A Child Is Born

Charles Jennens helped make his friend rather famous. That wasn’t his intent, as he had far loftier goals for what he wanted them to produce together.

As a devout Christian, Jennens was concerned about cultural trends. The questions raised by opinion-makers challenging traditional values were causing church goers and even church leaders to doubt the authority of the Bible and the truth claims made by and about Jesus Christ.

So Jennens approached his German friend, an entertainer, with an idea. He wanted to use the medium of popular music to present lyrics based on the King James Bible, to tell the story of Jesus in an uplifting and powerful way in secular settings.  He reasoned that an authentic Christian voice was needed to counter the cultural mood of the day.  So with Jennens selecting the words and his friend composing the music (in just 24 days), they produced a work that accomplished their purpose, and ensured that history would never forget them.

The year was 1741. The friend was George Handel.  The work they produced was an English-language, three-part oratorio called Messiah.  Now you know the rest of the story.

Handel originally intended the Messiah for Easter, as he introduced the new oratorio near that holiday in 1742 in Dublin.  However today it is more associated with Christmas because Part 1 emphasizes fulfilled prophecy of the Messiah’s first Advent.  A Chorus in Part 1 presents this profound text:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6).

The more famous Hallelujah Chorus concludes Part 2 amidst a selection of texts about the crucifixion, resurrection, second advent, and the day of judgment. Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century challenged these truths and the deity of Christ as do skeptics today, mythologizing the idea of a Creator born into His creation.  Yet without Bethlehem, there is no Calvary; if no Calvary the empty tomb is empty of meaning.  “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).  So, either there is a Christmas miracle or Christianity is incoherent.

“A Child is born” tells of the first coming. As surely as Jesus fulfilled ancient prophecy in that way, He will come again as promised.  But the second Advent will be a great trumpet and gathering, infinitely more glorious than the grandest presentation of Handel’s (and Jennens’) Messiah.

Changed Lyrics

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is considered by some to be the greatest Christmas song of all-time.  What you may not know about the composer is really quite a story.

Hugh Martin was born in 1914, the son of an architect in Birmingham, Alabama. At his mother’s urging, he developed his talent and followed his dream into the world of show business.  He eventually moved to California where he became part of the Hollywood’s Golden Age, working with stars like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds.

Martin is best known for the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis in which Judy Garland performed his famous Christmas composition.  The lyrics are sentimental, hoping away troubles and pining for friends.  The song maintains its secular theme, even with the line “We all will be together if the fates allow,” which works for Hollywood, but is a hollow hope.

The young composer went on to enlist during WWII, serving the troops as an entertainer. After the war, he returned to his show business career, but soon began to suffer bouts of depression as the Golden Age began to wind down.

In 1974 at the age of 60, he entered a hospital for physical and psychological treatment. A fellow patient explained and demonstrated the Christian gospel to Martin, and he experienced a decisive conversion to Christ!  He explained that his life had been self-centered and he had “hit rock bottom.  God had to bring it to my attention that I was not all I thought I was.”  After his recovery, his career changed as he began to work in gospel music.

That’s not all that changed. In 2001 he wrote new lyrics for his Christmas tune, including these:  Have yourself a blessed little Christmas, Christ the King is born…Tell the world we celebrate the Savior’s birth. Let us gather to sing to Him, and to bring to Him our praise.”  Quite a departure from whatever the ‘fates’ might allow.  Joni Eareckson Tada recorded this version with Martin for her radio program in 2008.

The first part of Martin’s life is characterized by success, dazzle, and awards, but that lifestyle didn’t bring real happiness as his troubles were not “out of sight.” That was not the final stanza of his life’s lyrics as he experienced a changed life complete with new lyrics. An authentic encounter with Jesus Christ has that effect, giving hope for the most lost, depressed, ruined person.  The Psalmist calls, “Sing to Him a new song!” (Ps 33:2-3).  Welcoming the coming of the Savior brings the gift of a new song to sing, new lyrics to live.

Before Martin died in 2011 at age 96, he said, “It was my pleasure to talk about Jesus. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”  I share his sentiments and his wish that you “have yourself a blessed little Christmas!”

