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Ancient Christmas Sermons: Making the old, old story new again

People look forward to singing Christmas carols. Meanwhile, each Christmas preachers struggle to compose yet another sermon that will engage worshipers. A feature story presenting a new view of preaching at Christmas.

The famous man in the pulpit apologizes for preaching longer than he intended to on Christmas Day.

A celebrated preacher mentions how hard it was to prepare a sermon for "this day which has dawned once more, brought round again by the cycle of the year."

And another pastor admits that preaching "is not something which attracts us much in our tradition. We hear a man speaking. And who is he?"

You've probably heard or said similar things from the pulpit. Especially at Christmas, when so many other things tug at our attention, both preachers and people in the pew struggle to discover what's new in the "old, old story."

But would it surprise you to learn that the situations described above all happened long ago? It was more than 1,600 years ago that Jerome apologized for his lengthy sermon and Augustine wondered how to say something new about Christ's birth. And the guy who noted that not everyone is wild about sermons? That was John Calvin, preaching in the 16th century.

As the book Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel shows, reading ancient Christmas sermons and carols can yield remarkably relevant insights into how the Christmas message connects with our own lives.

Getting "up" for Christmas Day worship

The book, scheduled for release October 1, 2004, grew out of an independent study that David Vroege did while taking a class from John Witvliet at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Vroege, now pastor of All Nations Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, began by searching for sermons on all the events of Jesus' life. He and Witvliet soon realized that such a project would fill several books.

"After deciding to focus on Christmas, I would pull out some sermons that I thought were especially interesting, and John and I would enjoy and discuss them. We narrowed down which sermons to include. The introductions to the book and to each sermon grew out of those conversations; however, the actual writing was John's work," Vroege says.

The sermon collection goes from Jerome, the 4th century scholar who translated the entire Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into Latin, to John Calvin, who published his Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536. After each sermon there's a Christmas hymn, written in the same century as the preceding sermon.

"We hope this collection will help readers approach Christmas anew, to see again its life-giving message," says Witvliet, who is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and teaches worship, theology, and music at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Reading through ancient sermons reminded Vroege that "preachers in every age have dealt with inattentiveness and apathy during a sermon. Perhaps the Christmas story has always suffered from over-familiarity-even for the person who only shows up to worship at Christmas."

Yet seeing how others faced this challenge 500 or 1,000 or even 1,500 years ago inspired him. "The biblical and theological breadth in this volume gets me 'up' spiritually. It reminds me to think about my congregation's make-up on Christmas, so I preach more evangelistically than I would on Sundays from week to week," Vroege says.

Singing the communion of the saints

Witvliet says the book's sermons-and, especially, its songs-can "stoke awareness that we stand in continuity with hosts of believers across time and space. Christmas is the one time of year when worshipers who otherwise prefer new music often want to sing old songs."

Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel includes hymns such as "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," "In Dulci Jubilo" (which became "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"), and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

"These hymn texts compress the great themes and images of the Christmas gospel into lilting and memorable poetic lines.that continue to be regularly sung in Christian worship to this day. Their current use is a sign that the historical distance between ancient and contemporary Christians can be spanned remarkably well in the context of meditation, prayer, and worship," Witvliet says.

Most of the hymn texts were composed before the Reformation, in a millennium that American Protestants often ignore. Singing and studying hymn origins is a way to experience the communion of saints expressed in the Apostles' Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Reading the ancient sermons in this new collection yields equally satisfying insights.

New scriptural insights

Pastors today often think they must base their Christmas sermons on Matthew 1Luke 2John 1, or, possibly, Isaiah 9.

But research surprised Vroege with "the fascinating variety of biblical themes that preachers have drawn out of the narrative of Jesus' birth. Suddenly, all manner of scripture is available to Christmas! We came across so many quotes that connect Jesus' birth with creation that John Witvliet included them in a printed liturgy for an annual Lessons and Carols service," Vroege says.

The Venerable Bede, Guerric of Igny, John Wyclif, and Martin Luther were masters at using scripture to interpret scripture. Their sermons reveal that each had memorized large portions of the Bible, so they could help worshipers see more deeply into God's work.

"I will savor how the story of Jesus' birth has connections with all parts of Scripture, not just the particular prophecies about it. For instance, isn't it interesting that Jesus, described as the 'bread of life' in John 6, was placed in a manger, the eating dish for God's creatures in that stable?" Vroege remarks.

