That the Almighty God should take upon himself human form is a breathtaking thought. Through the Incarnation, heaven was joined to earth in a way never before known by men. But is that all that Christmas is about? When faced with the glory and the mystery of “God with us,” we must ask the most important question, more important than the fact that he did come: Why did God come to earth? What was the purpose of his short visit when measured against history?

The purpose of Christ’s coming, and thus the true meaning of Christmas, was perceived by several people whose words have been recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel. The testimonies of these men and women, filled with the Holy Spirit, should be central in our minds as we gaze into the cradle seeking to understand its mystery.

The Angel Gabriel brought the tidings to the Virgin Mary that she had been selected to be the mother of our Lord. Of Jesus he said: “Of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33). There can be no kingdom without a king. Jesus is king. A king must have sovereignty, territory, and a people. Thus Scripture pronounces that Jesus has come to be “king of kings,” lord over all creation, and the bridegroom who has a redeemed people called his bride, the Church.

When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, she burst into song. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she began, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Were she not herself a sinner she would never have had need of a Saviour. She rejoiced because this son whom she would bear would be the author of a second birth from above. The Christmas news is that Jesus is the Saviour from sin.

The father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, said that God “has visited and redeemed his people” and “has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” And his son John would “go before the Lord to prepare his way” and as a prophet be called “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins.” This redemption in Jesus came “through the tender mercy of our God.”

When Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the temple, Simeon, who was “looking for the consolation of Israel,” was “inspired by the Spirit” to say as he held Jesus in his arms: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” What Simeon had waited for he now saw; what he had yearned for he now received—the salvation of God.

The aged prophetess Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” When she saw Jesus and heard Simeon, the Scripture says “she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Here was the first woman preacher after the birth of Jesus testifying that the long promised Messiah who would bring redemption had come.

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Surely it is no accident that Luke alone has given notice of this distinctive witness to the purpose of the Incarnation. These witnesses of whom Luke speaks shared the understanding, each expressing it in a particular way, that the purpose of the Incarnation was man’s redemption.

The birth of Jesus speaks of life, but a cross lurked in the shadow of the manger. The angels sang of his coming, and the heavens reflected his glory to the Wise Men who saw his “star in the East,” but this infant was the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

There is more to the Christmas story than the manger. Whichever way we turn we hear the sound of celestial music, the noise of marching human feet; we see the glory light, and the crude wooden crossbars on which the Son of Man was to hang; we hear the multitudes singing—from every tribe and nation and kindred and people and tongue. They sing—oh, how they sing!—then, now, and forever: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”

Provoking To Good Works

A group of influential American evangelicals, meeting in Chicago on Thanksgiving weekend, drafted an admirably forthright and timely declaration on social concern. It speaks to evangelical indifference toward prevailing injustice and condemns the collective tendencies toward evil in the United States. Of course, these issues have been addressed innumerable times, but perhaps never before in such clear and concise terms by so representative an assembly of American evangelicals (see also news story, page 38). The implications of this or that aspect of the statement can be questioned, but the basic thrust is absolutely biblical.

It remains a great challenge for this group and for all other Christian believers to demonstrate in deed that the Lord Jesus Christ, as the statement declares, “through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.”

A lamentable lack in the statement, particularly in view of the fact that it was drawn up during the Thanksgiving season, is its overlooking the growing sense of ingratitude in the United States. All of us have some things to be thankful for, and most of us have a great many. As we acknowledge our faults before God, we should not fail to give attention to our lack of appreciation for what is good in America. As is often quoted, our democracy is the worst system in history, except for every other one that has ever been tried.

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One of the strengths of the American dream is the willingness to keep pressing on in the task of social justice. The Chicago declaration is a major contribution to this end. Some individual evangelicals, churches, and organizations have been in the forefront in the exercise of compassion, but too many others have been content to be indifferent spectators, or simply to expect big government to solve social problems. The turmoil of the sixties awakened evangelical consciences for a time. More recent religious trends that emphasize personal experience have unfortunately taken a toll in the evangelical social consciousness. We need to raise again our level of sensitivity to the injustice and suffering around us, for God’s sake.

Thank You, Dr. Menninger

Whatever Became of Sin? Evangelicals have been asking that question for many years, exhorting the world to deal more seriously with the problem of evil. Now the question is the title of a new book by Dr. Karl Menninger, the eminent psychiatrist. Coming from him, it promises to have a considerable effect upon the public mind. For that we can be grateful. Emphasis on the reality of sin was never more needed.

What is disappointing about Menninger’s work is that he has been unable to define sin adequately or to find a standard for it. The best he can do is to say that sin is, at heart, “a refusal of the love of others.” The presupposition is that someone is “hurt.” But this still leaves us with the problem of determining what is in another’s best interests, at both short and long range. The fact is that there is really no human way of knowing. Only God knows, and unless we rely on his revelation, the Bible, we are often at a loss to say what is hurtful and what is not.

