Project Canterbury

Three Christmas Sermons
by A.C.A. Hall,
Bishop of Vermont

I. The Apostolic Carol.
II. The Slaughter of the Innocents.
III. The Way of Salvation.

Burlington, 1914.

These sermons were prepared without any idea of their publication. But, since they are written (to spare my strength in preaching), I am glad, in my inability to move about the diocese, to send them out as a word of exhortation, especially with reference to some dangerous theories about faith and morals which are in the air.

The first and third of the sermons were preached at St. Paul's, Burlington, on Christmas-day and the second Sunday after Christmas; the second at Trinity Church, Winooski, on Holy Innocents' Day (the first Sunday after Christmas).

A. C. A. H.
Epiphany, 1914.


Christmas according to tradition is a season for the singing of carols. The angels set the fashion; the apostles would seem to have followed suit. All the great gospel hymns gather round the Incarnation and have that great mystery for their theme—Mary's Magnificat, Zachariah's Benedictus, Simeon's Nunc dimittis. [Luke i. 46-55, 67-79, ii. 29-32.] At the end of the third chapter of St. Paul's First Epistle to Timothy we have what may be called an Apostolic Carol. Without controversy, the apostle says, great is the mystery of godliness, that is, the revealed truth on which Christian devotion is sustained:

He who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, received up in glory.

As is shown by the rhythmical as well as the antithetical structure of the clauses in the original, they are the fragment of a hymn on our Lord's Incarnation and Triumph, familiar to Timothy and his flock at Ephesus from its use in Christian assemblies for worship.

This is one of several hymns quoted by St. Paul in his later Epistles. There is a quotation from a hymn on Redemption, which is read from the altar as one of the "Comfortable Words," introduced in the Epistle, this same First Epistle to Timothy, by the phrase, "This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received," that

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—

mark you, to save them from being any longer sinners, not to save them, while sinners, from the consequences of their sinful conduct. A third is embedded in the passage from the Epistle to Titus appointed in the Prayer Book to be read at Evening Prayer on Christmas-day. It is from a hymn on The Way of Salvation, and begins "When the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man appeared."

Let us consider shortly the teaching of the Apostolic Carol, and let me very slightly expand its lines:

Manifested [to our senses] in His human form,
Justified [to our faith] in His eternal Godhead,
Seen by angels [as never ere He took flesh],
Heralded [by apostles] among the Gentile peoples,
Believed on in a [corrupt and faithless] world,
Taken up [at His Ascension, so as to be] in glory.

We cannot pass over without notice the difference of reading at the very beginning. Is "God" or "Who" the subject of the verb "was manifested"? You find "God" in your ordinary Bibles, "Who" in the Revised Version. The difference in Greek, written in abbreviated form, is simply that of the presence or absence of a little bar or stroke across our letter O. With the bar it would stand for Theos, God; without for Hos, the relative pronoun, Who. A microscopic examination of the manuscripts leaves the question doubtful, though the evidence generally is in favor of "Who." But it matters very little. For the pre-existence of our Lord is implied in the word "manifested." Of no human being should we say on his birthday that he was then "manifested in the flesh." Yet this is the language which the New Testament writers, not St. Paul alone, consistently use concerning the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is not an ordinary birthday, even of an extraordinary person. It was God, the Most High, who as on this day was born in human form of a Virgin Mother, who took our nature, not only its intellectual and spiritual faculties, but its physical envelope also, with all its members and organs. "He was manifested in the flesh." This was what the early Christians rejoiced in, what caused their holy mirth. Hymns are not written (if so, they are generally a failure) to teach doctrine: they express in an easy and popular way what is already believed.

Before difficult theological problems had been thought out—almost, we may say, before they had presented themselves—the earliest disciples stated their belief in simple form, unmistakable as to what it contained or involved:

He was manifested [to our senses] in human form,
He was seen by angels [as never ere He took flesh].

There was an unveiling of Divine Wisdom and Goodness even to the angels. By the Incarnation heavenly intelligences gained a new and fuller knowledge of God than had hitherto been vouchsafed to them.

What does it all mean, this "mystery of Godliness," as the apostle terms it? Two things clearly: (1) We know God in human flesh; and (2) we know manhood in God the Son.