(You may be interested in the autobiography Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door.)

John’s Christmas Story

I thought a pastor friend of mine had stepped out of his usual humble character, at least during his introductory statement.  Anyone without a working knowledge of the Gospels probably fell for it.

He began his comments, “Tonight I will recite from memory the entire Christmas story.”  “What is he doing?” I wondered privately.  He continued, “from the Gospel according to John.”  I suddenly realized the prank, but stifled a laugh.  He stepped back from the podium, clasped his hands behind his back and glanced heavenward in a grandiose pose, caught a chest full of air as to recite paragraphs without inhaling, and pausing for comedic timing, said, “The Word became flesh!”  Which is John’s entire Christmas story in four words.

It’s true that John left the details to Dr. Luke and Tax Collector Matthew.  But what a profound albeit brief account of the events long ago in the little town of Bethlehem!  John starts his Gospel by agreeing with the ancient Greeks that the unity, coherence, and meaning of the universe is by a divine power called Logos, i.e. Word.  He adds that the Word has no origin, is the agency of creation, and is the life and Light of humanity.  Then his startling Nativity narrative that the Word came to Earth as a human!  He is describing Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The lack of angelic visitations, no-vacancy inns, and mysterious Magi from afar make that simple Christmas account in John easy to miss.  That’s no tragedy, if you don’t miss the meaning of it.  Max Lucado imagined that even eyewitnesses may have missed the blessed event’s meaning.  “The merchants are unaware that God has visited their planet.  The innkeeper would never believe that he had just sent God into the cold.  And the people would scoff at anyone who told them the Messiah lay in the arms of a teenager on the outskirts of their village.  They were all too busy to consider the possibility.  Those who missed His Majesty’s arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice; no, they missed it because they simply weren’t looking.”  Lucado expounds John’s phrase, “The world did not know him.”  Is the world looking, knowing yet?

The simplest telling of the Christmas story is in this final Gospel.  God the Son was with the Father in the beginning, and He took on humanity so He could take on the cross.  His Christmas gift is for anyone who receives Him and believes in His name, to be reborn as a child of God by His grace.  See for yourself in John chapter 1, the short version.

Christmas Home

It’s that time when the giving of thanks leans into the giving of Christmas.  If for you that means gift-buying dread, travel concerns, or awkward parties, I’d like to offer you something that might freshen and deepen your thoughts about Christmas.

G.K. Chesterton was a dominating British writer in the early 20th century.  He was a journalist, art critic, crime novelist, and defender of the Christian faith.  T.S. Elliot described his poetry as “first-rate journalistic balladry” having observed a connection to common themes of life.

Among his many works we find a Christmas poem.  In it, which I only excerpt below due to brevity’s demands, he explores homecomings.  Before reading, it helps to settle into the soft memories of your own sweet homecomings, such as that time, amidst the world’s rudeness and triviality, you escaped back to family to recover some peace.  It was a time of rest and a place of belonging with loved ones, good memories, and the blessing of Mom’s cooking!  From “The House of Christmas”:

There fared a mother driven forth, out of an inn to roam;

In the place where she was homeless, all men are at home.


Here we have battle and blazing eyes,

And chance and honor and high surprise,

But our homes are under miraculous skies

Where the yule tale was begun.


A Child in a foul stable where the beasts feed and foam,

Only where He was homeless are you and I at home.


To an open house in the evening, Home shall men come,

To an older place than Eden and a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

To the things that cannot be and that are,

To the place where God was homeless and all men are at home.

Chesterton connects the idea of home to that great mystery of God’s coming in the flesh, not to house or inn, but a foul stable of beasts.  Yet in that non-home, we find the home that a searching soul longs for.  Looking into that scene, we see that God reveals His love as an Innocent who would take away our sins.  At once, Bethlehem acknowledges the battle and blazing harshness of life, but offers an open door, a journey’s end, and eternity’s miracle.  “Come to me,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest,” an invitation to come home.

Chesterton once said that “joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”  As the angel expressed to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”  In today’s fearful world, we need good news and great joy, a Christmas gift meant for you.