That basic weakness notwithstanding, there are many valuable insights in the book for Christians, and particularly for clergymen, whom Menninger addresses at some length. Menninger has long been known for his view that religion and psychiatry are closely related. The book is published by Hawthorn.

George Macdonald’S Broken Music

“It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that book-stall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” And crossing that frontier led C. S. Lewis eventually to embrace Christianity. The author of Phantastes was George Macdonald.

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Suffering from tuberculosis and poverty, Macdonald visited the United States in 1872–73 for a lecture tour. The Scottish writer’s first Boston lecture—he eventually visited Chicago, Michigan, and Canada, as well as New England—met with unprecedented success. One man declared “with his eyes full of tears” that “there had been nothing like it since Dickens.” And the lecture manager said, “See here, Mr. Macdonald, why didn’t you say you could do this sort of thing? We’d have got 300 dollars a lecture for you!”

Macdonald was a former minister; in 1852 his church had charged him with heresy and German theology, and in 1853 he had left the active ministry. He wrote, lectured, and occasionally preached until his death in 1905. His rather sentimental, mediocre novels deserved their fate of oblivion. But his beautiful fantasies, among which Lilith, Phantastes, the Curdie books, “The Golden Key,” “The Wise Woman,” and “The Carasoyn” are the best known, still are read and enjoyed. (Thanks to Eerdmans Publishing Company, most of these are now easier to obtain; for the centennial of Macdonald’s lecture tour Eerdmans has published a two-volume set of his short stories with a good introduction by editor Glenn Sadler.)

Regardless of what his deacons thought, Macdonald was a thoroughly committed Christian. Images of redemption can be found in every story he wrote. He tried to infuse his fantastic plots with all the glory Christ brought to his imagination. Macdonald knew that God’s call may not be to a traditional form of ministry. He knew also that man cheats himself by coveting understanding where none is or should be provided:

We spoil countless previous things by intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child, must—he cannot help himself—become a little man, that is, a dwarf. He will, however, need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very large creature indeed. If any strain of my “broken music” makes a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

“For my part,” Macdonald said, “I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” His stories are a constant reminder of Christ’s admonition that “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

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How Many Walk To Church?

What is your church doing about the energy crisis? In our news section (see page 33) we report what some congregations are doing or considering. Now is the time for all to think about long-range implications of gas rationing, fuel oil cutbacks, and numerous other effects of the sudden awareness that the nation’s demand for energy is greater than the supply.

Non-evangelical churches have in large part abandoned Sunday-evening services and midweek prayer meetings, if indeed they ever had them. But now, in view of heating problems and gasoline shortages, alternatives to the traditional evangelical evening services need to be considered.

One possibility is cutting back on the use of the large and usually distant church building (how many walk to church?) by fostering more meetings in homes. This could be coupled (if church leaders were willing to risk it) with a grass-roots evangelical ecumenicity so that neighborhoods whose evangelical residents hie off to a score or more congregations twice each Sunday could use one of those traditional church-going times to demonstrate visible unity by meeting in a nearby home. Full-time ministers could rotate among the groups and be concerned to see that trans-denominational house gatherings stress the many truths that evangelicals hold in common rather than the comparatively few doctrines on which we differ (and because of which, along with ethnic, historical, and temperamental factors, we erect those walls of separation within the body of Christ that we call denominations).

For those who believe that denominationalism has no biblical warrant, the energy crisis could be like the Babylonian captivity that purged Israel of its idolatry. It could be a means of getting Lutherans and Baptists, Arminians and Calvinists, premillenarians and amillenarians, Pentecostals and Plymouth Brethren to meet together regularly and intimately. At present most evangelical congregations carry on such a full range of activities that little time is left for meeting with one’s Christian neighbors simply on the basis of common membership in the body of Christ.

It is true that today fewer Christians hold passionately to denominational distinctives than in the past, and that specialized efforts on campuses and on mission fields and in short-term evangelism have shown that evangelicals can work together in certain contexts. Yet the inherited weight of institutionalism, the interests of denominational leaders, the ties of family and of tradition have combined to keep denominationalism very much alive. The fact that evangelicals are able to cooperate to the extent that they do is not a cause for self-congratulation. Rather it raises the question: Why not get together even more?

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If the leaders of the many congregations in an area are willing to help with the required planning, it could mean that within every few blocks there would be a gathering of the saints who live within walking distance.

Such an outcome would be a step closer to answering one of our Lord’s prayers: “That they may all be one … so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). It is true that we already are one in Christ, but that unity is visible only to God; we effectively conceal it from ourselves and, much more, from the world. But Christ’s petition speaks of a unity that the unbelieving world can detect. A fine way to make our unity visible would be for Christians to meet together regularly and publicly in their own neighborhoods.

Energy Cut: From Asking To Telling

In an important study, West German sociologist Helga Pross warns that where free citizens are not well established in democratic values and practices, in a crisis they will readily call for authoritarian solutions. When the energy crisis burst upon complacent America, many public figures, including President Nixon, spoke of it as a “moral challenge” and called upon the citizenry to exercise self-discipline. But alas, the moral exhortation was very soon deemed inadequate, and legal controls got under way.