1. God being right among men is the pledge of His sympathy. No longer is He to be thought of as an absent Ruler, far removed above the cares and sorrows and struggles—or the joys—of human life. He has entered into them all. He understands us. And we too now know Him, who and what He is, the kind of person He is, the sort of character He has, the way in which He looks at things, and judges men and women: the moral glory of God shines forth in the face of Jesus Christ. He is no longer an Unknown God; He is manifest in the flesh; the divine perfections are translated into the language of human conduct. "The Word was made flesh," St. John says, "and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory (the glory of His life), full of grace and truth." So He commended Himself to human consciences; His life and character were such as His disciples felt could belong to none other than the only-begotten Son of God. Thus (this seems to be the meaning of the rather difficult second line of the Carol) He was "justified in the spirit," proved, verified as to His divine nature.

2. And then there is the corresponding cause for gladness. If we know God in human flesh, we know manhood in the Son of God. Human nature, in being thus made the medium of God's self-disclosure, is indeed exalted; our real dignity, as created in God's image, is shown, with all the possibilities and capacities of our nature. It was the Incarnation which gave to simple Christian believers an altogether new knowledge of God, such a contrast to the guesses, vague and contradictory, of the philosophers. And it was the manifestation of God in the flesh that filled the early Christian Church with a glowing, burning purity, in contrast with the defilements and abominable moral disorders of the age. If the human body has not merely been made by God, but used by God as the instrument of His working, it should indeed be preserved in temperance, soberness, and chastity. No part or function is to be disparaged, and none to be used merely for sensual pleasure. "The body is for the Lord," for His service here, and, in a changed and transformed condition, for a still higher destiny hereafter, since the Lord in human form has been "taken up into glory."

Such were doctrinal motives for holiness among apostolic Christians, "the mystery of godliness," the revealed truth on which Christian devotion was sustained. Be sure a loosening of hold on the great doctrine of Clod manifest in the flesh will tend to leave us again a prey to passions which philosophy and considerations of prudence have been proved unable to control. Our domestic and social and civic life, if it is to be sound and secure, must be penetrated by Christian principles.

Let me here make a suggestion, the bearing of which will be recognized by any who are acquainted with certain theories concerning our Lord's teaching that are prevalent in these days.

[What follows within brackets is mostly taken, and largely in the same words, from an article on "Christianity as a Gospel" by G. C. Bosanquet in the Church Quarterly Review for October, 1913, pp. 159-166. The article I read after the sermon was prepared, and I incorporated these passages.]

[By the fact of the Incarnation God made the amazing revelation that the divine was not to be found by standing aside from the common life of the world, but that it is inherent in and through that common life; for man the divine is to be found in the human; the eternal in the actual, the highest and noblest in the meanest and the least. This is the doctrine of "Jesus Christ come in the flesh," which St. John declares to be a test of true Christianity. Distinctly in harmony with this is the story of our Lord's life and work as recorded in the earlier Gospels. So far from being entirely taken up with an immediately expected Messianic kingdom of glory, and so teaching simple abstraction from all temporal concerns, the Christ of the Gospels is intimately connected with the common life of ordinary human beings. He is seen to care for their sorrows and to share in their joys in a way that one whose whole teaching was that the present age was soon to be swept utterly away, and that the things of the world were of no account and to be absolutely renounced, could never have done. He uses His divine power not for the deliverance of the Jewish nation from a foreign yoke; but from that which he saw to be a far more real oppression and tyranny, the suffering of mankind from evil in its various forms, physical, mental and moral. He sets Himself (not merely by way of illustration or acted parable) to cure disease and banish disorder in the lives of men and women, to restore human nature and human life to its true harmony and saneness, to set man free to live his own true life. He came to declare and to bring about the triumph of good over evil, of order over disorder, of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of the Evil One.]

It was this belief in God manifest in the flesh, and the joy and strength that the belief supplied, which made the early Church a missionary body. This knowledge of God, this dignity of our nature, must be made known to all men. Christians could not keep the good news to themselves. This knowledge of God, this assurance that He cares, cares so much as to come and visit us, and share our burden, and lift us up to our true dignity, must be proclaimed to all men. Accordingly the Carol goes on—

He who was manifested in the flesh,
and justified in the spirit,
and seen of angels—

is heralded unto all peoples, not to one nation only, but to all. The Gentile magi along with the Hebrew shepherds in the Christmas story illustrate the all-embracing character of the kingdom of Christ, the Catholic Church that He would establish. The Gentile Christians at Ephesus, where Timothy was bishop, already saw the fulfillment of His command to "make disciples of all nations." The true word of the Gospel they saw, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, in the Asiatic churches, and in all the world, bearing fruit and increasing. He is heralded among the peoples, and believed on in the world. The mystery of godliness, the revealed truth which stirs and animates Christian devotion, is the truth of which (as the apostle says in the verse immediately preceding his quotation of the Carol) the Church is the pillar and base, upholding it like a beacon, so that it may catch the eyes of all, like the statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, holding aloft its lamp to shed a light over the surrounding waters and shipping.

