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Christmas History
November 9, 2004
John Witvliet
Christmas is steeped in history - from the birth of Christ some 2,000 years ago to the classic centuries-old hymns and carols sung each December.

Now, from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, comes a new devotional book that, hope the editors, will bring even more history - but also currency - to the Christmas season.

"Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel" is subtitled "ancient sermons and hymns for contemporary Christian inspiration."

The book, from Baker Books, was released late last month.

Inside the slender, 143-page volume are 13 historical sermons - all of which were originally preached on Christmas day - dating from near the time of Christ to the time of the Reformation.

"The first dates back to just three centuries after the birth of Christ," says John Witvliet (above), director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and a co-editor of the book (with Halifax, N.S. pastor David Vroege). "In fact it may well have been preached in Bethlehem itself - in a church built to honor Jesus' birth."

That sermon is by Jerome, a Biblical scholar who translated the entire Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into Latin. The final two sermons in the book are by Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin (for whom Calvin College is named).

In between are offerings from such preachers as Gregory the Great, John Wyclif and Thomas a Kempis. And, after each sermon, there's a Christmas hymn, written in the same century as the preceding sermon.

Witvliet says reading the collection of historical sermons on the birth of Christ can provide new insights for contemporary worshippers, including preachers.

"In a culture that values novelty and innovation," he says, "what is remarkable about Christmas is that it is the one time of the year when worshippers who otherwise prefer new music often want to sing old songs. In a culture of emails and instant messages, the candles and carols of Christmas are for some worshippers the most tangible signs of continuity with the historic church that they will experience all year."

That continuity, Witvliet says, is important. While many Christians attend church hoping to hear sermons that connect horizontally with their lives and the day's issues, services enriched by ideas from long-ago preachers and composers can help worshipers frame their own stories vertically, within the context of "the old, old story."

Vroege reiterates that sentiment.

"I hope readers will experience Christmas less as an isolated event," he says, "and more as part of an ongoing story."