The Reason to Smile at Christmas—Musings on Luther, Barth, Foyle, and Longfellow

By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father,) full of grace and truth.

By “flesh” we understand the whole man, body and soul, according to the Scriptures, which call man “flesh,” as above, when it is said, “Not of the will of the flesh”; and in the creed we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body” (German: flesh), that is, of all men. . . . The evangelist [John] uses a comprehensive word and says, “He became flesh,” that is, a man like every other man, who has flesh and blood, body and soul. . . . He came that he might become the Light of men, that is, that he might become known; he showed himself bodily and personally among men and was made man. . . . Even though he was God, he became a citizen of Nazareth and Capernaum, and conducted himself as other men did. Thus Saint Paul says, “Who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being man equality with a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross,” in Philippians 2:6–8.

This passage above is taken from Sermons for Advent and Christmas Day by Martin Luther (1483–1546). As we’re coming to the end of the yearlong celebration of the 500th anniversary of when Luther supposedly nailed those Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg door, I thought it might be appropriate to finish up with this bit of Luther in time for Christmas—especially regarding what he had to say about the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

But now that we’ve commemorated this special anniversary and have looked back over the past half millennia, it may be fruitful to move more into our present day, thinking about what the incarnation means to us now. Amid all our Christmas parties and shopping rush (and overeating and overeating), we may tend to forget about the great mystery that surrounds the fact that God himself came down and took on human flesh and was born of a poor young woman in an oppressed land in the Middle East.

Learning How to Smile Again

In the summer of 1946, shortly after the end of World War Two, Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) delivered a series of lectures on the Apostles’ Creed in, as Barth writes in the foreword to his Church Dogmatics in Outline, the “semi-ruins of the once stately Kurfürsten Schloss in Bonn, in which the University had later been established.” He continues:

The audience consisted partly of theologians, but the larger part was students from other faculties. Most people in the Germany of to-day have in their own way and in their own place endured and survived much, almost beyond all measure. I noted the same in my Bonn lads. With their grave faces, which had still to learn how to smile again, they no less impressed me than I them.

It is a powerful image I have in my mind of what that audience looked like to Barth, who himself had been banished from Germany by Hitler during the war because he was Swiss and not German, thereby escaping the tragic ending of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was Barth’s student).

With their grave faces, which had still to learn how to smile again.

I love this little book (that is, little for Barth!) because here he “lectured without a manuscript, and discussed with some freedom the main propositions.” He says, “My return to the primitive conditions which I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to dispense with a manuscript.” If you want Barth’s usual “precision,” you will find that in his fourteen-volume Church Dogmatics. For those of us who may be daunted at reading the entire CD, Barth kindly provided this much easier-to-digest Church Dogmatics in Outline.

Others . . . may possibly read the little book not without pleasure, because, although it does not have too many topical references, it smacks of a document of our time, which has once more become a time “between the times”—and that not only in Germany.

A Hollow Victory

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been watching the popular BBC television series Foyle’s War (which I can’t recommend highly enough). The series (which ran from 2002 to 2015) begins with the advent of World War Two in the English coastal town of Hastings, located right off the English Channel (the event of Dunkirk takes place in one especially powerful episode). This means the town is ripe for invasion, infiltration, sabotage, murder, and so on. Christopher Foyle (played by the wonderful actor Michael Kitchen) is the detective chief superintendent who manages to always solve the crime at hand.

What is most intriguing—and enlightening—for us modern-day viewers is to see the suffering that goes on not only during the long years of the war but also after the war. As one character says, “I thought we were supposed to have won. It certainly doesn’t feel like it!” She’s referring to the lack of food, healthcare, and adequate shelter (so many had lost their homes during the air raids), men returning home from the war struggling to fit back in, women with newfound independence being forced to return to the “old ways,” and the horrific findings in the Nazi concentration camps. The series continues into the first years of a new war—now with the Soviets—“The Cold War.” Still reeling from the devastation of one war, the English find themselves up against a new and more terrifying enemy—atomic warfare and the threat of total annihilation. With the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Cold War was well under way only months after VE day in Europe.

This is the Germany in which Barth delivered these lectures on the Apostle’s Creed. Why do I think he did this? Because a new generation needed to have hope, to know that God is the same today, yesterday, and forever, that he had not forsaken them, that the words of the ancient creed still held true for them—while they tried to learn how to smile again.

Long before Luther and the past five hundred years, the world has seen its share of war and devastation. Too many forgot how to smile. Unfortunately, it’s the same for too many of us still today, especially at Christmas when pain can be felt more keenly. But this is the one time of year when we truly have a genuine reason to learn how to smile again. God has shown his love by coming down to us.

“The Mystery and the Miracle of Christmas”

One of the lectures Barth gave to these students and theologians was titled “The Mystery and the Miracle of Christmas” (chapter 14 of The Church Dogmatic in Outline). Here is Barth’s own summary of this lecture:

The truth of the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit and of His birth of the Virgin Mary points to the true Incarnation of the true God achieved in His historical manifestation, and recalls the special form through which this beginning of the divine act of grace and revelation, that occurred in Jesus Christ, was distinguished from other human events.

This is indeed the “mystery” and the “miracle” that we celebrate at Christmas. Yes, we know that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but do we really stop to think about what that means? Like those war-weary students in Bonn, many of us are war-weary from years now of terrorism and constant strife among nations and people groups, oppression, poverty, fear, uncertainty, and the list goes on. More than ever, we need to remember that God reached out to us, that he became one of us, that he lived among us, taught us, suffered and died because of us and for us, but that he rose from the dead, never to die again, thus breaking the stronghold of Evil.

As Barth says, we live “between the times.” That is, we live between the time of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom (through the life and mission of Christ), and the time of the consummation of God’s kingdom.

Until that time, we truly have a reason to smile again—especially at Christmas. God, Immanuel, is with us and for us.

The miracle of Christmas is the actual form of the mystery of the personal union of God and man. . . . All that we can say is that it pleased God to let the mystery be real and become manifest in this shape and form.

God Is Not Dead nor Does He Sleep

Allow me to finish these thoughts with the original lyrics of the famous poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–88) wrote on Christmas Day 1863 in the middle of the American Civil War, two years after his beloved wife died in a tragic fire. As it was for Longfellow during the bloody days of the War Between the States and Karl Barth as he looked into those faces that had forgotten how to smile, let us remember that God is not dead nor does he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, and there will be peace on earth and good will to all!

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Patricia Anders is editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).

For more information on Martin Luther’s Sermons for Advent and Christmas Day, visit our website!

2 thoughts on “The Reason to Smile at Christmas—Musings on Luther, Barth, Foyle, and Longfellow

  1. Pingback: Karl Barth on the Ascension of Christ | Hendrickson Publishers Blog

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