Commentary from THE ANNOTATED
BOOK OF COMMON
PRAYEREdited by JOHN HENRY BLUNT
Rivingtons, London, 1884
The Festival of Christmas was observed at a very early period in the
Church, as indeed it could hardly but be; for that which brought the joy
of angels within reach of men's ears, could not but have been devoutly
and joyously remembered by Christians, year by year, when they came fully
to understand the greatness of the event. St. Chrysostom, in a Christmas
homily, speaks of the festival as being even then, in the fourth century,
one of great antiquity; and, in an Epistle, mentions that Julius I. [A.D.
337-352] had caused strict inquiry to be made, and had confirmed the observance
of it on December 25th. There are sermons extant which were preached
upon this day by Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil, in the same century.
It is spoken of by Clemens Alexandrinus, who died in the beginning of the
third century, a little more than a hundred years after the death of St.
John; and it was on a Christmas Day, we are told, that a whole church full
of martyrs was burnt by Maximin in Nicomedia.
In the primitive age of the Church this Festival was more closely associated
with the Epiphany than it has been in later times. The actual Nativity
of Christ was considered as His first Manifestation, and the name "Theophania"
was sometimes given to the day on which it was commemorated, as well as
to the twelfth day afterwards, when the end of the Christmas Festival is
celebrated with other memorials of the appearance of God among men.
Most of the fathers have left sermons which were preached on Christmas
Day, or during the continuance of the festival; and secular decrees of
the Christian Emperors, as well as Canons of the Church, show that it was
very strictly observe as a time of rest from labour, of Divine worship,
and of Christian hilarity.
The ancient Church of England welcomed Christmas Day with a special
service on the Vigil, a celebration of the Holy Communion soon after midnight,
another at early dawn, and a third at the usual hour of the midday mass.
The first two of these services were omitted from the Prayer Book of 1549,
and the third from that of 1552. But an early Communion, as well
as the usual midday one, has always been celebrated in some of the greater
churches on Christmas Day, and custom has revived the midnight celebration
also, in addition to the ordinary Evensong of Christmas Eve. The
midnight celebration commemorates the actual Birth of our Lord; the early
morning one its revelation to mankind in the persons of the shepherds;
that at midday the Eternal Sonship of the Holy Child Jesus.
The Collect at the Early Communion in the first Prayer Book was that
of Christmas Eve in the Salisbury Missal: the Epistle and Gospel being
the first of the ancient three.
First Prayer Book of 1549.
O God, which makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of
Thy only Son Jesus Christ; grant that as we joyfully receive Him for our
Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold Him when He shall come
to be our Judge, Who liveth and reigneth.
Christmas Eve. Salisbury Use.
Deus, qui nos redemptionis nostrae annua expectatione laetificas: praesta:
ut Unigenitum tuum quem redemptorem laeti suscipimus: venientem quoque
judicem securi videamus Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum.
Qui tecum. [Greg. In Vig. Nat. Dom. ad Nonam. Gelas.]
The ancient association of Christmas and Epiphany was maintained in
the Collect of the Salisbury Use, Ad Missam in galli cantu.
|Deus, qui hanc sacratissimam noctem veri luminis fecisti illustratione
clarescere: da, quaesumus, ut cujus lucis mysteria in terra cognovimus,
ejus quoque gaudiis in caelo perfruamur. Qui tecum. [Greg.
In Vig. Dom. in Nocte. Gelas.]
||O God, Who madest this most noly night to shine with the brightness
of the true Light: Grant, we beseech Thee, that as we have known the mysteries
of that Light on earth, so we may have the fruition of His joys in heaven.
It is most fit that the season so marked out by Angels by songs of joy,
such as had not been heard on earth since the Creation, should also be
observed as a time of festive gladness by the Church, and in the social
life of Christians. Christ Himself instituted this festival when
He sanctified the day by then first revealing His Human Nature to the eyes
of mankind. The holy Angels witnessed to its separation for ever
as a day of days, when they proclaimed the Glory that was then offered
to God in the Highest by the restoration of perfect Manhood in the Virgin-born
Jesus; and the peace that was brought among men on earth through the reunion
of their nature to God. The whole world has since recognized it as
the single point of history in which every age, every country, every living
man has an interest. It is to the Nativity of our Lord that all the
pages of the Bible point as the centre on which everything there recorded
turns. Kings have lived and died; empires have arisen and crumbled
away; great cities have been built and destroyed; countries peopled and
again laid desert: and all this is to us almost as if it had never been.
Great as past events of history were to the generations in which they occurred,
to us they are of less practical importance than the everyday circumstances
of our common life. But the event which gives us the festival of
Christmas was one whose interest is universal and unfading: one with which
we are as much concerned as were the sheperds of Bethlehem: and which will
be of no less importance to the last generation of men than it is to us.
For it was in the Birth of Christ that Earth was reunited to Heaven, and
both made one Kingdom of God above and below, as they were at the first
Creation. In it, separation of man from God was done away, for One
appeared Who in His own single Person was God, belonging to Heaven, and
Man, belonging to earth. It was not only the beginning of a new era,
but it was the Centre of all human history, the point of time to which
the ages that were gone had looked forward, and to which the ages that
were to come after must all look back; the one day of days which gathered
all other times into itself, and stretching its influence through every
hour of human existence from the Fall to the Judgement, makes for itself
a history by connection with which only can other histories have an eternal
interest. And so, even beyond the immediate influence of the Church,
it is found that the Christmas gladness of the Church is reflected in the
world around: and a common instinct of regenerated human nature teaches
that world to recognize in Christmas a season of unity and fellowship and
goodwill, of happiness and peace.