How glad we’ll be if it’s so
How glad we’ll be if it’s so
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
- Archives of Devotional Writings from our Pastoral Staff
- “Some Lent!”
- (Your vocation here) of people
- A Point of Privilege
- Advent = Hope
- All will be well
- Are we willing to cross the road for one another?
- Can we learn to be happy?
- Come and See
- Did Jesus really suffer?
- Doing without in a life of plenty
- Exiles with Vision
- Fear not!
- Feeling at Home
- Finding Purpose in the Journey
- Finding Words for Times Like These
- Forgiving others – and ourselves
- Getting down on Jesus’ level
- Have yourself a merry little Christmas — somehow
- Holy Week and Taking Out the Trash
- Holy Week: The aid station late in the semester
- Hopes & Dreams vs Life in the Wilderness
- How glad we’ll be if it’s so
- In a time of uncertainty, these things are certain
- In praise of plans B … C … D …
- In Praise of Skeptical Disciples
- In the midst of grief, God will bring life
- Is there such a thing as being too forgiving?
- It’s a Three Day Weekend!
- It’s In the Bag
- It’s What’s Happening
- Killing off our future selves
- Lessons in fire building
- Let us work for real wellness in our communities
- Life Is a Highway
- Living in the Present
- O Lord, you know I hate buttermilk
- Of Fear and Failure
- On Christian Unity: When we’re not one big happy church
- On the Bucket List
- Pray and Let God Worry
- Preparing for the world to be turned rightside up
- Recovering from an Epic Fail
- Reformation calls for examination
- Remembering among the forgetful
- Seeing beauty in brokenness
- Signs of Love
- Starting Small
- Still in the storm
- Taking a Break from the Relentless
- Talking ourselves into it
- Thankfulness leads to joyfulness
- The Funny Business of Forgiveness
- The Greatest of These is Love
- The Magi: Exemplars of Faith and Learning
- The Power of Small Conversations
- The Power of Taking a Sabbath
- The Spiritual Gift of Hindsight
- To be known
- We had hoped
- What is your base reality?
- What to do after you find your voice
- What to do on the day after
- What we know and what we don’t know
- When bad things happen
- When joy and sadness live together
- When you offer up your broken cup
- Wilderness Journeys
- Year-end time management: Keeping the main thing the main thing
- Your Valpo roots will help you grow into your future