Are Christmas carols coming to the end of their run? “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has done rather well since Charles Wesley wrote it in 1739, but that was long before the “Age of Aquarius.”
When the moon is in the seventh house,
And Jupiter aligns with Mars;
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars.
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius …
This “rock hymn” from the Broadway show Hair is more than a hit. It is sacred music, “magic crystal revelation” for those who seek “the mind’s true liberation”—in the Age of Aquarius. No doubt this astrological doggerel needs all the help it can get from both drugs and the beat; but then, rock, dope, and sex are all part of Aquarian liberation. Like the Christmas carols, “Aquarius” is a hymn of salvation; it proclaims an everlasting kingdom of harmony and peace. The salvation of the new star-fated age is the ancient hope of Eastern mysticism: the transformation of human consciousness.
Just how ecstasy will bring in the political kingdom is not too clear. Will the management have to stop the world because so many young people are getting off? Dropping out and “turning on” might conceivably produce an age of anarchy rather than of peace. One observer of last summer’s Woodstock festival was disturbed by the “bovine passivity” of the drugged masses. Watching those groovy pastures, he feared other shows to come when the controllers might cut the groove, package the visions, and preserve for the devout only the freedom to stay stoned.
The New Left has worked up a formula for using mind-altering trips to serve society-altering revolution. The new mix adds Freud to Marx in a Molotov cocktail that is aimed at all repression, psychological and social. Revolutionary action will smash personality structure and social structure together.
The Age of Aquarius begins to look like a bad trip. Yet it has a desperate fascination for one who sees no way out, and hopes against hope. Long ago the star of Bethlehem led astrologers from the bondage of the zodiac to the worship of the infant Saviour. Those who now turn to the East seeking the harmony of the cosmic spheres have missed the sign of Bethlehem.
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
Yes, we have all heard of the angel’s word to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Carols are the sound of the season, amplified to fill our shopping centers. “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground.…” We all have heard, but who has listened?
“Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.…” The Lord—in a manger! Feel the shock of the shepherds. Chilling darkness in the open field, then lightning, blazing lightning that did not strike in one flash but engulfed them in blinding glory. Exposed against the stones of the pasture, they heard the announcement of the Messenger from another world.
The constriction of their fear opened to a sense of unbearable joy. “Good tidings of great joy … to all the people … a Saviour, Christ the Lord.” They had watched for sheep but they witnessed what the prophets and sages had awaited through the centuries. The Messiah was born!
From darkness to light, from shock to bliss, from fear to joy. The armies of the Lord of hosts shout, “Glory to God in the highest!” Surely their praise must crumble every wall of oppression, every dark tower of pride and violence. The new age of God’s deliverance has broken in at last.
But a greater shock is planted in the words of the angel. The sign of heaven is most unheavenly. The sign of the angels, the sign of the Lord’s birth is this: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The Lord of the angels—in a manger, the feedbin for cattle? The sign is a scandal. If this is the message, why should angels bring it? Ought not the legions of angels to march on Jerusalem or Rome? What heavenly deliverance is this?
Luke is at pains to tell us how the Christ came to be born in Bethlehem. Caesar has decreed a tax registration. At Caesar’s command the royal line of David must be enrolled and taxed.
What of God’s promise that he would establish David’s throne forever? Shall the birth of the Lion of the tribe of Judah be determined by the decree of Caesar? David himself was severely judged for daring to number God’s holy people (2 Sam. 24). Shall Caesar enroll the Lord’s anointed? There, on the emperor’s list, a name must be written down: “Jesus … Son of David … Son of God!”
The hallelujahs of the angels reflect the perspective of heaven on the strange exercise of God’s rule. Long ago Elijah had been taught that lesson. Standing alone in his contest with the pagan priests of an apostate nation, he had been vindicated by fire from heaven. But after his triumph came despair. The pagan Jezebel was still queen, Baal was still worshiped. Elijah fled to the wilderness but was brought to the mount of God. There he found that God appeared not in the great signs of the divine presence, fire, wind, earthquake—but in the whispered voice that declared his will. Not by fire from heaven but by his ordering of history God would destroy the worship of Baal. Elisha would be made prophet; Jehu, king; and Hazael, a Syrian king, would be raised up to be the sword of God’s judgment and the instrument of his plan.
Yes, Caesar decrees an enrollment, but Caesar’s decree serves God’s purpose. By means of Caesar God’s providence brings Mary and Joseph to David’s royal city so that the word of the Lord might be fulfilled: “But thou, Bethlehem … out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old” (Mic. 5:2, ASV).
In the scandal of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, under Caesar’s dominion, is hidden the purpose that the angels praise. God can withhold his judgment and still carry forward his work of salvation. His avenging angels can carry the mystery of the Gospel.
For there is more to the scandal of the Lord’s birth. He is laid in a manger. There is no room for him in the inn of the city of David. Incredible! Of all places—a birth in Bethlehem of one in the royal line! Of all times—when those who could trace their lineage were gathered there by Caesar’s edict!
No, to Joseph’s desperate efforts and Mary’s silent need Bethlehem offers only the corner of a stable and a manger. With vivid irony the words of Isaiah find unimagined fulfillment: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isa. 1:3). His master’s crib! In the ancient Greek translation of Isaiah Luke’s word for “manger” occurs in this passage, and “master’s” is literally “lord’s” (kuriou). “The manger of the Lord”: the ass knows it, but not “my people”! “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11).
The sign of the manger is given to shepherds. This too is scandal to the proud. Only on Christmas cards have shepherds and angels come to belong together. The wealthy rulers sleeping in Jerusalem—or perhaps in Bethlehem’s inn—would hold shepherds in contempt. God chooses the nobodies over the somebodies; the mighty angels pass every earthly aristocracy to bring the blessing of heaven to rough men of the fields. The manger sign is no more amazing than the “stablemen” who are summoned by heaven to the manger of the Lord.
