It seems fitting that my Advent reading this year concludes with Martin Luther’s sermons and reflections on the Nativity. The collection that I’m reading is edited by the long serving English born Yale Reformation historian Rolland H. Bainton. The little book was first published in 1948 and is called Martin Luther’s Christmas Book.
The task of this and the following six posts is not to dissect Luther’s theology bit by bit to show him up as one still draped in the vestiges of Rome or as one not reformed. Rather, I want to read him with the Christmas spirit that supposedly characterises human interaction at this time of year. While I have deep reservations and scepticism about such a spirit, there is no substitute for generously reading our theological forebears.
The little book is comprised of an introduction by Bainton followed by eight pieces by Luther. These include:
- Wise Men
- From Heaven High
Over the next seven days before Christmas I’ll write a short piece on each text (but not the second because it replicates the theme of the first) with the last one falling on Christmas Day.
In Chapter 1, Luther takes up the annunciation of the Son of God. Luther begins by framing the coming of the Son of God against two backdrops. The first is the genealogy of sinners at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Luther pens the words: “God holds before us this mirror of sinners that we may know that he is sent to sinners, and from sinners is willing to be born.” This is the spiritual context into which the son to be born is to be announced. The second backdrop for the annunciation of the Son of God is the political and economic poverty of the time.
Luther summarises the context of the announcement of the coming of the Son of God when he writes: “To this poor maiden marvellous things were announced: that she should be the mother of the All Highest, whose name should be the Son of God. He would be a King and of his Kingdom there would be no end.” And with this Luther has framed his principle point of interest.
Luther’s desire to contextualise the annunciation is not to draw attention to the miraculous nature of the God-human child. Nor is he caught up with the baby’s mother being a virgin. What captures Luther's attention is Mary's belief that the baby would be the king of a kingdom with no end: “It took a mighty act of faith to believe that this baby would play such a role.” Luther was engrossed by faith and in the annunciation he saw faith in action. Despite being troubled at the thought—“How can these things be, seeing that I know not a man”—and “even though common sense were against it,” Mary believed.
The dilemma of faith is captured neatly in the annunciation of the Son of God. Faith was Luther’s kryptonite, but faith was also his proton energy pill. Bainton captures Luther’s confliction in a pithy line: “Luther did not believe lightly.” But how could he or Mary? Or ourselves for that matter? After all, the child, who was God, was born of a poor Jewish virgin.
In the annunciation, Luther saw faith come to life as Mary held fast to God’s word that came to her through the angel. In typical fashion, recalling Isaiah 9:6, Luther brings faith home for us: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
Here lies a child. Here lies what is marvellous. Here lies “all our blessedness.” Here lies the child through whom the whole world would be fed. By faith, all that this child is is ours.
“There is such richness and goodness in this Nativity that if we should see and deeply understand, we should dissolve into perpetual joy." This, friends, is the spirit of Christmas.