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I hope everyone had a good Christmas, despite the circumstances in various countries this year.

May I wish those who observe it in the UK and the Commonwealth a happy Boxing Day.

In Ireland, December 26 is observed as St Stephen’s Day.

You can read a history of both Boxing Day and St Stephen’s Day below:

Boxing Day – a history

St Stephen was the Church’s first martyr. His trial and death comprise Acts 7. Some might be surprised to find in the first few verses of Acts 8 that Saul of Tarsus — later St Paul the Apostle — was instrumental in Stephen’s death.

This post has two interesting videos about Stephen’s life and the example he has set for all Christians:

St Stephen, the first martyr

The next post has expositions from Acts 7 and Acts 8:1-3 about Stephen’s final hours. The post also explains the charity that made Boxing Day a long standing tradition. It ends with an exploration of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas about the Bohemian monarch’s dispensing charity ‘on the feast of Stephen’ in severe winter weather as well as the his alarming martyrdom:

December 26 — St Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day and more

I plan to post again on Christmas on Sunday. Monday is a public holiday here in the UK and Ireland because Boxing/St Stephen’s Day falls on a Saturday. The last time this happened was in 2015. Being able to extend Christmas is always a bonus.

December 26 is full of history.

Before I begin, here is a beautiful painting of the Holy Family:

File:Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo 008.jpg

The Holy Family with dog, hangs in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo painted it between 1645 and 1650. He was born late December 1617, baptized January 1, 1618 and died on April 3, 1682.

Murillo was a prolific painter of both religious and secular themes. Until the 19th century, he was Spain’s best known artist. His work influenced many other European painters, including Gainsborough.

St Stephen’s Day

Stephen was the Church’s first martyr.

Students of the Bible and readers who have been following my series on Acts this year, will recall his story. Saul of Tarsus — St Paul — had a huge role to play in Stephen’s stoning.

Stephen was the first to offer an apologetic for a belief in Jesus:

Acts 7:2b-8 – Stephen, deacon, appearing before the court in the temple, apologetics, Abraham

Acts 7:9-16 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, Joseph

Acts 7:17-22 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, Moses

Acts 7:23-29 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, Moses meeting with his people — the Israelites in slavery

Acts 7:30-34 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, God, Jesus, Moses called from exile, burning bush

Acts 7:35-43 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, God, Jesus, Moses the deliverer, Ten Commandments, idolatry

Acts 7:44-50 – Stephen, temple court, apologetics, the history of the temple, Moses, Joshua, King David, King Solomon. The post also includes the account of his stoning in the last few verses of Acts 7.

Acts 8:1-3 – Stephen, Saul, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria

The following post explains more in video. Unfortunately, the first video is no longer available, but the others are:

St Stephen, the first martyr

In Europe, St Stephen’s Day has been one of popular celebrations, sometimes revelry, as it comes right after Christmas.

Boxing Day

Of course, here in Britain and parts of the Commonwealth, we celebrate Boxing Day:

Boxing Day – a history

One detail I discovered more about was the money box — Christmas box — from the 17th and 18th centuries:

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.[6]

I watched the BBC Two Christmas special, The Sweet Makers, in which historian Dr Annie Gray brought a Christmas box to show the bakers and confectioners. It was a painted terracotta box that one dropped on the floor to open. Dr Gray said that one recipient wrote in his journal that he made a year’s salary with that Christmas box alone. He was the exception, not the rule!

The origin of those boxes is unclear but involves one or more of the following traditions:

The European tradition, which has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in areas of worship to collect donations to the poor. Also, it may come from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era, wherein metal boxes placed outside churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen,[9] which in the Western Church falls on the same day as Boxing Day.

Here is another:

Great sailing ships when setting sail would have a sealed box containing money on board for good luck. Were the voyage a success, the box was given to a priest, opened at Christmas and the contents then given to the poor.