Yet they are summoned, and, half-blinded still, they go running and stumbling to Bethlehem. The scandal of the manger is no stone of stumbling to their faith. They will find the child there, shut out, but not abandoned; in the manger, but wrapped in swaddling clothes. No other woman attends his mother, but she lovingly cleanses and swaddles her infant son. Her devotion makes the swaddling clothes a sign, too. The shepherds find the Lord both given and received—in the manger.
There in the dark stable they see the glory of the Lord in the manger. No heavenly light glows from the stone feedbin; only a guttering oil lamp shows them the smile on the drawn face of Mary.
But they have the sign, and they see the Christ. From the fields where David harped his young praise to God they have come to bow before that Son whom David called his Lord.
“The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). How these words of Gabriel must have illumined Mary’s memory as the shepherds told of fresh angelic tidings. She had not been forgotten or forsaken. The Messiah—born of God’s promise, the Messiah! The manger straw cannot hide his glory, for he has come to the poor and lowly. Again Mary may rejoice in God her Saviour, who scatters the proud, puts down princes from their thrones, and exalts them of low degree (Luke 1:46–55). He is born in this stable because he is the Prince of Salvation, come to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Yes, there in the manger is revealed the glory of the Lord. The manger is a sign of greater wonder than the birth of the Davidic King. He is the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26), but he is more. The angel calls him “Christ, the Lord (Luke 2:11). When the virgin conceives and bears a Son, “he shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32, ASV). God’s ancient sign, greater than any that man might ask from the heights to the depths (Isa. 7:11, 14), has been given at last. Every sign of God’s covenant promise, from the arching bow in the clouds to the sign of Jonah in the depths of death—every sign must wait for the sign of the manger. The salvation that God promises is so great that he must come himself to bring it in. David could repel the Philistines to deliver the people of God, but David’s greater Son must overcome all the powers of darkness, for he must save his people from their sins. When God “lifts up his head” in victory, it is to his own throne, where he must sit until every enemy, even death, is put under his feet (Ps. 110; 1 Cor. 15:25, 26; Eph. 1:19–23).
The Lord of the angels is exalted far above them, for “he hath inherited a more excellent name than they” (Heb. 1:4, ASV). “Of the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever …” (Heb. 1:8, ASV).
When the infant of the manger was taken to the temple a week after his birth, devout old Simeon blessed God with the child in his arms, saying, “for mine eyes have seen thy salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30, 32, ASV).
Only the Lord, dwelling between the cherubim in his holy place, is the glory of his people Israel. When the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ASV). Simeon knew that at last the glory that had appeared of old in the tabernacle had again entered the temple. The glory had come, for the Lord of glory had come. John went before him to proclaim his glory; yet he was not the Light but came to bear witness to the true Light, who was coming into the world.
In the darkness of the manger the true Light shines. Where the cattle are let loose and where sheep tread (Isa. 7:25), there is the sign of the Lord of glory. This sign is his sign because he is Lord. No angel could take his place in the manger, for his work is beyond the power of the heavenly host. Those pure spirits, created but not born, could visit the wrath of heaven upon this rebellious planet, but they could not bring salvation to the darkness of Bethlehem.
Only glory from above all angels could make a manger the sign of salvation. The sign of the manger is God’s sign of love. “Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that he might live through him” (1 John 4:9. ASV).
The glory of the manger is the glory of God’s love: blinding, burning grace. The Lord himself came, the Son and Sun of love, the Giver and the Gift. Had he come in the midst of the angels to the fields of Bethlehem, then no man—shepherd, scribe, or emperor—could have stood before the glory of his face. His coming with the holy angels will yet summon the living and the dead to judgment. But had he so come to Bethlehem, to judge in righteousness, no guilty sinner could have stood before him. The angelic joy would be only the solemn triumph of heaven over a world of rebels, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Bitter men, blind to their own sins, mocked him because he did not come with angels. “Show us a sign from heaven,” they said. “Come down from the cross, and we will believe!” Such men are still mocking; they boast about their own future when they will establish a justice that God cannot deliver.
But the sign of the angels points us to the glory of the manger and the cross. Heaven’s high glory descends upon the hillside with the angelic host—but the word of the angel directs the shepherds away to a glory that is greater still: the Lord of the angels comes to give himself in the place of sinners. At the manger the Mighty God glorified his name; at the cross he glorified it again. When God himself, when the Son of the Highest, hallows his name in blood, then the glory of grace is lifted above the heavens.
Our generation watches rockets burn into the empty sky; man ascends into the heavens, but he meets no one. He turns from the void without to the void within and seeks communion with the cosmos in the alchemy of the mind.
The search is vain. Suppose a man were to gain not the hallucinations of drugs or yet more dangerous delusions, but entrance into the circle of the angels of light. That happened to the shepherds; yet they tasted joy not from a mind-blowing experience with cosmic Powers on the hillside but from the dark manger where they found the Lord.
The One who has ascended above all the angels is the One who first descended to the depths. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” All our own seeking has been fleeing. We have not scaled the heights to find him, but he has pierced the depths to find us. The real and living God has come; the angel’s gospel calls you to the manger to meet him. It is dark now, but a Light shines, the Light of the new age, the living personal Light, Jesus Christ. Don’t “turn on” the weird lights of your own illusions. Turn from rebellion and illusion to love, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Edmund P. Clowney is president of Westminister Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of Wheaton College, Westminister, and Yale Divinity School. He has written several books, including “Preaching and Biblical Theology,” and was Christianity Today’s first “Eutychus.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.