On the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, I ran into a Father Christopher at Southside Hospital. After we introduced ourselves to one another, he said to me, “Lutheran...isn’t that really close to Catholic?” And I said something like: “Actually, now that you guys are changing the words to your liturgy, you’re closer than ever to my congregation!”
             For on that very day–November 27–our Roman Catholic friends rolled out a new version of their English language mass. And a lot of the language will be quite familiar to us Lutheran Hymnal users at St. Paul’s. The new Roman Catholic liturgy returns to “And with your spirit” as a response to “The Lord be with you”. The Nicene Creed restores “all things visible and invisible” in place of “seen and unseen”. Our Roman friends are coming back to where we Lutheran Hymnal types have stayed all along!
             When the Roman Catholic Church reformed its liturgy in the 1960s, there was a tendency to place more emphasis on human beings. That’s why the altar was turned around so that the priest faced the people (“looking rather like a bartender”, as one critic commented). The English-language texts reflected that shift of emphasis. The traditional greeting to the clergyman, “And with thy spirit”–which our hymnal borrows from the old Roman mass-- emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the church’s ministry. It declares that the Holy Spirit has taken possession of the pastor and uses the pastor as an instrument of God. But in the 1960s, Rome changed “and with thy spirit” to the comparatively drab “and also with you”. A profound statement about God working through the ministry of the church was swapped for a slightly more formal version of “Right back atcha”.
             This “right back atcha” was enthusiastically embraced by Lutherans and Episcopalians, and appears in practically every service book issued since the 1960s. But now our Roman friends have basically acknowledged: “Whoops! We made a boo-boo. ‘And also with you’ is pretty lame. We’re going back to ‘and with your spirit’.” It will be interesting to see if Lutherans and Episcopalians follow Rome on this change.
             In a clergy meeting a few weeks ago, my fellow Lutheran pastors and I discussed the changes to the Roman mass. And I said something like, “At St. Paul’s, we’ve clung to The Lutheran Hymnal all these years, and we’ve been saying ‘and with thy spirit’ all these years...and it’s like keeping your wide ties. Eventually, they come back into style again.” God truly has a sense of humor–we Lutheran Hymnal types have instantly gone from retro to cutting edge!
             Why December 25? December is the perfect time of year to celebrate Christmas. The daylight is sparse; the sun goes to bed early. And in the midst of this dark month, we celebrate the coming of the light of the world! And right around the time of that celebration, the days start to get longer. The light triumphs! You really couldn’t pick a better time of year to remember Christ’s birth.
             We don’t know when Christ was born. The Bible makes it clear that He died in the springtime–at the Passover– but never really specifies when His birth took place. Why, then, was Dec. 25 chosen? One popular theory is that the church put Christmas on Dec. 25 because of a pagan festival, the Saturnalia, that was celebrated at that time. It was a way of keeping Christians from being tempted by the wild revelry of the pagan observance.
             That’s a pretty depressing thought–one of the church’s holiest dates was basically stolen from paganism! However, there are several much more inspiring theories about why Dec. 25 became Christmas. They are:
             –In ancient times, it was believed that great men were conceived and died on the same date. The traditional date of Jesus’ death was March 25; Christians came to believe that this was also the date of His conception by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Computing nine months from the date of March 25, Christians arrived at Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth.
             –Some ancient writers held that the world was created on March 25. The idea arose that the One through whom the world was created (John 1:3) the One who came to restore the fallen creation, the One who came to make a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17), should be conceived on the same date as the original creation. So again, the date of His conception was fixed at March 25, making the date of His birth Dec. 25.
             –The angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary “in the sixth month” (Luke 1:26). This is almost always interpreted as meaning six months after John the Baptist was conceived. But it could mean “the sixth month of the Jewish year”, which (if one takes the Jewish year as beginning in the fall, with Rosh Hashanah) would place the conception around March–and the birth around December, during the Feast of Chanukah.
             So the choice of Dec. 25 was not an attempt to compete with a pagan festival–it was based on the belief that Jesus was conceived around the same time of year as His death. The Dec. 25 date reminds us that He is the One who was born to offer a perfect sacrifice for our sins, the One who was born to go to the cross for you and me. So celebrate Dec. 25 without guilt, and rejoice that Jesus was born to save you!
             God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 82 - No. 12