Jerome, who often did a phrase-by-phrase commentary in his sermons, worked hard to show how the Bible connected to his parishioners' lives. One Christmas he emphasized Luke 2:7b: "There was no room for them in the inn."

With great pastoral sensitivity, Jerome explained, "The poor should take great comfort from this. Joseph and Mary, the mother of the Lord, had no servant boy, no maid servant..There was no other place unoccupied for the birth of the Savior except a manger, a manger to which were tethered cattle and donkeys.. I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay."

More theological lenses

Vroege says it's easy for "pastors to fall into the trap of preaching every sermon, Christmas included, through the same theological lens." No matter where the sermon starts, a pastor might default to the same theme, such as the atonement, incarnation, discipleship, or social justice.

That's not all bad. Remarking on Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, Harry Boonstra, an author and retired minister and professor, says, "I am struck how each preacher keeps coming back to the mystery of the incarnation. Even though they emphasize different elements, the incomprehensible marvel and wonder is stressed by all. Urging the congregation to praise is also found in each sermon, but especially in Thomas a Kempis' paean of praise. It's wonderful!"

Overall, though, it's better for a congregation to receive a more balanced theological diet of sermons preached from different perspectives (the Holy Spirit, God the Creator), modes (indicative: we are; imperative: we should), and purposes (teach new believers, encourage discipleship).

The sermon collection addresses theological issues of each era, teaching sometimes by negative example. "In Gregory one sees the beginning of Christian detestation for the Jews and strong warning against the evils of astrology. Bede condemns the 'blasphemy' of those who do not believe in Mary's perpetual virginity. Luther lambasts 'Turks, popes, and sectarians,' " Boonstra says.

Thanks to reading ancient sermons, Vroege says, "I will aim for more creative forms in sermon delivery and structure, especially at Christmas."

Sermons and carols for people in the pew, not just pastors

Many Christians attend church hoping to hear sermons that connect horizontally with their lives and the day's issues. But services enriched by ideas from long-ago preachers and composers can help worshipers frame their own stories vertically, within the context of "the old, old story."

Boonstra suggests that you don't have to wait for your preacher to read and apply insights from Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel. You can enjoy reading the sermons for yourself.

"I am not in the habit of reading sermons very often. I'm glad I read these and can honestly urge others to read them during Advent. They will receive rich insight and be able to share in the wonder of these ancient preachers," he says.

Vroege has high hopes for people who delve into ancient Christmas sermons: "I hope readers will experience Christmas less as an isolated event and more as part of an ongoing story. This is a real challenge to our culture's Christmas practices. I hope that such a reader will be more certain of Christ's coming in the flesh and understand it as evidence of God's love. I hope that certainty evokes happiness, joy, and eagerness for Christ's second coming. In short, I hope readers will renew their relationship to God through Christ."

Learn More

Order Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel. Read more about how Dave Vroege has applied ancient insights to his preaching, at Christmas and beyond.

Read an interview with John Witvliet about Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel.

Not everyone feels joyful at Christmas. Here's how to design a service for those who grieve during holidays.

Intergenerational worship experts often note that at Christmas, many congregations are more receptive to involving children and youth in planning and leading worship. For example, kids and adults can work together to present a Christmas drama.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking:

  • What percent of people at your Christmas services come only once or twice a year? How can you use the sermon, music, and other worship elements to connect more strongly with them?
  • What are your pastor's favorite doctrinal themes? In what ways has emphasizing these themes helped form your congregation's spiritual life and identity?
  • Regardless of which passage the pastor starts with, how often does the sermon end up at a favorite theme? Which important Christian themes receive less attention? What is the most sensitive way you can discuss this issue with your pastor?
  • According to Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, even in churches that prefer contemporary worship and music styles, people like singing older songs at Christmas. At Christmas-and throughout the year-how can you strengthen your congregation's sense of belonging to a communion of saints that transcends space and time?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers experience their place within the Christmas story?

Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

  • Did you discuss ancient Christmas sermons or carols in a church education class?
  • Did you brainstorm creative ways to use visual symbols or tactile elements during Advent, so that people gain a deeper understanding of what Christ's birth means?
  • Have you designed a class or sermon series on how scripture interprets scripture? What's an easy way for children to understand this concept?
  • As many ancient Christmas sermons explained, Jesus entered this world in poverty. His humble station made it hard for people to accept his divinity. In what ways have you helped congregational members see past someone's poverty so members can learn from that person?