Christmas carol — Good King Wenceslas

A popular traditional carol is Good King Wenceslas, which describes an event that took place on December 26.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Wenceslas (c. 907 – 935) was a duke in Bohemia. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I elevated him to a king after his brutal death, largely for his piety, just government and famous works of charity.

Wikipedia tells us (emphases mine):

Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death in the 10th century, when a cult of Wenceslas rose up in Bohemia and in England.[3] Within a few decades of Wenceslas’ death, four biographies of him were in circulation.[4][5] These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex iustus, or “righteous king”—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.[6]

Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, a preacher from 12th century says:[7][8]

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II,[9] who himself also walked ten miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.[10]

Wenceslas’s long walk on December 26 is the subject of the carol:

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.

In 1853, an English high churchman, John Mason Neale, took the melody “Tempus adest floridum” (“It is time for flowering”), a 13th-century spring carol, and wrote the following verses, which might be a translation of a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

The carol received widespread criticism for decades. That said, I’m glad it survived. I heard a choir sing it at our local Christmas lighting ceremony this year. It’s beautiful:

Poor Wenceslas — or Wenceslaus, real name Václav — was dogged by political and family problems. His own brother killed him.

His grandfather, Bořivoj I of Bohemia, converted to Christianity thanks to Sts Cyril and Methodius. Wenceslaus’s mother, Drahomíra,was a pagan who converted and was baptised when she married Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia. His paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia, was responsible for young Wenceslaus’s education.

Vratislaus I died when the boy was about 13. Ludmila became regent because Wenceslas was not yet old enough to succeed his father. Drahomíra became jealous of Ludmila, not only for her position but also for the influence she had over the boy. So, she had her mother-in-law murdered:

Ludmila was at Tetín Castle near Beroun when assassins murdered her on September 15, 921. She is said to have been strangled by them with her veil. She was at first buried in the church of St. Michael at Tetín, but her remains were later removed, probably by Wenceslas,[3] to the church of St. George in Prague, which had been built by his father.[4]

Mother-in-law out of the way, Drahomíra became regent and, oddly, began persecuting Christians. A few years later, at the age of 17 or 18, Wenceslas was able to rule in his own right. Note the reference to his brother below:

he took control of the government. He placed the duchy under the protection of Germany, introduced German priests, and favoured the Latin rite instead of the old Slavic, which had gone into disuse in many places for want of priests.[2] To prevent disputes between him and his younger brother Boleslav, they divided the country between them,[clarification needed] assigning to the latter a considerable territory.[4]

Wenceslas also exiled his wicked mother.

He had to contend with enemy rulers and adversarial regional alliances during his reign.

Worst of all was his murderous brother, Boleslav.

In September 935:

a group of nobles allied with Wenceslas’s younger brother Boleslav plotted to kill him. After Boleslav invited Wenceslas to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav’s companions, Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa, fell on the duke and stabbed him to death.[5] As the duke fell, Boleslav ran him through with a lance.[4]

According to Cosmas of Prague, in his Chronica Boëmorum of the early 12th century, one of Boleslav’s sons was born on the day of Wenceslas’s death. Because of the ominous circumstance of his birth, the infant was named Strachkvas, which means “a dreadful feast”.[5]

What a man Wenceslas was. What a family he had. What piety and charity he displayed in the face of such adversity.

Along with her grandson, Ludmila was also elevated to sainthood. Ludmila is the patron saint of Bohemia, converts, duchesses, widows and, not surprisingly, those who have problems with in-laws.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas to all my readers around the world! Have a marvellous day!

The painting above dates from 1622.  It is called Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, a Dutch Golden Age painter, studied in Italy and took his influences from Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, as you can see from the way the light plays on the Holy Family and the shepherds.

