A Publisher's Christmas

For more than a hundred and fifty years, maybe two hundred, Philadelphia was a publishing town.  As early as the 1740s, magazines were beginning to be published here.  By the time of the War of Independence, the city was a hotbed of publishing of all sorts, spurred on, no doubt, by the industrious Benjamin Franklin.  Shortly thereafter, the first Bibles produced in the newly independent States were published in Philadelphia by Robert Aitken.  The 19th century saw the rise of publishers like Curtis and Lippincott and the heyday of Philadelphia publishing: Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post leading the pack.

And in 1885 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published a volume here in Philadelphia called “The Little Children’s Book for Schools and Family” which sounds hopelessly quaint to me, but which contained at least one enduring contribution to Western culture: the first two verses of the Christmas Carol, “Away in a manger.”

There is a little mystery surrounding this carol.  The author of those first two verses is completely unknown.  And although an attribution is often given for the third verse, which appeared years later, many think that it, too, came from an anonymous pen.  The hymnal in your pews will tell you only that the words are a “traditional carol.”  But I like the attribution given by an English hymnal that lists, at the bottom of the little poem, where the author’s name should be, just these words: “Anonymous, Philadelphia 1883.”

The carol is sung to several different tunes, depending on what country you live in.  And one scholar suggests that there is an old Moravian tradition of this carol being played by trombone choirs, which I imagine is not quite as good as angel choirs, but certainly better than choirs of kazoos!

Many of us know that another Philadelphia church (just the other side of Rittenhouse Square) can claim to be the home of the great carol, “O Little town of Bethlehem.”  But I think that all of Philadelphia could lay claim to “Away in a manger.”  Without the year (1883), “Anonymous, Philadelphia” could be any of us, making the prayer of this Christmas carol our prayer - “I love thee, Lord Jesus!  Look down from the sky!” – as though it were too embarrassingly innocent to admit to: a “Dear Jesus” prayer, signed only, “Anonymous, Philadelphia, 2007.”

But since we are Philadelphians – at least many of us here tonight are Philadelphians, and we are willing to adopt (for one night only) those of you who are not – and since we come from a publishing town, we have a challenge this Christmas.  It is our challenge to publish the Good News that we hear sung by angels tonight.  For where would we be if the Lutherans (Lutherans, of all people!) had never published our lovely little anonymous carol?  And where would we be if Phillips Brooks had not returned from his journey in the Holy Land to his parish on Rittenhouse Square, in Philadelphia – a publishing town – where “O little town of Bethlehem” could set in type and widely distributed?

And where will we be if we keep the Good News of Christmas to ourselves?  If we tell everyone about the bargains we got while shopping on line?  Or the great new place we discovered to get chocolates?  Or the fantastic deals at Macy’s?  Or of our patience in standing on line at DiBruno Brothers?  Or the deal we got on a tree this year?  Or how many times we drove to New Jersey to buy wine?  Or that your terrific new scarf came from Daffy’s, not Burberry’s, and all your ornaments and tableware came from Target not Tiffany?  Where will we be if we tell all of this but we never mention a word about this secret joy of Christmas, about the way Jesus answers our prayer – “Be near me, Lord Jesus!”

And have we come here tonight to test this prayer?  “Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay/Close by me for ever, and love me, I pray.”  (Signed: Anonymous, Philadelphia, 2007)

It is for this reason that Jesus has called us here: to hear our prayers, and to remind us all what it’s like when he’s so near us, so available to us, so ready to be taken up in our arms, and in our hearts.  It is to let us remember what it feels like when we bring all of the frustration, disappointment and sorrow of the last year to his cradle.  To be reminded that joy can and will be kindled in our hearts like a warm fire on a cold winter’s night.  The Christ child calls us here with his Christmas wailing, so that we can sing our prayers and praises together – even the secret prayers of our hearts, too private, or frightening, or just plain embarrassing to admit ownership of them – just anonymous prayers from Philadelphia in 2007.  (“I love thee, Lord Jesus!  Look down, look down, look down from the sky!”)

And if, in the dark mystery of this night of God’s love, if in the flicker of a candle’s flame, or the resonance of a musical note, or in the eyes of your own child, if you should happen to catch a glimpse of something peaceful, something joyful, something holy this night, will you rise to the challenge in the morning?  Will you risk being brave enough to publish the Good News you and I sing about tonight?  

By this I don’t mean that you have to go and write a book about it!  You don’t have to find an agent and shop your manuscript around.  You don’t have to register the copyright or negotiate the advance.  All you have to do is find a story, one story, of Christmas.  We have heard again tonight the well-known story of the angels and shepherds, of Mary and Joseph, and no room at the inn.  But what Christmas story could you or I publish that has not yet been told?

What anger could we let go of this Christmas-time?  What offence could we forgive?  What grudge could we finally let go of?  What self-righteousness could we give up?

What injustice could we stand up against?  What conflict we could we help to resolve?  What imbalance could we set right in the scales?

What persistent wound could we ask God to heal?  What chronic sickness could we ask him to help us learn to live with?  What loss could we ask God to help us accept?

We live in a world that has become violent, cruel and often disappointing, despite the truth that God made this world to be good; we live in a world that conspires to distract us from all kinds of miseries – of others and our own – with shiny things and 3-D animation, and almost anything you’d care to be addicted to.  And Jesus knows that we come to his cradle with all the woes of foreign policy, family dynamics, and financial strain weighing on us.  And still he hears us sing, “Look down from the sky!”

Do you know that this baby Jesus holds heaven and earth in his pudgy hands?  Do you see how he transforms a stable into palace and a refugee girl into the Queen of heaven, her consort Prince a carpenter only moments ago?

Do you believe that his birth can change the world – and has already done it?  Do you see how for his sake men and women have lived beyond themselves, achieved great things, and learned to love and care for one another for no reason other than that we are neighbors?

Do you realize that even death, our greatest fear, has been vanquished by this tiny child, because once he traveled for us across the great divide between life and death and closed the gap with nothing but his awesome love?

“Be near me, Lord Jesus!” who makes all things new!  I ask thee to stay, to stay, to stay, and to stay close by me for ever, and love me I pray…  

Will this only ever be a secret prayer of our hearts on Christmas Eve?  Or do we dare to publish the hope that we place in this little child?  Where will this world of ours be if we don’t all become little publishers of hope this Christmas-time?

Away in a manger, all those nights and years ago, God came down to us: a tiny, little child, nothing but a baby.  And since then, nothing has ever been the same – since Love came down that first Christmas.

And who are you and I to keep such joyful news to ourselves?  Even if we never dare to admit who “Anonymous, Philadelphia, 2007” really is.  Is it you this Christmas?  Is it me?  

We love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky, and stay, and stay, and stay, and stay by our side, on this cold winter’s night, until morning is nigh!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve, 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 25, 2007 .