Our faith, if real, must be expansive and missionary. If we have truly believed the word of life, the message concerning the life which was with the Father, and has been manifested unto us,—that is, the life that is God's, that was Christ's, that should be man's;—then that which we have seen and heard we shall surely declare to others, that they also may have fellowship with us, sharing our fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

The assurance of our knowledge of God, the pledge of His sympathy with us, the exhibition of the dignity of human nature and human life, the spreading of these truths abroad—these are the lessons of the Apostolic Carol.


Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones. Matthew xviii. 10.

On the third day after Christmas the Church commemorates the Holy Innocents, the little children of Bethlehem who were slain by King Herod in his vain attempt to destroy Mary's Child, our blessed Lord. Herod feared that the Child born at Bethlehem would dispossess him of the throne to which he had no right. The story is read in the Gospel for the day. I am not going to dwell farther upon that; I want to speak to you on a subject naturally suggested by the Christmas festival, the Sacredness of Childhood; and in the light of that Christmas lesson to speak about wrongs done to children now, amongst us, worse, it seems to me, than Herod's slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem.

Our Lord, the eternal Son of God, when He took our nature, condescended to pass through every stage of human life. He was carried in His mother's womb, and born as a helpless baby; He grew through childhood to boyhood, from youth to perfect manhood; and then in the fulness of man's estate, when His powers were at their best, He laid down His life, or suffered it to be taken from Him, rather than swerve from perfect obedience to His Father. So He hallowed childhood by His own experience.

He specially commended the childlike temper of obedience and trustfulness and innocence. Such a temper he declared to be necessary for admission to His kingdom.

And then He solemnly warned of the awful danger of injuring His little ones, or of perverting and leading them astray. Whoso shall cause one of these little ones to stumble, it were better for him that a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were sunk in the depth of the sea. Let him be thrown like a dog with a stone about its neck into the river, rather than incur that misery. See that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels—appointed to guard or represent them—do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven, and are ready to avenge the wrong; It is not the will of your Father that one of these little ones should perish. What God values so highly, man must not despise.

Well, then, with these thoughts in our minds about the Sacredness of Childhood from our Lord's experience and from His teaching, let me point out some ways in which that sacredness is commonly violated amongst ourselves. I may mention six such ways that occur to me, with only a word or two about each.

First I must speak of that which is a familiar subject to us here in a mill village—Child Labor. We know the bad effect on a child of being sent into a factory—kept from school and the education which should mean so much; the physical injury of long hours in a close atmosphere, the absence of play that is a child's right, the danger of injury from accident. Of course we have laws regulating all this to a certain extent. But laws do not execute themselves; they require public opinion—the public opinion not only of the State at large, but of the particular community—to enforce them. And in some cases it is the parents who oppose the enforcement of the law, and seek to evade its requirements or prohibitions. They plead hard times and difficult circumstances. But, my friends, we must be willing to make sacrifices of present gain or convenience and comfort for the children's good, for their future development, physical and intellectual. And much more must we take care and pains to guard the moral and spiritual interests of children.

But think, second, of how often there is failure here, through thoughtlessness or wilfulness a slaying of the innocents, a robbing children of their innocence, in neglect of religious instruction and training; leaving a child to go to Church or Sunday School as he or she pleases, or inhere they choose. Of course they are not capable of choosing, nor called upon to do so. Parents are responsible to choose for them, just as you would choose a doctor, and not leave the matter to the child's preference. There is a right and a wrong in such questions, if you have any convictions and principles and beliefs, yourselves.

Closely connected with this is, third, the ruin of children through bad example at home, in drunkenness, profanity and irreverence, quarrelling. Example and influence at home surely counteract any teaching of Church and Sunday School, of the Baptism and Confirmation to which perhaps you bring them.

Fourth, shall I go a step farther and speak of the wrong done to children by Divorce, the breaking up of the child's home, the unnatural severance from one or other of its parents, the tangle of relationships which a fresh marriage involves, with parents who are not parents, and a mother's husband who is not the child's father, and the forfeiture of the growing child's respect for its parents? Dreadful! Surely, surely, if a motive for patience and forbearance and for steady fidelity to marriage vows is needed beyond loyalty to God and to one another, the thought of the unhappiness and shame brought to the children of a broken marriage might serve as a restraint. In all these ways little ones are caused to stumble. Woe, woe to those through whom the occasion to stumble cometh!