Gospel reading

The Christmas Gospel reading is John 1:1-14, sometimes extending to John 1:18, which adds John the Baptist’s prophecy (verse 15) and this beautiful verse:

14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

These posts explain more:

Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

More about Christmas

These posts have more reflections about Christmas:

Unto us a child is born

Compliments of the season to all my readers! (features Dr Paul Copan on the manger scene)

A Lutheran defence of Nativity scenes and crucifixes

Christmas prayer intentions

Martin Luther on the birth of Jesus

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

Jesuit astronomer discusses the Star of Bethlehem (2016)

The Christmas tree — a history (related to Christianity)

Christmas gifts — a history (and a Christian defence thereof)

Christmas feasting and revelry (the rehabilitation of Christmas)

Christmas carols

Christmas would not be complete without carols:

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

I am adding a new one to the list.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem, Christmas Bells, during the Civil War.

Accounts differ as to whether he composed the poem in 1863 or 1864, but, whatever the case, Longfellow’s life during the Civil War years was not a happy one.

What Saith the Scripture? has an excellent article from 2001 by Tom Stewart on Longfellow, his family, Christmas Bells and related Scripture verses. A summary and excerpts follow.

The Civil War started in April 1861. In early July, a lingering heat wave settled over the Boston area. The Longfellow family lived in neighbouring Cambridge, with Longfellow teaching at Harvard. The poet’s beloved wife Frances — Fanny — wrote in her journal on July 9 about their daughters:

We are all sighing for the good sea breeze instead of this stifling land one filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight.

On July 10, Fanny cut 7-year-old Edie’s hair. The locks were so beautiful that Fanny decided to preserve them in sealing wax. Tragedy struck:

Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. The longed for sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny’s dress– immediately wrapping her in flames.

Fanny ran from the room where Edie and Allegra were and dashed to Longfellow’s study. He tried frantically, but in vain, to extinguish the flames with a nearby throw rug, which was too small to be effective:

Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances– severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning.

Longfellow was still suffering from his burns when his wife’s funeral took place. He was also overcome by grief. He did not attend.

It was at this time that he began to grow his trademark beard:

Incidentally, the trademark full beard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow arose from his inability to shave after this tragedy.

At Christmastime in 1961, he wrote:

How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.

On July 10, 1862 — the first anniversary of the incident — he wrote:

I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.

On Christmas Day that year, he wrote:

A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.

More sadness followed. Longfellow’s son Charles served as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac. Around Christmas 1863, Longfellow received news that Charles had been seriously injured:

with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes.

Therefore:

The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow’s journal.

By Christmas 1864, Charles was still alive, Abraham Lincoln had been re-elected and the Civil War was about to end. Longfellow was inspired to write Christmas Bells (emphasis mine below):

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Johnny Marks, a Jewish man who loved Christmas, wrote the music for I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, recorded many times by various artists past and present. The lyrics were also amended to make them timeless. The following video has the Longfellow story (albeit with the 1863 date) and the 20th century carol we know:

Christmas news 2017

Christians in Baghdad are celebrating this year:

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has taken a leaf out of President Donald Trump’s playbook, emphasising Christianity, the military and first responders. On December 24, the Press Association reported:

Theresa May has urged Britons to take pride in the country’s Christian heritage at Christmas because it gives everyone the confidence to practice their religion “free from question or fear”.

In her Christmas message, the Prime Minister also paid tribute to the “heroes” in the emergency services who responded to the Grenfell Tower fire and “abhorrent” terror attacks in Manchester and London.

She also said:

And the thousands of volunteers in our country who will give up their time to make someone else’s Christmas that little bit better: from faith inspired projects like the Churches Together initiative in my own constituency – to aid workers helping those in war-torn parts of the world.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us celebrate all those selfless acts – and countless others – that epitomise the values we share: Christian values of love, service and compassion that are lived out every day in our country by people all faiths and none.

Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear.

Let us remember those around the world today who have been denied those freedoms – from Christians in some parts of the Middle East to the sickening persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

And let us reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety.

