Among the hymns we’ll sing at Friday’s Advent Christmas Vespers is one that Martin Luther wrote for his children, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” It’s a song that begins in the voice of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, as recorded in Luke. The first five stanzas lay out the angels’ Christmas announcement, concluding with a description of the signs of the swaddling clothes and the manger that will confirm for the shepherds the identity of the Christ-child who is astonishingly described as the infant “by whom the heav’ns and earth were made.”
Luther wasn’t easing into the Christmas story. This fact can’t be missed. The infant Jesus is, as the Gospel of John describes, the power behind creation. The one who spun the planets into their orbit and teased out the fathomless paths of quarks is offered to a self-absorbed humanity in this destitute infant. It’s an unimaginable assertion that would seem to welcome disbelief.
Let’s concede that the things that we experience as real were made and didn’t just happen. Why would the maker of such a cosmos be interested in singling out our one planet among all of the others for a personal visit? And by what odd impulse would such a creating power appear among us in such vulnerability? Given the circumstances of the child’s mother – under the strain of poverty, travel and homelessness – it’s a wonder the child survived at all. Some estimates place the child mortality rate in first century Palestine at 30 percent.
And yet, if true, the appearance of this child who is, himself, the creator of the universe, upends everything that we know about how the world works. The way the world works is that strength and might overpower weakness. Life pushes forth but only at the expense of another’s life – we have to eat – and then finally, finds its own death. We dream of enduring realities but nothing lasts. We look for meaning but frequently find our own meaning-making to be, like a house of cards, briefly beautiful. If things are to last, they need to be buttressed and protected against attack. It’s a dangerous world for the people and things we love.
And then an infant is born with the agenda of reworking it all in your favor. He will do this by offering his own life into the death that is our undoing.
The sixth stanza of Luther’s hymn begins the children’s (as the shepherds) response to the angels’ joyful message. The first line starts “Des laßt uns alle frölich sein” and is translated “Now let us all with gladsome cheer” which is good enough. It gets the children on board with the angels’ message and encourages us to do the same. Luther biographer Roland Bainton offered another, more circumspect translation which I think opens us up to the complex emotions that Luther would have nurtured in his own imagination. Bainton has us responding to the angels with “How glad we’ll be if it is so!”
“If it is so…” That speaks the truth. We are at the same time hopeful and incredulous. Messengers from another reality have broken into history with news that the power of creation is being made available to us through the life of a homeless infant who is promised to undo all that threatens to destroy our lives and rob them of meaning by dying himself. What they are proposing is both ridiculous and beautiful. If it’s true, it is beyond human imagining.
The happy shepherds go and Luther’s children encourage us to join them, if only to see if it is so for ourselves. It’s worth noting that the blessed ones in the salvation story are always only reacting to God’s actions. They are never implementing their own plans, they are always just along for the divine ride.
How glad we’ll be if it is so.
Dec. 6, 2017
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.
Image: Gerard van Honthorst’s “Adoration of the Child”
Oil on canvas, Height: 96 cm (37.8 in). Width: 131 cm (51.6 in)
The Uffizi Gallery, Italy