Christmas in the Divine Service
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," so sings a popular carol. Decorations for the season are going up all over town. But what does Christmas look like? What, exactly, is Christmas?
I heard someone lament once shortly after December 25th, "Oh, I sure wish I could have that Christmassy feeling every day!" Is Christmas a feeling, or, as we are so regularly taught by the vast array of Christmas movies and shows on television, is it a spirit? If it is, then what is that feeling or spirit? Is it happiness, the excitement of getting gifts, or the joy of giving? Are such feelings limited only to the season of Christmas?
I'm sure everyone has his or her definition of what Christmas is for them. Unfortunately, for many, it has nothing to do with Christ. In this malaise that is Christmas today, many of us Christians are quick to remind everyone: "Jesus is the reason for the season." We also counter the Santa Claus displays with our manger scenes of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and the shepherds. We put on our Christmas pageants and live Nativity scenes.
There would be no Christmas without the birth of Jesus Christ. But is Christmas really about reciting and remembering the birth narrative of Jesus? The word "Christmas" refers not to the manger in Bethlehem but literally to the "worship of Christ." As the Holy Scriptures teaches us, true worship is faith in Christ. Through the mouth of His prophet Isaiah, the LORD said to those who claimed to worship Him with their self-chosen works: "These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me." But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men (Matthew 15:8–9, NASB).
Decorations can be hung, carols can be sung, gifts can be given, and the birth narrative of Jesus can be reenacted for all sorts of reasons, the least of which could be faith. But the true worship of Christ cannot take place apart from faith that Jesus is one's Savior and God.
We are taught about the true nature of Christmas as well as what sort of "feeling" Christmas brings from an old man of Israel. His name was Simeon. As far as we know, he wasn't anyone particularly special in any kind of outward way in Israel. But he wasn't your run-of-the-mill Jew either. Luke describes him as "righteous and devout" (Luke 2:25). In other words, he was a steadfast believer in the Lord and His Word. In faith, Simeon was also anxiously awaiting the "consolation of Israel." The "consolation of Israel" was a sort of technical term among God's people. It referred to the coming of God's Messiah to save and comfort God's people with peace.
But there was something else that was unique about Simeon. It seems that one of the reasons he was so resolute in his longing for the Messiah to come was that he had received a special revelation from God. This special message personally assured him that he would see with his own eyes the Lord's Christ before he died.
When the proper number of days for Mary's purification had been observed after Jesus' birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to keep the Mosaic Law that all firstborns be dedicated to the Lord. As God's providence would have it, Simeon was there. He picked up the infant Jesus in his arms and immediately blessed God, saying, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the faces of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel" (Luke 2:29–32, KJV).
It was now truly Christmas for Simeon. With his own eyes, he saw his Messiah (Christ)—his incarnate God—his Savior! In faith, he embraced his consolation, the very gift of God's salvation! His heart was overwhelmed with eternal peace. He worshiped Christ in faith and with the words born of his faith.
What Simeon saw could not be replicated through human works or actions, nor could it be obtained through human traditions. Such an experience is God's gift to the heart. After all, Jesus is God's gift to sinners. Likewise, it is God, through His Word, who graciously reveals Jesus to the world. It is also God alone who "opens the eyes" of faith to truly see, understand, and believe that this Son of Mary is the Savior, Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11), the very one who saves us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). (See Matt. 16:17; Luke 24:30–35.)
Simeon left the temple that day with his song of faith on his lips. But that was only the beginning of the use of this Christmas song by Christians. Simeon's song has been found in the hearts and on the lips of millions of Christians for almost two millennia now. People of faith in their worship of Christ still sing it today. It has traditionally been referred to as "The Nunc Dimittis." It was so named from its first line, as found in the Latin translation: "Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace" ("Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. (Luke 2:29.)
The first trace of this canticle of praise being used in the worship liturgy of the church appears in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions as a song of dismissal. It was also incorporated into the presiding minister's concluding prayers in the 4th-century liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Since that time, the Nunc Dimittus has been included in the various Complines (word and prayer services held at the end of each day). Since the latter part of the 19th century, Lutherans have also included it in the Divine Service as a departing canticle after the distribution of the Lord's Supper. (Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, CPH, p. 315)
Your Christmas and mine are not confined to December 25th. We find Christmas, as well as Good Friday and Easter, in every Divine Service. Through God's Word of the Gospel spoken to us and His Holy Sacraments administered to us, God puts into our arms and hands of faith the Incarnate One… Our Redeemer, who brings us the comfort of sins forgiven through His sacrificial blood...our divine Reconciliator, who brings us true peace with God. The Word Made Flesh appears in the cradle of the proclaimed gospel for us to believe. In the bread and wine consecrated by His Word of promise, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, the crucified and resurrected Christ, comes to be touched, handled, and eaten by us in faith. Once we receive Him in this sacramental way, how can we not, then, depart from each Divine Service in peace?
If you and I want to have that Christmassy feeling, all we need to do is go to the Divine Service! See you in church!
May the peace of Christmas be with you all!