Are controls the only way to cut down energy consumption? If we are in fact a republic with a responsible citizenry, couldn’t we give self-discipline more of a try? Apparently the American public responded well enough to last summer’s appeal to cut down gasoline consumption that the imminent shortage was forestalled. So the possibility does seem to exist. It would probably mean filling the media with hortatory appeals, but who knows, it might work—and avoid clogging more bureaucratic channels with regulatory paperwork.

The voluntary approach would probably require some mutual admonition—meddling and snooping, in a way—on the personal level. Neighbor would encourage neighbor to turn his lights off, to share car rides, and so on. But friendly checking up, if it worked, could well be better than what seems to be the inevitable alternative—snooping and controls by Big Brother.

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Bertha’S Problems

Bertha Paxton, the red-haired daughter of a low-salaried service-station employee, was fifteen and in school when she was judged “mentally defective.” Because of a history of truancy and lack of motivation, attributable in part to cruel treatment by classmates and neglect by teachers, she was sent to the Kennedy Institute in Baltimore for evaluation. The film Bertha, produced by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation, brings the viewer face to face with a distinct personality and with the ethical issues surrounding her treatment and mental retardation in general.

One scene showed Bertha in a room decorated with a “Peanuts” poster that says, “Dogs accept people for what they are.” If so, perhaps people have something to learn from dogs. Many of those who encountered Bertha seemed to feel that she was somehow less than human, that she contaminated society by her presence, and that such persons should be eliminated. Even the professionals who tried to help her seemed lacking in empathy.

We are all responsible in some degree for the existence of this attitude. And we can all have a part in destroying it, by accepting the Berthas of our world as the human beings they are and relating to them as such. Relationship is the key. God identified with man on man’s level while yet remaining God. He did not flatter man about his condition, but neither did he ignore or belittle him. Christ is our example, and we are to “honor all men.” Those to whom Bertha was merely a statistic or subject for analysis showed the depersonalizing attitude that is the opposite of love.

No Need To Fear The Dark

The dates of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus can be pinned down with greater precision than can the date of his birth (at least in terms of the thirteen-month lunar calendar), because of their historic connection with the Jewish Passover. The early Christians did not know the actual date of the birth of Jesus, and when they began to commemorate it, they chose a day that was already significant to the pagan culture around them. The Roman festival of Saturn, commemorating a mythical Age of Gold when all men were equal, began December 17 and lasted up to seven days, often combining innocent amusements and the giving and receiving of gifts with riotous carousing that made it odious to the early Christians. In the third century, December 25 was celebrated by some rather serious rivals of the Christians, the worshipers of Mithras, as the birthday of their god, symbolized by the “Unconquered Sun,” and the early Western church deliberately chose the same day to commemorate Jesus’ birth in an effort to win over the Mithraists.

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Just as our Easter celebrations to some extent tie in with the coming of spring and the reawakening of nature, so too in the Northern Hemisphere Christmas coincides roughly with the winter solstice and the increasing light. The Easter message is infinitely more than the news of returning spring, with its recurrent but ultimately defeated revival of nature: it proclaims, not a cycle implying new declines and an ultimately final death, but a once-for-all resurrection into the everlasting household of God. And yet it is not inappropriate that for most of the world’s people, the Easter message of eternal hope is associated with the springtime harbingers of a renewed if still mortal nature. Likewise, the historic fact of the Incarnation, in which the uncreated and eternal Light of the World in a definitive way broke in upon our human darkness, is appropriately celebrated at a time when the darkening days of winter begin to recede before the advancing sun.

And yet we should not be indifferent to the danger that the crucial step made by the early Christians, that of using familiar earthly cycles as symbols and anticipations of the great and irreversible transformation wrought by God, might also be retraced. Christians should be wary of the ruinous downgrading of Easter into a festival of nature’s spring, and of the Incarnation into a festival of worldly light.

The pagan festival of the returning sun loomed even larger in the experience of the early Germanic peoples, at home in the cold expanses of northern Europe. Their native vision of hell, indeed, was not the fiery lake of John’s Apocalypse but the Firnis-winter in which the sun never returns and all turns to perpetual ice. Many scientists predict an ultimate ice-death for the world, and the sudden chilling of our Saturnalian abundance in affluent America by the energy crisis may make the Firnis-winter seem less a Nordic nightmare than an all too realistic prospect for our own future. Many of the lights in our world are being put out this year, and now we may be better able to appreciate the exultation of ancient pagans when the sun, unconquered, began to return from his wintry exile.

But even that sun will fade and cool, although our mortal eyes will doubtless close before we see it do so. How much more, then, should we praise God and give him thanks that “the true light, that enlightens every man,” came into our world, probably not on December 25, but nevertheless at a definite and irreversible point in space and history. Those who know him need never walk in darkness.

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