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for Anglicans Online
(Ed: Fr Wallace sent us this as a Letter to the Editor. We liked it so much that we published it here as an essay.)
In some ways, one could say that those lines are simply the Reverend Robert Herrick's more poetic 17th century way of saying "Jesus is the reason for the season". However, Herrick was saying much more. His lovely poem expresses an exuberant, incarnational faith, which sees God's joyful presence in all creation. But the poem is also a sharp piece of political and theological polemic. If we know the history of England at that period, we know that 'carols' and 'revelling' and 'public mirth' were very much frowned upon by Herrick's Puritan contemporaries who were quickly gaining power. The Rev. Hezekiah Wood published a Tract about that time calling Christmas Day: 'The old Heathen's Feasting Day..., the Papist's Massing Day, the Profane Man's Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Multitude's Fasting Day... We are persuaded, not one thing more hindereth the Gospel work all the year long, than doth the observation of that Idol Day once in a year, having so many days of cursed observation with it."
In fact, the whole idea of Christmas was so repugnant that its public celebration was outlawed in 1647, the same year that Herrick was ejected from his parish in Devonshire by Oliver Cromwell's men, and a little more than a year before King Charles I, to whom Herrick's carol had been sung, was executed. By comparison, today's battles between the religious right and progressive Christians seem rather tame.
Fortunately, the Puritans did not remain in power too long. In 1660 the monarchy was restored, and Herrick was returned to his parish. However, it was not until the latter part of the 19th century that Christmas carols made a come back.
Today, I suspect most of us are much more comfortable with Herrick's view of Christmas than that of the Puritans. We see Jesus' birth as a cause to sing, celebrate, yes even revel. Holly and ivy and evergreens adorn our homes and churches and places of business; even though many of us at times lament the excessive commercialism and secularism of the season, and even though our decorations, lights and Christmas parties sometimes get "out of hand".
And therein lies
the point. The important thing is not so much what we do to make the celebration
of Christ's Nativity holy-- whether we fast or revel, sing carols or read
psalms, give simple gifts or throw a big party, hang a tasteful wreath or
string hundreds of gaudy blinking lights. The point is what God does, who
in Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem, makes us holy with his incarnation.
As we celebrate Christ's Nativity this year, may we find joy and peace. May we be both grateful and generous as we respond to the gift of God's grace. May we find in the child of Bethlehem the Truth of God's never failing love for this wide world and for each one of us. May we indeed find a room in our heart to welcome him
The Revd R Edgar Wallace is rector of St Matthias in Minocqua, Wisconsin, in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.