In humor columns, parenting blogs and popular print media, much has been made of the adventure – often toil – of getting your children to sleep at night.
For parents this can be the epitome of frustration as children are often reluctant and sometimes fearful about the prospect of falling asleep.
Perhaps no harder a task than the night before Christmas.
I can imagine Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine von Bora, giving bedtime duty to Martin on Christmas Eve in 1535. What should he do to get the children settled down and to sleep?
Well, why not sing a familiar tune – one they would likely have heard around town – to words that tell the Christmas story? And he wouldn’t just sing it once through. After all, it takes time to get the rowdy’s settled down.
For the longest time I had wondered why Luther had to write not three or four verses – the usual for a hymn, right? – but fourteen! Well, now it makes sense to me.
Nothing like a sweet lullaby – fourteen verses long! – to put anyone to sleep, let alone children. And not just at bedtime.
Indeed, falling asleep can be the most difficult thing, and not only for children, in a dark time of year when anxiety levels run high.
Because falling asleep requires trust. You know, to fall asleep one needs to let go into a belief in the sweet goodness of life. You can’t fall asleep whilst fretting about this or that. When the gift of sleep finally comes, there’s a peace that descends on the heart and mind.
How difficult that can be, these days especially, in the heightened fervor over doomsday predictions and mass shootings that have left the soul of our collective identity tarnished if not shattered.
And we ask, how can God preside over this mayhem and downright evil in the world?
Martin Luther’s hymn, From Heaven Above describes a God who does not remain distant nor disconnected from earthly realities. It describes a God who descends and enters our humanity. And not just into the places of power, privilege and prestige — into the glorious aspects of life. But especially God descends into the earth below.
From heaven above, God comes, to earth below. Into the dark tragedies. Into the fearful realities of life.
When the Word – that is, the full capacity of God’s being – entered human flesh, God was saying something about how God would relate forever more with us.
A great and wonderful and joyful promise was issued from God in the incarnation of God in Jesus: that new life is ours. That out of the deepest, darkest tragedies, from the pit of despair, through the vice grip of fear, out of the fires of anger and from the shame of sin – there is hope.
This is good news: On Christmas Day God proclaims a new beginning for us and for the world. We are offered the power of God to make things right, to reach beyond self-preoccupations to a larger reality governed by God and empowered by God’s love.
This is good news, even though the reality of evil still persists. Perhaps the form and length of Martin Luther’s hymn can suggest one more thing:
There aren’t any easy answers to the difficult questions of life and sometimes senseless, tragic death. Just as there aren’t any simple answers to explain the depth and mystery of the incarnation of God in the baby Jesus, so too we cannot explain away the tragedies of life with simple statements.
Even fourteen verses cannot say it all! Martin Luther tried! Perhaps motivated by a desire to get his kids to sleep, Luther could never describe God as a monster who is out to punish us.
God comes to us a baby from whom and for whom nothing but love, gentleness and compassion entered the darkest night.