So this Christmas, whatever our faith, let us come together confident and united in the values we share. And wherever you are at this special time of year, let me wish you all a very happy Christmas.

I could be mistaken, but I do not recall a religious message from a Prime Minister in decades. Well done, Mrs May. May God bless you and your husband this Christmas and in the year ahead.

May everyone reading this enjoy a very happy Christmas!

The painting above dates from 1622.  It is called Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, a Dutch Golden Age painter, studied in Italy and took his influences from Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, as you can see from the way the light plays on the Holy Family and the shepherds.

You can find out more in the following post:

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

For more on John 1, see:

Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)

Lutherans might appreciate these posts:

Martin Luther on the birth of Jesus

A Lutheran defence of Nativity scenes and crucifixes

These are also helpful:

Christmas prayer intentions

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

The_Donald‘s contributors have been discussing our Lord Jesus in some of their posts. This year, a few of them have rediscovered Christianity. In this post (sadly, language alert), someone cited Isaiah 53:1-6:

53 Who has believed what he has heard from us?[a]
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected[b] by men,
    a man of sorrows[c] and acquainted with[d] grief;[e]
and as one from whom men hide their faces[f]
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

In the midst of our celebrations, may we always remember and be ever grateful for the one sufficient sacrifice our Lord made for us.

Let us pray that more people will come to Christ this year. I was moved by what The_Donald’s posters had to say. Here are five separate comments, the last of which is the Roman Catholic Grace:

Cold Case Christianity. Powerful stuff from a life long atheist and veteran homicide detective. Powerful evidence of Christ. I used to be hardcore atheist and specifically anti-theist. I couldn’t deny the evidence presented. And ultimately – what if someone is wrong about believing in God (for real) – worst case scenario you become a better person. Worst case scenario for atheism is way worse. That was only a small step on an ongoing walk but it spoke to me.

It’s really sad that someone who only desired the best in people would make people angry. He led such a life of self-sacrifice, that I desire my character to be like His.

And if God be for us, who can stand against?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Bless us, o Lord, and these thy gifts for which we are about to receive. And from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.

 

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.  John 1:14 (KJV)

Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Today’s painting is ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779).  He was a Protestant from Bohemia who later became a Catholic.  In 1754, he was appointed Director of the Vatican school of painting.

You can read all about it in my 2009 post, Happy Christmas, everyone! That entry also has an excellent Anglican reflection for the day — highly recommended.

John 1 is an annual Gospel reading for Christmas. You can read more about this beautiful passage in the following posts:

Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

More Christmas reflections can be found here:

Compliments of the season to all my readers! (features Dr Paul Copan on the manger scene)

A Lutheran defence of Nativity scenes and crucifixes

Christmas prayer intentions

Martin Luther on the birth of Jesus

Those wishing to find out more about our favourite Christmas carols might enjoy:

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

Wherever you are and whatever you do — have a blessed, happy and peaceful day!

As Christmas really is just around the corner, why not take a few minutes to read the stories behind a few famous Christmas carols?

I hope you enjoy these past posts of mine which reveal several interesting facts:

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘Carol of the Bells’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

(Photo credit: courtesy of Ripon Cathedral)

Christmas nativity Federico Baroccio 1597 3massketeersblogspotcomYesterday’s post has a reminder about the Advent resources on this blog.

There are also a number of Christmas-related posts, which are on my Christianity / Apologetics page all year round. They are helpful for those new to the faith as well as children.

These are as follows:

Christmas

Happy Christmas, everyone!

The Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

The Christmas story according to St Luke

The Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

Unto us a child is born

Compliments of the season to all my readers! (features Dr Paul Copan on the manger scene)

The case for Xmas — yes, Xmas

Christmas prayer intentions

Martin Luther on the birth of Jesus

Carol services: ‘Christmas as secular entertainment’

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

Jesus, the ‘born leader’

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

Come let us adore Him

Famous Christmas carols

‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘Carol of the Bells’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

This Christmas season I have featured a number of posts on carols as well as Dr Paul Copan‘s theological perspectives from his article ‘The First Christmas: Myths and Realities’. (Previous posts on this article include ‘Compliments of the season to all my readers!’ and ‘Angel imagery in Christmas carols’.)

