A Christmas Slap

by Dave Wilkinson, pastor of Moorpark Presbyterian Church, Moorpark, California

Matthew 2.9–11
December 3, 2006

Nicholas, Constantine, Arius at the Council of Nicaea
Print: Vincenzo Catalano, Bari, Italy
St Nicholas Center Collection
Let me confess three things right at the get go.
First, I am not Italian. Sad but true.
Second, I am not that into soccer.
Third, I don’t much care who wins the World Cup.

When Carol and I were in England in 2002, it was all Beckham this and Beckham that. Beckham, Beckham, Beckham! It was such a relief when England got knocked out of a semi-final by Argentina. We could finally hear something else on the radio. On the day England lost, we crossed the border into Scotland. The Scots were overjoyed. We were too.

You can see from these three confessions that Carol and I were in the wrong place when Italy won the World Cup this summer. We were out of place because we were in Rome.

We went out to get pictures of the Coliseum at night, and wound up as part of a crowd of over a million excited Italians who were waiting for return of their team.

They had the signs, the flags, the jerseys, the joy and the triumph. It was a great victory.

But it wasn’t our victory. Our victory was to finally make our way back to our hotel through the cheering throng of the faithful. We could appreciate their obvious joy. But we couldn’t really share it.

This morning we are looking at joy. But, like the throngs in Rome, this is joy that is reserved for those who own and experience the triumph.

On these Sunday's before Christmas we are looking at the message of some of the carols we sing this season. The carols aren't just Muzak for shopping. They are there to teach us and to move our hearts.

One of people's favorite carols sounds old. It's translated from Latin so it must be old. But it's not. As carols go, it's actually on the newer side. That carol is,

Adeste Fideles or "O Come All Ye Faithful."

First, some quick background—and some interesting connections. This meditation is going to hop around a bit. Hold on to your outlines.

We'll start with John Francis Wade. Wade, an English Catholic, was forced to flee England in 1745. He was suspected of sympathy to those who wanted to get rid of the king and replace him with their people. Wade ended up in France where he got a job copying music at the monastic center of Douai. That's where he gained access to Latin scrolls.

When he produced Adeste Fideles a few years later, people assumed he had discovered an ancient manuscript and had set the poem to music. But Wade was the author. It immediately became popular in the region of Douai.

With the French Revolution, fifty years later, however, Douai was disbanded. Many French priests crossed the Channel to England to escape being guillotined in the name of reason. They brought Adeste Fideles with them. It fell into the hands of an English clergyman, Frederick Oakley, who translated the Latin into the stirring English words, "Ye, faithful, approach ye."

For some reason, that didn’t catch on. Eleven years later Oakely became a Catholic and then took another crack at Wade's hymn. Turning Catholic must have improved his Latin because he produced the translation we so love today. "O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant."

Who is being summoned to Bethlehem to adore Jesus?

It is the faithful. It is those who experience the triumph.

Who are the faithful?

Well, in one sense, the faithful are those who keep the faith. The faithful are those who believe in eventual victory even in dark days. In a secular sense, it is believing that the 49ers will make a come-back. It is believing that UCLA will finally win one.

In another sense, the faithful are also those who are true to the truth—who stand fast for what is right even in the face of scorn and rejection and persecution. They hold the true faith without compromise. They know that while there are many things Christians can believe, there are some core things Christians must believe to be Christian at all.

That leads us to another fascinating Christmas connection that comes in this carol—a jump through time and space. This is when John Francis Wade meets Santa Claus.

In AD 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine summoned three hundred leaders of the Christian Church to meet at the city of Nicea, now in modern Turkey. At issue was the question, "Who is Jesus Christ."

There were some delegates led by a man named Arius who insisted that Jesus is just a man—not God in human flesh. They were willing to agree that Jesus was the best man who had ever lived. They agreed that Jesus was sent in a very special way from God. They even agreed that Jesus is the "son of God" in the sense that God was so pleased with Jesus' performance that he made him his son by adoption. But they insisted that Jesus is not the same thing as God—that he was of another substance than God—homoi ousia in Greek.

There were others who insisted that Jesus in is fact God in human flesh and is in fact of homo ousia, the same substance with God himself. These were the ones who were willing to stand firm for the truth as it had clearly been revealed in the Word.

That's where Santa Claus comes in.

One of the orthodox bishops at the council was a man named Nicholas who was bishop of the city of Myra. Through his gifts to the poor—and the marvelous alchemy of history and Clement Moore—Nicholas of Myra became Santa Claus. But the real Nicholas was more than a jolly fat man. He was more than the "little St. Nick with the run-run-reindeer" of the Beach Boys. He was faithful. He had passion for the truth.

In fact, at one point in the Nicean debate, Nicholas became so passionate that he actually walked over and slapped Arius across the face. He was almost kicked out of the conference for that but Constantine allowed him to apologize and stay. Not bad for a jolly old elf—"Hey Arius, Ho, ho this!" He slapped and he shook him in spite of himself.

I have to say, as a side note, that I’m somewhat sorry that this aspect of Nicholas' character didn’t get included in our modern celebration of Christmas. We could use the Christmas slap. School principals who insist that no songs be sung that have a message true to the actual events in Bethlehem—slap. Mega-church pastors who cancel worship when Christmas falls on Sunday because it’s "inconvenient"—slap. Merchants who only allow their employees to say "happy holidays"—slap, slap, slap.

Okay, I agree, it’s probable just as well that the tradition of the Christmas slap didn’t catch on. But the point behind the slap—as inappropriate as that was—is that Nicholas was one of the faithful. He stood for the truth at Nicea and the truth prevailed. The Council developed the creed we will share as we come to the Lord’s Table—the creed that is so clear about who Jesus is: "God of God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father."

Finally we come to the connection of all this with "O Come, All Ye Faithful." The connection is that the little-sung second stanza is simply the Nicene Creed set to music so you can dance to it.

True God of true God, Light from Light eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

And so we come. We come joyful and triumphant to a very unlikely place of victory. We come to a food trough in a small village in a backward land. We come to Bethlehem. We come because, against all human expectation, God has chosen to show himself in such a place and in such a way. We come because the God of love and mercy offers life to us and through us, even today in Ventura County.

We aren't outsiders to this victory. We are the faithful, the joyful and the triumphant. Our proper response to the invitation isn't to drink too much and keep poor tourists up all night like they do in Rome. We are to come and adore.

So let us affirm our faith (and our faithfulness) by confessing our faith using the words of the ancient Nicene Creed.

St. Nicholas Loses His Cool (at the Council of Nicaea)

By Dave Wilkinson, pastor, Moorpark Presbyterian Church, Moorpark, California. Used by permission.

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