Dressed in coat, scarf, and hat, looking toward snowy mountains

The Holy Days

BY Jay Smith
President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

November-December 2017 Inscribed

Song of the Birth of Christ1

A Sixteenth Century English Christmas Carol

The poem “I Come from Heuin to Tell” is a translation of the Christmas Eve Carol that Martin Luther wrote for his son, Hans, “Vom Himmel hoch,” first published in “Geistliche Lieder,” 1535, and translated into Middle English in the 16th century.

I come from heuin to tell

The best nowellis that euer be fell,
To yow thir tythinges trew I bring,
And I will of them say and sing.
This day to yow is borne ane childe,
Of Marie meike and Virgine mylde;
That blissit barne, bining and kynde,
Sall yow rejoice baith heart and mynd.
It is the Lord Christ, God and man,
Hee will doe for you quhat hee can;
Himselfe your Sauiour hee will bee,
Fra sinne and hell to make zow free.
Hee is our richt saluation
From euerlasting damnation,
That ze may ring in gloir and blis,
For euer mair in heuin with his.
Ze sall him find but marke or wring,
Full sempill in ane cribe lying;
So lyis hee quhilk zow hes wrocht,
And all this warld made of nocht.

I come from heaven to tell
The best noel that ever befell
To you these tidings true I bring
And I will of them say and sing
This day to you is born a child
Of Mary meek and virgin mild
In that blessed birth, benign and kind
Shall you rejoice both heart and mind
It is the Lord Christ, God and man,
He will do for you what he can,
Himself your Savior he will be,
From sin and hell to make you free
He is our right salvation
From everlasting damnation
That you may sing glory and bliss
For ever more in heaven with his
You shall him find without mark or ring
Found in a simple crib lying
So lies he which now he’s wrought
And all this world made of nought.

All Hallow’s Tide

With the passing of “All Hallow’s Eve” (Halloween) we have entered into the holiday season. All Hallow’s Eve remembered and celebrated the lives of dead saints (hallows), martyrs, and others of the faithful who are departed. Over the centuries, this medieval celebration has been altered by folk religions to the form in which we find it: a celebration of the fantastic and otherworldly, including ghosts, goblins, and superheroes! Nevertheless, the root of “All Hallow’s Eve” remains as a prelude to the “Holy” day season on the liturgical calendar. The giving of treats and community festivities mark the giving of life and the precious, transient nature of it. What very few people know is that All Hallow’s Eve is the first day of three celebration days in All Hallow’s Tide: All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day. This celebration of lives and life pushes us towards the next American holy day, “Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, is not a liturgical holy day per se, but is marked today as a national holiday celebrating a bountiful harvest of the year past. However, in its earliest incarnation in North America, the Puritans of Plymouth, Massachusetts declared a feast of Thanksgiving. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England as well as Virginia. In Puritan theology, these days were to replace the holy days of the liturgical calendar. Thanksgiving at its theological root teaches us to be humble, grateful, and thankful for God’s provision at the coming of winter.

Honoring Christ’s Birth

Finally, the end of the year brings back the liturgical holy days of Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the season of Christmastide, or Yuletide. This series of liturgical holy days honor the birth of Christ. Although contemporary scholars have argued that the actual birth of Christ would have taken place approximately at the end of September, in the third century Hippolytus of Rome argued for a December 25th date for his birth, and needless to say it stuck. Although Christmas now draws its traditions from many different cultural impulses—from the Roman Saturnalia festival to the Germanic Yuletide—its Christocentric essence remains. Christmas proclaims for all to hear that the Creator became human to conquer sin and bestow life.

Light for the “Holiday Blues”

It is a contemporary tragedy that this sequence of holy days also inaugurates the “holiday blues”—a period of time marked by the darkness of winter, loneliness, and despair. This is a consequence of our modern mindset. As the idea of God and the hope that resides in faith recedes, our human ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression also recedes. Let me encourage all of you this “Holy Day Season” to reclaim the hope of Christ. Rethink how you understand these days of darkness and the coming of the light of Christ. Draw strength from the Saints—the believers—who have passed on before you. Recover the virtues of humility and thankfulness as the year becomes darker and bleaker. Finally, as the darkest nights of the year come to pass, begin to rekindle the fire of hope in your heart by revisiting the babe in the manger, the “savior who comes to make us free from sin, sadness and death,” and allow His light to light your way.

[1] Christmas Carols: Ancient and Modern, edited, with an introduction by William Sandys. London: Richard Beckley, 1833.