Copan, a theologian and author, has written several books about Christianity in light of the Bible. Highly recommended, in my opinion, is his book Is God a Moral Monster? It gives an excellent explanation of God’s actions in the Old Testament.

In his first Christmas article (see the section called Docetism in Our Hymnody and Theology), Copan cautions us against potential heresy with regard to Jesus (emphases outside of the bullet points mine):

This line from “Away in a Manger” is quite familiar to us: “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. . . .” This picture presents a Jesus who apparently never cried as an infant—and perhaps that he never soiled his diapers and never made a mess eating as baby. However, we must be careful about overemphasizing Jesus’ deity and underemphasizing his humanity. This is the heresy of “docetism.” (The word docetism is a derived from the Greek dokeō, meaning “(I) appear, seem.” The Christ seemed human but really wasn’t.)

This is a version of Gnosticism, which came to full bloom in the second century AD. It emphasized the following ideas: (a) a secret, saving knowledge (gnōsis) or illumination is available only to a select “enlightened” few; ignorance, not sin, is the ultimate human problem; (b) the body/matter is evil, and the spirit/soul is good—a belief that tended to produce extreme self-denial (asceticism); (c) an eternal dualism exists between a good Being/God and an inferior evil being/god (who created matter); so the creator in Genesis is an inferior intermediary between the ultimate/true God (the Pleroma—“Fullness”) and this world; (d) history is unimportant and insignificant; if Jesus (the Christ) played any part in Gnostic belief systems, he only appeared to be human but was really divine; God couldn’t take on an evil human body or suffer on a cross.

We can commit the same Gnostic error by focusing on Jesus’ divinity and downplaying his humanity. The same applies to Jesus’ temptation. We may say, “Of course Jesus didn’t sin. He was God.” The Scriptures portray Jesus as someone who struggled; it was not a breeze for him to do the will of his Father. He was not play-acting:

  • Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
  • Hebrews 5:8: Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 

So, when you sing “Away in a Manger” this Christmas season, you may want to do what our family does—adjust the words a bit: “The little Lord Jesus *some* crying he makes”!

In my Christmas 2012 post, I featured part of an article by Dr Paul Copan concerning the birth of Jesus Christ, ‘The First Christmas: Myths and Realities’.

Copan, a theologian and author, has written several books about Christianity in light of the Bible. This is what he has to say concerning the imagery of angels in Christmas carols, contrasting that with Scripture (emphasis mine in the paragraph preceding the bullet points below):

In a verse of the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we come upon these words about angels:

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world.

In the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” they are called to “Wing your flight o’er all the earth.”

The Bible speaks of angelic beings such as cherubim and seraphim, which have wings (e.g., Isaiah 6). However, what most people don’t know is that the specific usage of the word “angels” in Scripture indicates that they do not have wings. They always appear in the form of men.

  • Gen. 18-19: Three representatives of Yahweh come to check out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The three appear to Abraham and then Lot (two come to him while the third goes to Gomorrah). Although they appear as “three men” (Gen. 18:2). Abraham immediately recognizes them as manifestations of the Lord. When they appear to Lot, (they are called “two angels” (Gen. 19:1), and Lot takes longer to recognize them. In Heb. 13:2, which refers to these passages, the author writes that some have “entertained angels without knowing it.” This suggests that these angels appear as men—without wings. If they had wings, they would surely be recognized!
  • Judges 13:3-6: First, we read that “the angel of the LORD” (v. 3) appeared to Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother). Then she reports to her husband: “A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome.”
  • Daniel 3:24-28: Nebuchadnezzar sees “four men” in the fiery furnace (v. 25). He then says, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him” (v. 28).
  • Resurrection narratives: Although we read in the two of the Gospel resurrection narratives that angels are at the tomb (Matthew 28:1-5; “an angel of the Lord”; John 20:12: “[Mary Magdalene] saw two angels in white”). The other two Gospels speak of them as men (Mark 16:5: “they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe”; Luke 24:4 “two men . . . in dazzling clothing”).
  • Acts 10: An angel of God (10:3) appears to Cornelius in Acts 10, the angel is later on referred to as a man in shining clothes (10:30).

