by Phillips Brooks
(About the author: Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and received his education at Boston Latin School, Harvard University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. When he was four years old, his mother influenced the family to leave the Unitarian Church and join the Episcopal Church. Upon his graduation from seminary, he was called to preach in the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia, and three years later in the Church of the Holy Trinity in the same city. In 1869 he returned to Boston, where he ministered for the next thirty years in Trinity Church. Phillips Brooks loved people, and from this man in the pulpit was emitted "the Spirit of Christ in such measure that the students of Harvard and people of Boston were touched.")
Upon one more bright Christmas Day we have come to rejoice together in the birth of Christ. We want to catch at once the pure and fresh simplicity of the story of Bethlehem as if we were, indeed, there today, and all were going on just as it did so long ago. And we want also to get the advantage of living so long after and understanding the richness and meaning of the story more than those first spectators could.
In the Bible we have at once the story of the Nativity told as it seemed to those who were at Bethlehem on the first Christmas Day, and then we have St. John writing years afterward and telling us what it all meant, in those rich and wonderful verses that begin his Gospel; the story and its explanation.
Let us put ourselves as thoroughly as possible into the places of those who surrounded the Savior's cradle, and see the wonderful spectacle with their eyes. But still, I have made these deep words of St. John my text, because it really is impossible for us to forget that there are deeper meanings in the event than any who were there had comprehended.
So I want you to go with me to Bethlehem. I want you to take the three groups who are recorded in connection with our Savior's birth, to look with their eyes and see Him as they saw Him, and at the same time to look deeper than they could see.
I. Who are the first group, then, that gathered about the birth of Jesus? Certainly His parents, and especially His mother, who had borne already so long upon her heart the coming mystery. What was the Nativity to her whom all generations have called blessed as the mother of our Lord? What should we see if we could look into her heart on Christmas Day? Painters have tried to tell the story in exquisite pictures which represent the mother on her knees before her Child. She is wrapt in adoration of Him; she is lifting up her hands in homage. But while that is what art has seized upon, it is remarkable that there is not one word about that in the Bible. There we have one key to the mother's heart: we have the beautiful psalm, the Magnificat, which she sang when she went to visit Elizabeth before the Savior's birth. And it certainly is noticeable that the psalm is mainly of her own privilege: "He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden; for from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed…." It is not adoration of her Child. It is a sense of what that Child's coming has been to her. Because of this close union between His life and hers, she is lifted up out of her insignificance. The poor Jewish girl is not despicable, no one shall despise her, now that her life has been capable of containing the very life of God.
Afterward, no doubt, there came the adoration. Afterward she saw how different He was from her. But at first it is not the sense of how far His divinity is above her, but of how truly it is in her. On Christmas Day she is not on her knees before her Lord, but she is holding her Child tight to her heart. Now extend all this-make it not merely the experience of the Jewish virgin but the consciousness of humanity at the birth of Jesus-and we have this, which I hold to be true: that the first thing which human nature feels when it comes to the knowledge of the coming of Christ is the mere fact of the Incarnation, and the illumination and exaltation of all human life by and through the Incarnation.
So the first simple, broad sentiment of Christmas Day ought to be of how sacred and high this human life is into which the Lord was born. This humanity has held Divinity. God has been in this flesh. Let your soul magnify the Lord with the same bounding sense of privilege that exalted Mary. Let the Incarnation, with all its inspirations possess and fill your life.
II. But now turn to another group which also comes into close connection with the Lord's Nativity. I mean the little company of the wise men who came traveling out of the East, under the leading of a star, to greet Him. "The Three Kings" they have been called for years in song and legend, though there is no mention of any royalty belonging to them in the Bible story. The idea in the legend of the kings is that of the loftiest and noblest bowing down to Jesus. It is therefore merely an additional emphasis laid upon this second truth of the Nativity, which is the kingliness of the newborn Christ. That is what this second group expresses. Mary taught us of the dignifying of humanity through the Incarnation. The wise men teach us of the true place of humanity in obedient subjectship to the Incarnate. And see how their visit brings out the character of the subjectship which they acknowledge and represent. The King whom they find and bow to, before whom their choicest treasures are cast down, is a child, a mere speechless baby. Sitting there upon His mother's knee, He is weakness personified.
They are bowing down not to a sword, for those feeble hands cannot hold one; not to a crown, for that tender brow could not bear one. They are bowing down to a nature which shines all the more clearly through the weakness of the flesh in which it has enshrined itself. They offer Him their obedience because their kingly souls own in Him a soul more kingly.
And so they represent the perpetual acknowledgement of Christ as the spiritual-and so the real-King of men. This Christmas scene is the picture of the way in which the souls that know Christ always take Him for their Lord and Master. It is the only kingship that the Savior wants-not that which awes and frightens men, but that which bows them into a far more complete submission by the felt majesty of His character. And such servants serve Him, not because they must, but because their whole soul feels the privilege and glory of such obedience.
See how this comes home to our life. When a man relieves a poor beggar's need because the beggar may be dangerous to him if he is not helped, there is no Christmas spirit there. But when you help the poor man because it is a joy to minister to Christ, and the poor are Christ to you; when you say "No" to your lusts because it is a glory to be pure through grateful emulation of Him who is purity itself-then you are coming in the wise men's spirit to do the wise men's act: to claim Christ for your King and dignify your life by obedience to Him.
III. But there is one more group which no one who thinks of Christmas Day forgets: "There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Try to think what their story must mean: They heard a song of angels, a voice from heaven telling them that a Savior was born in Bethlehem, and that glory had come to God and peace had come to men. They can only say to one another: "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this strange thing." Then they come and find Christ, and then they go abroad to tell other men about Him. That is all. They sing no psalm like Mary. They do not follow the star like the wise men. But they go to Bethlehem and they find Christ Jesus. I need not tell you what an eternal element in Christian life they represent. Always there will be many whose whole experience will be merely this: that being hungry, needy, empty, and wanting a Savior, they just heard a voice from heaven telling them that the Savior whom they need has come. And coming to Him and finding Him all they wanted, then, like the poor shepherds, they "make known abroad" to others all that has come to them. To the multitude of human souls, Christ will be simply the Satisfier revealed from heaven.
Are there not moments in the Christian life of all of us when this alone is all our Christianity? Men tell us this and that about Jesus, this and that subtle thought about the mystery of His nature, this and that profound theory of the work by which He makes Himself our redeeming King. We do not doubt and we do not deny. It may be true. No doubt is is true. But all is overswept by an eager, passionate longing of the heart that needs Christ. Our lips shape only one question: "Where shall we find Him?" Oh, let us beware lest any subtlety of thought ever deadens or dulls in us that first great, deep longing of the soul for Him who is its only Savior! Always at the bottom of such strong experience what is stirred really is the sense of sin-and that none but Jesus can relieve.
Who is this, then, that lies once more today before the world at Bethlehem? Mary bows down and learns the Incarnation. The wise men come and find their King in this weak babe. The shepherds see the hope of Israel fulfilled, the Savior come.
Oh, on this Christmas Day let us be with them all. Let us give up our lives to Him and beg that He will rule us. It is a day of joy and charity. May God make you very rich in both by giving you abundantly the glory of the Incarnation, the peace of Christ's kingship, and the grace of Christ's salvation.