Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 9, 2008

Connect the Cradle to the Cross

This Sunday will be our annual children’s Christmas service at Gloria Dei.  The service we will use is one that introduces several new Advent and Christmas hymns contained in Christian Worship: Supplement.  The children will sing some of those new hymns as anthems.  One of the selections is called, “Peace Came to Earth” (Christian Worship: Supplement #707).  The text was written by Lutheran pastor and poet Jaroslav Vajda [1919-2008] in 1985.  Vajda had a wonderful gift for hymn-writing, and “Peace Came to Earth” is no exception as far as a marriage of theology and poetry is concerned.

These days I’ve been wearing multiple “hats” around the church; school children’s choir director has been among those hats.  So today we had our first rehearsal in the church for Sunday’s service.  And something struck me as the kids sang “Peace Came to Earth” while I directed them.  Stanza two says:

And who could be the same for having held
The infant in their arms and later felt
The wounded hands and side, all doubts dispelled–
Who could but sigh: Immanuel!
Who could be shout: Immanuel!

Already in the second stanza of the hymn, Vajda connects the baby Jesus in the manger to his work of salvation on the cross.  The infant in Mary’s arms would one day bear wounds from the nails driven through his hands and from the spear that struck his side.  The risen Lord still bore those wounds in his body as a testimony to his redeeming work.  And although those wounds would not inflict Jesus for some 33 years after his birth, Vajda’s text still brings the reality of the Christchild’s mission before us as we celebrate Jesus’ birth.

Christmas has become a commercialized holiday in secular America, but even within the church, Christmas isn’t always what it needs to be.  If anything, we Christians have accepted a romanticized Christmas.  Just picture the Bethlehem scene: Mary’s makeup is perfect, not one hair out of place as she painlessly — without an epidural, mind you — gives birth to “little Lord Jesus,” about whom the hymn tells us, “no crying he makes.”

I’m not sure if this is cause or effect, but one facet of the overly romanticized Christmas celebration seems to be that we don’t connect the cradle to the cross as we should.  This hit me fairly hard my first year in Belmont, when my wife and I decided that we would “spy” on another local Lutheran church’s late night Christmas Eve candlelight service (this was in our pre-parent days!).  The pastor’s sermon theme correctly noted that “Heaven Came Down at Christmas” — in other words, that the little baby in the manger was truly the Son of God.  So far, so good.  But the sermon never told the people in the pew (many of whom probably hadn’t darkened the door of a church in while) why the baby Jesus came into this world.  Worshipers heard that God was born into this world at Christmas, but they did not hear why Jesus came to earth.

I left the church wondering why the pastor would have passed by such a wonderful opportunity to reach people with the gospel on the one day that the unchurched willingly come to church!  Christmas can’t be Christmas if the baby in the manger isn’t God.  But Christmas also can’t be Christmas if the Christchild’s cradle is not connected to Calvary’s cross.

What becomes of our message on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day if we stop with the thought that “heaven came down at Christmas.”  True, but so what?  Did God come to visit and say hello?  Did he come to find out what life was like in the world he had made?  Did he come to give us an example of how to be poor and humble?  Did he come to teach us that there is a little “divinity” in each newborn baby?  What will the point of Christmas be if it is not connected to the cross?

It seems to me that if we want those holiday visitors to come back before Easter, we need to make the Good Friday connection.  We need to connect the cradle to the cross.  We need to preach Christmas sermons with the same theological content as Vajda’s “Peace Came to Earth.”  The angel told Joseph, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  If we want those Christmas visitors to see why they need to look at the birth of Jesus as something more than seasonal nostalgia, then they need to understand that their sin sent Jesus to earth in the first place.  If the connection between the cradle and the cross might offend someone, well, so be it.  If Christmas is going to honestly celebrate the incarnation, then that’s the connection we must make!

Fellow pastors, let’s connect the cradle to the cross this season!  Church members, insist that your pastor makes the connection!  In that way, Christ will be kept in Christmas as our Lord intended.

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Responses

  1. Besides good preaching, another way to connect the cradle to the cross is to celebrate Holy Communion on Christmas. “Given for you…poured out for you.” The bread and wine, body and blood, always point us to the cross.

    Including the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Christmas isn’t just about dressing our best and singing beloved carols. It’s about forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Jesus was born so that one day his blood could be “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” What better way to appreciate our Lord’s first coming than by welcoming him to be present among us again in the sacrament, delivering his good gifts.

    The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, indeed.

  2. We have celebrated Holy Communion here on Christmas Day for the last eight Christmases now (counting next week’s service). As you noted, Cindy, it makes perfect sense. If we are celebrating the fact that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” if we are celebrating the fact that the Son of God became a flesh-and-blood human being, then what better way to do that than to receive the body and blood of the Lord in the Sacrament! We certainly couldn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper at all if it weren’t for the Incarnation!

    This triggers another thought. I’ve noticed the tendency to make Christmas Day services fairly short and simple — streamlined service, short devotion or maybe no sermon at all, in and out in 45 minutes or less. The rationale is that most folks won’t come to church on Christmas Day, so why spend so much effort on a poorly attended service? We want to be wise stewards of our time in the church, but we also ought to give the miracle of the Incarnation its due! So, here in Belmont, we went from a shorter Christmas Day service to a “full blown” service of Word and Sacrament. We gave it a “Christmassy” feel by substituting the traditional canticles/songs of the liturgy with familiar Christmas hymns that contained similar thoughts as the songs they were replacing. And while we haven’t filled the church to the rafters, the fact that we have offered something other than “church lite” on Christmas Day has raised our attendance somewhat over the past several years. A service of Word and Sacrament on Christmas morning certainly offers a well-rounded celebration of Christ’s birth.


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