, and yet be guilty of no idolatry.

It is not, then, only as the beginning of an earthly life of little more than thirty years, that we may celebrate the day of our Lord's birth in the flesh. His own words express what this day has brought to us: |Henceforth shall ye see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.| The words here, like so many of our Lord's, are expressed in a parable; but their meaning is not the less clear. They allude evidently to Jacob's vision, to the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, on which the angels were ascending and descending continually. But this vision is itself a parable; showing, under the figure of the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, and the angels going up and down on it, a free communication, as it were, between God and man, heaven brought nearer to earth, and heavenly things made more familiar. Now, this is done, in a manner, by every revelation from God; most of all, by the revelation of his Son. Nor is it only by his Spirit that Christ communicates with us even now; though, he is ascended again into heaven, yet the benefits of his having become man, over and above those of his dying and rising again for us, have not yet passed away. It is still the man Christ Jesus who brings heaven near to earth, and earth near to heaven.

It has been well said by Augustine, that babes in Christ should so think of the Son of man as not to lose sight of the Son of God; that more advanced Christians should so think of the Son of God as not to lose sight of the Son of man. Augustine well understood how the thought of the Son of man is fitted to our weakness; and that the best and most advanced of us in this mortal life are never so strong as to be able to do without it. Have we ever tried this with our children? We tell them that God made them, and takes care of them, and loves them, and hears their prayers, and knows what is in their hearts, and cannot bear what is evil. These are such notions of God as a child requires, and can understand. But, if we join with them some of those other notions which belong to God as he is in himself; that he is a Spirit, not to be seen, not to be conceived of as in any one place, or in any one form; what do we but embarrass our child's mind, and lessen that sense of near and dear relation to God which, our earlier accounts of God had given him? Yet we must teach him something of this sort, if we would prevent him from forming unworthy notions of God, such as have been the beginning of all idolatry. Here, then, is the blessing of the revelation of God in Christ. All that he can understand of God, or love in him, or fear in him -- that is to be found in Christ. Christ made him, takes care of him, can hear his prayers, can read his little heart, loves him tenderly; yet cannot bear what is evil, and will strictly judge him at the last day. But what we must teach when we speak of God, yet which has a tendency to lessen the liveliness of our impressions of him, this has no place when we speak of Christ. Christ has a body, incorruptible and glorified indeed, such as they who are Christ's shall also wear at his coming, yet still a body. Christ is not to be seen, indeed, for the clouds have received him out of our sight: yet he may be conceived of as in one place -- at the right hand of God; as in one certain and well-known form -- the form of the Son of man. Yet let us observe again, and be thankful for the perfect wisdom of God. Even while presenting to us God in Christ; that is to say, God with all those attributes which we can understand, and fear, and love; and without those which, throw us, as it were, to an infinite distance, overwhelming our minds, and baffling all our conceptions; even then the utmost care is taken to make us remember that God in himself is really that infinite and incomprehensible Being to whom we cannot, in our present state, approach; that even his manifestation of himself in Christ Jesus, is one less perfect than we shall be permitted to see hereafter; that Christ stands at the right hand of the Majesty on high; that he has received from the Father all his kingdom and his glory; finally, that the Father is greater than he, inasmuch as any other nature added to the pure and perfect essence of God, must, in a certain measure, if I may venture so to speak, be a coming down to a lower point, from the very and unmixed Divinity.

I have purposely mentioned this last circumstance, although it is not the view that I wish particularly to take to-day, because such passages as that which I quoted, where Christ tells his disciples that his Father was greater than he, and many others of the same sort, throughout the New Testament, are sometimes apt to embarrass and perplex us, if we do not consider their peculiar object. It was very necessary, especially at a time when men were so accustomed to worship their highest gods under the form of men, that whilst the gospel was itself holding out the man Christ Jesus as the object of religious faith, and fear, and love, and teaching that all power was given to him, in heaven and in earth, -- it should, also, guard us against supposing that it meant to represent God as, in himself, wearing a human form, or having a nature partaking of our infirmities; and, therefore, it always speaks of there being something in God higher, and more perfect, than could possibly be revealed to man; and for this eternal and infinite, and inconceivable Being, it claims the reserve of our highest thoughts, or, rather, it commands us to believe, that they who shall hereafter see God face to face, shall be allowed to see something still greater than is now revealed to us, even in him who is the express image of God, and the brightness of his glory.

