Celebrating Advent with Martin Luther
In the theological tumult that was Martin Luther's life, the great reformer seemed to be heartened each year by the great festivals of the church, particularly Advent and Christmas. The man who "invented" the Protestant parsonage was also sustained by a blazing sense of humor and a happy home life. It was open house all year in the large converted monastery at the east end of Wittenberg where Luther, his wife Katie, and their six children lived, along with numerous students who stayed there as well. One of them wrote that as Christmas approached, Luther grew increasingly cheerful: "All his words and songs and thoughts concerned the incarnation of our Lord. Then he sighed and said, 'Oh, we poor people that we should be so cold and indifferent to this great joy that has been given us. For this is indeed the greatest gift, which far exceeds all else that God has created. Yet we believe so sluggishly, even though the angels proclaim and preach and sing, and their lovely song sums up the whole Christian faith, for 'Glory to God in the highest' is the very heart of worship."
Luther's writings contain a multitude of references to Advent and Christmas. The following excerpt comes from a sermon on the Nativity that he preached in 1530:
If Christ had arrived with trumpets and lain in a cradle of gold, his birth would have been a splendid affair. But it would not be a comfort to me. He was rather to lie in the lap of a poor maiden and be thought of little significance in the eyes of the world. Now I can come to him. Now he reveals himself to the miserable in order not to give any impression that he arrives with great power, splendor, wisdom, and aristocratic manners. But upon his return on that Day, when he will oppose the high and the mighty, it will be different. Now he comes to the poor, who need a Savior, but then he will come as a Judge against those who are persecuting him now.
In 1543, as Christmas approached, Luther gave a lecture on Isaiah 9:6 in which he portrayed Christ as a ladder:
The Son of God did not want to be seen and found in heaven. Therefore he descended from heaven into this humility and came to us in our flesh, laid himself into the womb of his mother and into the manger and went on to the cross. This was the ladder that he placed on earth so that we might ascend to God on it. This is the way you must take. If you depart from this way and try to speculate about the glory of the Divine Majesty—without this ladder—you will invent marvelous matters that transcend your horizon, but you will do so at very great harm to yourself.
Again in 1543, Luther preached a Christmas sermon in which he identified Christ as our brother:
When one of several brothers becomes a great magnate, how happy the other brothers become! How gladdening they find this, as you see in Genesis when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. And this is indeed a natural joy. But why is it, then, that we also are not joyful and our hearts are not touched and we do not praise and thank God upon hearing that our God became our flesh and blood and now sits above at the right hand of God as Lord over all creatures?
Among his many roles—theologian, reformer, professor, scholar, exegete, hymnodist, and prolific author—Martin Luther probably considered his role as preacher to be most important. Biographer Roland H. Bainton writes, "Luther is at his best and most characteristic in his sermons on the Nativity," and then excerpts one of them in which Luther unfolds the familiar story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem:
The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time would have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: "If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!" Yes you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don't you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
Martin Luther loved Christmas. The joy he derived from the festival each year not only overflowed in his own composition of such familiar carols as "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come," but also recharged his spirit for the many struggles in his continually challenged life.
Paul L. Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and an editorial adviser for Christian History.
The first three excerpts above are translated from the German edition of Luther's works. The final excerpt is from Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1950). You can buy individual volumes of Luther's Works (American Edition) or all of them on CD-ROM at ChristianBook.com. Also check out Martin Luther's Christmas Book, edited by Roland H. Bainton (Augsburg Fortress, 1997), and What Luther Says by Ewald Plass (Concordia, 2006).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.