This leads, fifth, to a word of warning and exhortation concerning the serious duty of parents to guide their children about their companions and their reading and their amusements, and to give quietly to their growing girls and boys advice as to preserving their bodies in temperance and soberness and chastity. It is most important to forestall information that is likely to be given in a bad way and for evil purposes, by proper kindly instruction from responsible persons about the right use of their bodies and all their organs and powers. Parents best of all should give this teaching. Public instruction in school on such subjects is an exceedingly questionable proceeding. ft is from neglect of this training, through false shame or carelessness on the part of those who ought to give it, that so many lives are marred physically and morally.

And then one more, a sixth, point. In part due to the want of proper instruction about the relation of the sexes, and the responsibility of parentage and the dignity of motherhood, there often conies, from a desire to avoid shame or pain or trouble, the terrible slaughter of the innocents in the destruction of life before birth. Of course all true instincts are against this and condemn it; the destruction of life in any stage is Murder, the destruction of that of which God makes parents the channels, but of which He and He alone is the giver, and that therefore none must dare destroy. Life must be guarded and cherished in all its stages and in all its varied developments (physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual) as His most sacred and precious gift, for which he holds us responsible.

Let me just enumerate the six ways I have pointed out in which the sacredness of childhood may be violated, and Herod's slaughter reenacted:

1. Through child-labor;
2. Through carelessness about religious training;
3. Through bad example at home;
4. Through divorce, and the misery and shame thus brought on the children;
5. Through neglect properly and reverently to teach growing children about the mysteries of life and the right use of their bodies;
6. Through the destruction of life before birth.

This Christmas-tide, before the Holy Child in His mother's arms and with St. Joseph reverently standing by to guard, let us promise to respect the child life that God so highly values, on which he Has placed His seal of approval, that He has fenced with such solemn warnings,—"See that ye despise not one of these little ones."


When the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man, appeared,
Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves,
But according to His mercy He saved us,
Through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost,
Which He poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
That, being justified by His grace,
We might be made heirs, according to hope, of eternal life.

This is the fragment of a hymn of the early Christian Church imbedded in St. Paul's Epistle to Titus. That is the force of the words which follow the quotation, "Faithful is the saying"—true and trustworthy that well-known hymn on the Way of Salvation which I have just quoted. So the apostle wrote.

First let me emphasize a point of doctrine. Nowadays we are sometimes told that the facts of Christianity are of little account, that it is the ideas alone which are of importance: that we might cease to believe the articles of the Creed, for instance concerning the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord, as historical facts and yet continue to regard the statements as valuable and inspiring representations of great ideas. With regard to any such position there are two things to be said. First, that religion can tolerate no playing of tricks with either intellect or conscience,—much less with both! Assertions are cither true or false. If false, let us not pretend to treat them as true, above all in a solemn profession made to God in an assembly of worshippers; nor let us try to build the house of our moral and spiritual life on such a foundation of sand as a beautiful but imaginary illustration. The spiritual significance and force of the articles of our belief depend on their historical reality. Secondly, as a matter of experience the ideas of God's goodness, of man's dignity, of the necessity of self-sacrifice and discipline, of the certain ultimate triumph of goodness and truth over evil and falsehood, have been brought home to men by belief in the truths rehearsed in the Creed. The historical statements of the Creed as to the birth, death, and rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as to the coming of the Holy Ghost, being certainly and firmly believed, inferences were drawn from those facts, regarding religious temper and conduct.

This is the force of the quoted hymn. The facts which we recite in the Creed were quite clear in the minds of apostolic Christians: the Father's loving attitude toward us; the Son our Saviour's work for us; the Holy Spirit's work in us; all leading to our hope of eternal life and blessedness: these made the theme of their glad song.

Just see a little more in detail of what they sang. "God's kindness and benignity, His love for man." (His philanthropy is the word used.) The Incarnation was the great illustration and proof of this. Man had been originally made in God's image, in his spiritual being a created counterpart of his Maker. He had been favoured in all sorts of ways, trained (as Bishop Andrewes sums up the Scripture side of the training) by the writings of the Law, the oracles of Prophets, the music of Psalms, the instruction of Proverbs, the experience of Histories. Now God draws near in the closest possible manner; He sees the need and the tangle of man's disordered life, and would rescue him. He sends His Son and Word to take man's nature, and live his life, to bear his burdens and fight out his battles and restore his dignity. There is no difference, you see, in character or attitude between the Father and the Son, between our Creator and our Redeemer. It is the Father's love that gives and sends His Son, by whom man was made, and all things, to restore and remake him at the cost of the toil and struggle of His incarnate life.