But, now, to return to what I was dwelling on before. It is not only for children, that the revelation of God in Christ is so valuable; it is fitted to the wants of us all, at all times, and under all circumstances. Say, that we are in joy; say, that we are enjoying some of the festivities of this season. It is quite plain, that, at whatever moment the thought of God is unwelcome to us, that moment is one of sin or unbelief: yet, how can we dare to mix up the notion of the most high God with any earthly merriment, or festivity? Then, if we think of him who was present at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, and who worked a miracle for no other object than to increase the enjoyment of that marriage supper, do we not feel how the highest thoughts may be joined with the most common occasions? how we may bring Christ home with, us to our social meetings, to bless us, and to sanctify them? Imagine him in our feasts as he was in Cana: -- we may do it without profaneness; being sure, from that example, that he condemns not innocent mirth; that it is not merely because there is a feast, or because friends and neighbours are gathered together, that Christ cannot, therefore, be in the midst of us. This alone does not drive him away; but, oh consider, with what ears would he have listened to any words of unkindness, of profaneness, or of impurity! with what eyes would he have viewed any intemperance, or revelling; any such, immoderate yielding up of the night to pleasure, that a less portion of the next day can be given to duty and to God! Even as he would have heard or seen such things in Cana of Galilee, so does he hear and see them amongst us; the same gracious eye of love is on our moderate and permitted enjoyments; the same turning away from, the same firm and just displeasure at every word or deed which turns pleasure into sin.

But if I seek for instances to show how God in Christ is brought very near to us, what can I choose more striking than that most solemn act of Christian communion to which we are called this day? For, what is there in our mortal life, what joy, what sorrow, what feeling elated or subdued, which is not in that communion brought near to Christ to receive his blessing? What is the first and outward thing of which it reminds us? Is it not that last supper in Jerusalem, in which men, -- the twelve disciples, the first members of our Christian brotherhood, -- were brought into such solemn nearness to God, as seems to have begun the privileges of heaven upon earth? They were brought near at once to Christ and to one another: united to one another in him, in that double bond which, is the perfection at once of our duty and of our happiness. And so in our communion we, too, draw near to Christ and to each other; we feel -- who is there at that moment, at least, that does not feel? -- what a tie there is to bind each of us to his brother, when we come to the table of our common Lord. So far, the Lord's Supper is but a type of what every Christian meeting should be: never should any of us be gathered together on any occasion of common life, in our families or with our neighbours; we should sit down to no meal, we should meet in no company, without having Christ also in the midst of us; without remembering what we all are to him, and what we each therefore are to our brethren. But when we further recollect what there is in the Lord's Supper beyond the mere meeting of Christ and his disciples; what it is which the bread and the wine commemorate; of what we partake when, as true Christians, we eat of that bread, and drink of that cup; then we shall understand that God indeed is brought very near to us; inasmuch, as he who is a Christian, and partakes sincerely of Christian communion, is a partaker also of Christ: and as belonging to his body, his living spiritual body, the universal Church, receives his share of all those blessings, of all that infinite love which the Father shows continually to the head of that body, his own well-beloved Son.

Say not then in your hearts, Who can ascend up into heaven, that is, to bring Christ down? As on this day, when he took our nature upon him, he came down to abide with us for ever; to abide with, us, even when we should see him with our eyes no more: for whilst he was on earth he so took part in all the concerns of life, in all its duties, its sorrows, and its joys, that memory, when looking back on the past, can fancy him present still; and then let the liveliest fancy do its work to the utmost, it cannot go beyond the reality; he is present still, for that belongs to his almightiness; he is present with us, because he is God; and we can fancy him with us, because he is man. This is the way to lessen our distance from God and heaven, by bringing Christ continually to us on earth: the sky is closed, and shows no sign; all things continue as they were from the beginning of the world; evil abounds, and therefore the faith of many waxes cold; but Christ was and is amongst us; and we need no surer sign than that sign of the prophet Jonah -- Christ crucified and Christ risen -- to make us feel that we may live with God daily upon earth, and doing so, shall live with him for an eternal life, in a country that cannot pass away.

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