Christmas is a time to remember. The familiar smells from the kitchen. The familiar sounds of children laughing. The familiar glow of a dimly lit tree. Each of these and so much more reminds us of moments in our past - glimpses of experiences and emotions that have shaped the very way we view our lives.
Earlier this year, the Church celebrated the 500th year of the Reformation, inspiring us all to remember Martin Luther’s passionate quest to return scripture to the central place of authority in the life of the church (Sola Scriptura). We were also reminded, along with the rest of the world, that salvation is by grace alone (Sola Gratia) through faith alone (Sola Fide) and all because of the finished work of Christ alone on the cross (Solus Christus).
It would be all too easy to remember all these transformative truths, yet miss the way that they seamlessly flow right into the Christmas season. In fact, perhaps it was Luther’s emphasis upon these unshakeable convictions that led him to an unshakeable love for Christmas as well. From that first night that the angels revealed the good news to the shepherds - the news that a Savior was born - they couldn’t help but break out into song right there in the open fields.
The gospel always leads to singing.
The epicenter moment of the greatest story ever revealed to the world should naturally also produce the greatest songs ever composed. Thus it is no surprise that the Christmas carols are the masterpieces of the hymns. Luther relished the chance to sing the gospel, but especially at Christmas.
At the time of the Reformation, congregational singing and singing in the common language of the people were both considered heretical acts, but Luther knew they are biblically vital components to sustaining the gospel in the hearts of God’s people. He saw congregational singing not as an innovation, but rather a return to the biblical practices followed well by the prophets and the ancient Church fathers.
Christmas carols are the masterpieces of the hymns
It was around Christmas of 1523 that Luther revealed his desire to write and also find other gifted writers who would skillfully set the gospel to song so that God’s people could joyfully sing it together. He wrote to George Spalatin in December of that year: “Grace and Peace! I am planning, according to the examples of the prophets and the ancient fathers to create vernacular psalms [that is, hymns] for the common folk so that the Word of God remain with the people… also their singing…” The greatest of these hymns would be the carols and Luther wanted people everywhere to sing them together with their congregations and families.
Luther himself wrote about the joy of the gospel revealed at Christmas when he composed these words in the hymn 'From Heaven Above to Earth I Come': "From heaven above to earth I come / To bear good news to every home / Glad tidings of great joy I bring / Whereof I now will say and sing / To you this night is born a child / Of Mary, chosen virgin mild / This little child, of lowly birth / Shall be the joy of all the earth."
Besides the carols, Luther also loved Christmas because it mirrors so many elements of the gospel story itself. To him, the tradition of giving gifts to children on Christmas Eve was an opportunity to educate them on the gift of grace that God had wrapped in a little human baby delivered to - and also in - a manger… just for them. It was a perfect moment to emphasize the miracle of incarnation. It still is.
According to tradition, Luther may have also popularized the tradition of the Christmas tree as a way to express and teach theology to his family. The story goes that while he was on his way home one evening, he became overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of a fir tree positioned against the backdrop of the brilliant starlit sky. He so desperately wanted to describe what he had seen to his family, but the words failed him. So he ventured back outside and chopped down one of these trees, bringing it home to share with his family. He even decorated the tree with candle tapers, mimicking the stars that hung over the manger where the newborn Messiah lay.
Christmas is still a time to remember. The sights and sounds may have been different, but Martin Luther loved Christmas as well because it reminded him of the purity, beauty, and truth of the Jesus story. This Christmas, may his passion for the real gospel also be a reminder to each of us to listen, remember, and sing the Jesus story ourselves with all the joy its truth affords.
Keith Getty, together with his wife Kristyn is globally recognised for modern-hymn writing including 'In Christ alone'. Their latest book Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family and Church (B&H Books) is out now and reviewed in the latest issue of Premier Christianity magazine.