Whilst this should not detract from our enjoyment of Christmas carols, it is important for us to know how angels appear in the Bible.

My mother learned to sing this carol in Latin, customary in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church when it was ‘Adeste Fideles’. In fact, she never really got to grips with the English words and at times muttered quietly about the loss of the Latin lyrics at Christmas Mass.

Little did she — or I — know about the history of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge. Also noteworthy is the organist’s mastery of David Willcocks’s arrangement — wow!

It would have surprised my mother to find that a Catholic priest wrote the English lyrics to this carol. Frederick Oakeley, received his Classics degree from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1824. After his ordination in the Church of England, he became a fellow and the chaplain to Balliol College. From 1827, Oakeley became interested in the tractarian — Oxford — movement, known as High Church Anglicanism. This caused him no end of controversy in a subsequent appointment as the minister of Margaret Chapel, where he served between 1839-1845. During that time he added various elements of High Church worship to the services and met with accusations of ‘ritualism’.  Oakeley moved so closely to the Roman Catholic Church that his clerical orders were withdrawn until such time as he would retract his beliefs.

Oakeley wasted no time in crossing the Tiber. In 1845, he joined John Henry Newman’s religious community and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.  He attended seminary and was ordained in 1848, at which point he began to serve at Catholic churches in London. Thirty years before his death in 1880, he was appointed a canon of the Diocese of Westminster, a post in which he served faithfully.

‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ has several verses, not all of which are sung together. This is partly because the carol would take too much time to sing. The other reason is that not all the verses are intended for Christmas. One verse, for instance, is to be sung only at Midnight Mass or on Christmas Day. Another verse, the eighth, is intended solely for Epiphany services. Oakeley translated the verses we use most commonly today from Latin into English. Other lyricists were responsible for writing or translating additional verses.

That much is straightforward. The authorship of the music to ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ is less clear.  Most music scholars today agree that a Catholic layman, John Francis Wade, is the author of the carol we know today. Before that, the English composer John Reading, an Anglican, was also thought to have written the melody. King John IV of Portugal’s name has also been considered. John IV was a composer in his own right and owned one of the largest libraries of music in the world at that time. John IV’s daughter Catherine of Braganza, incidentally, was the wife of England’s Charles II. The two married several years after John’s death.

Now let us look at the life of John Francis Wade (1711-1786). Although he was English, it is unclear whether he was born in England or in Douai, in northern France. In any event, he was a Jacobite, and, if he was born in France, his parents might well have been sympathetic to the cause. The Jacobite movement started when Charles II’s brother, James II of England, was deposed by Queen Mary II and King William III. (We know them today collectively as William and Mary.)

The Jacobite movement is complex and combined various alliances of British Catholics and Protestants for either religious or political reasons. Catholics, like Wade, wanted a restoration of Stuart successors because they would be more sympathetic to their religious practice.  The French allied with the Jacobites and planned to invade Britain. Bonnie Prince Charlie — James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart — was seen to be as the hope of this movement in its later years. He instigated the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden (emphasis on the second syllable, which is pronounced ‘lud’).

During the height of this struggle, however, Jacobites communicated with each other in coded language. ‘Bethlehem’ meant ‘England’. Published hymns and poems were embellished with Stuart imagery — oak leaves and white roses — to denote that they contained Jacobite messages. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was one of these. It was thought to have been Wade’s ode to the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with ‘faithful’ referring to Jacobites.

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