The Solemn Eucharist of the Nativity

Friday, December 25, 2009
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas Day

A bit on the history of the development of the feast called Christmas, in which the Church sets aside a day and season to celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus:

About 1,700 years ago the Church settled on December 25 as Jesus’ birth date for the Christian Year. It seized upon the pagan feast of Natalis Solis Invictus, which among other things marked the lengthening of the light at the winter solstice. The Church appropriated this feast for the Nativity of Christ, baptizing it and reasoning that the Lord’s Incarnation was the beginning of the lengthening of the light of the Sun of Righteousness. So our feast of Christmas began by rubbing shoulders with secular or pagan festivals. Some writers of Antiquity complained that the new rising Christian movement was weakening the Roman Empire and that before long the old gods of Rome would be pushed out. The Emperor Constantine the Great, whose mother Helena was a devout Christian, had already ascribed his military ascendancy to the throne to a vision he had of the cross of Christ; and he had issued an Edict of Toleration for the formerly persecuted faith. Christianity now enjoyed imperial favor, and the celebration of Christmas adorned the Church’s new position.

One very good effect of Christmas in modern times has been the increased American Jewish observance of Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of Judas Maccabeus over the pagan tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC. Antiochus was a king in one of the Hellenistic empires stemming from the conquests of Alexander the Great. He had ordered an altar to Zeus built in the Jerusalem Temple and had swine sacrificed on the Jewish altar. Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights, celebrates the cleansing and dedication of the temple – it is the Feast of Dedication referenced in St. John 10:22-23 when Jesus walked in the temple in winter. You may find the original Hanukkah story in I Maccabees, chapters 1-4, in the Apocrypha. It is not only a Jewish feast; it is an important antecedent to the time of Christ.

By no means are all modern developments with regard to Christmas reason to lament, O tempora, O mores! The centennial observance of our current church building in 2013 shed light on the influence of the twentieth century on the way the Church celebrates Christmas – a very good influence indeed. In September 2013 we had our parish Hymn-Sing, featuring hymns that were sung a century ago in 1913. The surprise: not one Christmas hymn from that year would be familiar to us today.

The twentieth century has made all the difference. What happened?

The fact is, Christmas as we know and love it is largely the product of the great English choral foundations ‚Äì collegiate chapels such as King’s College, Cambridge, and great churches such as Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Particularly through the development and ensuing popularity of the services of Nine Lessons and Carols led by Boris Ord and David Willcocks at Kings, the beautiful carols, hymns and anthems we cherish made their way across the Atlantic and around the world ‚Äì thanks in no small measure to recordings.

Before the twentieth century, Protestantism, deeply influenced by its puritan strain, regarded Christmas with suspicion as ‚Äúpopish.‚Äù In the nineteenth century, the Oxford and Anglo-Catholic movements promoted the liturgical celebration of Christmas. Pioneering hymnals such as Hymns Ancient and Modern brought the hymnody promoted by English High Churchmen to the pews; but this did not reach the United States and the Episcopal Church’s hymnal until our Hymnal 1916, which was only a beginning. Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982 fully adopted the work of Anglo-Catholic musicians and hymnologists. It is hard to believe, but in 1913 they did not sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Come All Ye Faithful at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.

What Saint Thomas has now is in many people’s opinion as good as it gets for Christmas music and liturgy. But we are deeply indebted to the Church of England’s great choral foundations, which we both emulate and rival, for this wonderful repertoire.

O God, who makest us glad by the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

11:00 AM