But the hymn does not stop there. When the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man, appeared—in the Incarnation; not in consequence of works of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Ghost, which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

The early Christians were not merely looking back to what our Lord had done while He was on earth. They rejoice in present gifts from the living Lord, who comes to them, one by one, by His Spirit and in the Sacraments which He has instituted. "The washing—or bath—of regeneration" refers of course to Baptism, with its symbolic washing of the body, the outward token and pledge of the accompanying cleansing of the inner man, his mind and heart and conscience, by the Spirit of God. Thus God "saved" them, placed them in a state of salvation and safety, having rescued them from the bondage to evil in which they had been held. This is the cause of their rejoicing, of their glad hymn. They contrast their present condition of spiritual security and privilege with their past life and experience. "We were foolish, disobedient, going astray, enslaved by divers lusts and pleasures, passing our time in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another." This is the confession, made on behalf of all by the apostle, that leads up to the quoting of the hymn: But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and His love toward man, appeared, . . according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost . . . that (this is the end and object of all—the Father's kindness, the Son's work, the Spirit's gifts) that, being justified—not only counted just but made just—by His grace—His loving favour and help—we might be made heirs, according to our hope based on His promise, of eternal life. From Christ the Saviour they had gained a renewed and cleansed life on earth, here and now, and they looked forward to its full and perfect realization hereafter in the world to come.

Now, beside the doctrinal lesson with which I began, let me urge very briefly three considerations suggested by the words of this early Christian hymn.

1. "Not by words of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to His mercy He saved us." So the apostolic Christians sang. We cannot lift ourselves, or make over our nature. The disorder into which it has fallen requires more drastic and thorough treatment than we can ourselves administer. No less a remedy than the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God could effect this. "For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven," and was made man, taking our nature in its every part, fashioned from the first moment of its existence by the Spirit's moulding in exact correspondence with God's design for man. So the race gained a fresh start from that pure and disciplined humanity of the Word made flesh. He took our nature by the Spirit's power of the substance of His Virgin Mother, as the Christmas Preface says, "without spot of sin, to make us clean from all sin."

It is Christianity, the religion of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, which has transformed life, giving motive and inspiration to civilization in its various forms. But civilization before or apart from Christianity is powerless to control passion, to curb selfish ambition and self-assertion, the vices of our disordered nature, which lead (we know it all too well) to crimes against civilization, to frauds and wars. It is the religion of Jesus Christ—its grace as well as its truth—which is needed to transform the life and conduct and character of the nations, whether nominally Christian or avowedly heathen.

2. If we cannot rely on civilization to lift man up, neither must we be content with an unsupernatural view of the Christian religion in the present, whatever may be granted as to the historical fact of the Incarnation nineteen centuries ago. God saved us (so the apostolic Christians sang) through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost. This He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our ascended Saviour, who in highest heaven still wears our human nature, and by His Spirit and through the Sacraments of His Church makes us members of His Body and partakers of that renewed humanity.

Christ was born for us, that He might be born in us. Sacraments are an integral part of Christianity. Baptism is not a mere sign of profession, but a bath of spiritual cleansing. The Communion is no mere memorial feast reminding us of a loved and loving Master; but an imparting of food for the strengthening and refreshing of our inner life, a bringing us into spiritual contact with the life-giving manhood of our glorified Head.

Have any of you through inherited prejudice or misunderstanding, or through false shame or carelessness, been content to look back to Christ as an historic figure in the past, or merely to look up to Him as a distant figure in a far-off heaven? May you in this New Year learn to welcome and worship Him as a living Lord, present in our midst to impart to us through the Sacraments He has ordained, according to our several needs, the virtue of what He accomplished for us by His birth and life and death and rising again in the past.

3. This brings me to my last word, a special hint for the New Year. "The washing of regeneration" standing for the outward part in Baptism, is once administered. "The renewing by the Holy Ghost," its inner grace, is to be continually experienced. Because we have been regenerated, born anew into the Kingdom and Church of God, therefore we are to seek to be continually renovated in mind and heart and conduct. Year by year we should experience this more, and show it. This is the meaning of our Christmas Collect. Our nature has been restored by Christ; we have been reborn in Him: so we must be continually renewed after His likeness.

What renovation of our life, in purity and courage, in greater prayerfulness and patience, in more thorough truthfulness and unselfishness, are we to seek—you and I—this year, as a step onward towards the perfect life and perfect service for which we are permitted to hope in the eternal world?

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and (as at this time) to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

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