Recently, I was asked to contribute a word to our church’s monthly newsletter. I found myself reflecting on two ideas–the many things I’ve learned by interacting with the history of Christianity and the meaning of Christmas. The following was an attempt to bring these two ideas together:
Christmas Through the Eyes of Medieval Christians
One of the pleasures of studying history for a living is the regular interaction I have with Christians from the past—believers long dead but still speaking to me through their writings, if I make time to listen to them. In their wisdom, they often remind me that my view of God and my understanding of Christianity is strongly shaped by my culture, and quite different from the way Christians in the past understood these things.
For instance, there’s Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Church Fathers—a founder of the faith. Clement was so determined to maintain unity in his church that he declared that if he were the cause of any conflict, even if it wasn’t his fault, he would willingly remove himself from his congregation, if the leaders so desired, in order to preserve its unity.
Or consider Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century believer who set the pattern for Western monasticism, the spiritual heart of the medieval church. In his Rule to guide the monks who would live together in community, Benedict wrote more about humility than any other subject. In fact, he outlined a twelve-stage journey towards humility, reminding us that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
If Benedict’s call to humility seems unpopular, how about the Puritan Richard Baxter’s “Directions for Hating Sin”? Not a popular topic in our day, but for sixteenth-century Puritans, cultivating a hatred for sin was an important part of devotion to God. For instance, Baxter tells us that we should consider the greatness of God so as to understand the depths of our sin. Then he instructs us to meditate on Christ’s shed blood, to learn to love Christ and hate the sin for which he died. And after that, he has no less than thirty more directions for hating sin to tell us about!
Reading Christian writings from the past helps me see blind spots I have, because of the way my faith is shaped so strongly by the culture in which I live. Striving for unity, pursuing holiness, hating sin—these are just three areas among many where we Canadian Christians seem to wander from the teachings of old.
With Christmas soon upon us, I want to share one more word from Christian history—this one from the Lollards, a group of fifteenth-century English believers who emphasized simple, biblical Christianity. As a result, they often found themselves in trouble for their criticisms of the rich and powerful at the top of the English church and society. My favourite Lollard text is a Christmas sermon based on Luke 2:1-14. It begins by describing the simplicity—even poverty—of Joseph and Mary. And yet this was the family into which God chose Christ to be born. As the sermon put it, rather than a “royal castle with rich clothes, … a stinking stable in the highway.” After chastising those who claim to follow Christ’s example but who live in “regal places” with “halls, chambers, pantries, store rooms, kitchens” and the like, the Lollard preacher makes this powerful point:
“That this blessed child was born in a house open on every side betokens that God will be shut off from no one who will come to his mercy, but is ever open to all who will appeal to him for mercy and grace. Therefore said David, ‘The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to those who call upon him in truth’. That is: that he was in this situation betokens that there is no other way to the bliss of heaven but only by the example of his life and teaching. And therefore he says: I am the way the truth and the life.
He was born in this way to give us an example to have ever in mind that all our life we are here but in exile and on pilgrimage, having here no city to dwell in but rather await the bliss of heaven as our own country and proper heritage.”
This Christmas, amid the hubbub of concerts, shopping, parties, family feasts, and gift giving, let us remember the message of the Lollard Christmas sermon: Christ came in humility and simplicity. He came for the poor. He came to give us new life. And he came to set an example for us to follow.