The Gift of Gifts

Merry Christmas! In honor of the birth of Jesus, here is a wonderful prayer from a book that has become one of my favorites, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett.

O source of all good,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
  thine own dear Son, begotten, not created,
  my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute,
  his self-emptying incomprehensible,
  his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
  he came below to raise me above,
  was born like me that I might become like him.
Herein is love;
 when I cannot rise to him he draws near on
  wings of grace,
 to raise me to himself.
Herein is power;
 when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
 he united them in indissoluble unity,
  the uncreated and the created.
Herein is wisdom;
 when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
 and no intellect to devise recovery,
 he came, God-incarnate, to save me
  to the uttermost
 as man to die my death,
 to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
 to work out a perfect righteousness for me.
O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
  and enlarge my mind;
 let me hear good tidings of great joy,
  and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
  my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
  my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
 place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
  to look with them upon my Redeemer's face,
  and in him account myself delivered from sin;
 let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child
  to my heart,
 embrace him with undying faith,
 exulting that he is mine and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much
  that heaven can give no more.

– Puritan prayer, from The Valley of Vision

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

While growing up I often heard this hymn sung during communion services. Years later, though, I heard it sung as a Christmas hymn, and I was blown away at how appropriate it was. These words, from 4th century Greek Liturgy, remind me in a powerful way of the complete and utter devotion I owe to Christ, the God-man who came to earth to rescue me from the powers of hell.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

– Li­tur­gy of St. James, 4th Cen­tu­ry; trans­lat­ed from Greek by Gerard Moultrie, 1864

God Incarnate

It may be stretching things a bit to call today’s excerpts classics, since the author is still alive, but I think most people would at least agree to calling J. I Packer’s Knowing God a “modern classic”. I can honestly say reading it had a profound influence on my Christian life, and is one of the few Christian teaching books that I’ve read more than once. Packer’s thoughts on the incarnation (God the Son taking on a human nature) greatly enhanced my view of the significance of Christmas:

It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.

This is the real stumbling block in Christianity…It is from misbelief, or at least inadequate belief, about the incarnation that difficulties at other points in the gospel story usually spring. But once the incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.

If Jesus had been no more than a very remarkable, godly man,the difficulties in believing what the New Testament tells us about His life and work would be truly mountainous. But if Jesus was the same person as the eternal Word, the Father’s agent in creation “through whom also he made the worlds” (Heb 1:2, RV), it is no wonder if fresh acts of creative power marked His coming into this world, and His life in it, and His exit from it. It is not strange that He, the author of life, should rise from the dead. If He was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that He should die than that He should rise again. “‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies,” wrote Wesley; but there is no comparable mystery in the Immortal’s resurrection. And if the immortal Son of God did really submit to taste death, it is not strange that such a death should have saving significance for a doomed race. Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this; it is all of a piece, and hangs together completely. The incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
– John 1:14 (ESV)

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