"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!"
The first verse of this carol draws out very well the tension in which the world exists, a tension between groaning and glory. There is throughout the universe the memory of the glorious goodness with which all things were created. The memory of the declaration "and God saw that it was Good" reverberates from the stars to the ocean depths. As Martin Luther says in his lecture on Genesis 1,
"I prefer that we reflect on the divine solicitude and benevolence toward us, because He provided such an attractive dwelling place for the future human being before the human being was created. Thus afterwards, when man is created, he finds a ready and equipped home into which he is brought by god and commanded to enjoy all the riches of so splendid a home... All this generosity is intended to make man recognize the goodness of god and live in the fear of god. (Luther's Works, Vol. 1, Concordia Publishing, pg 39)Yet, creation is no longer good. The rebellion of man in the garden has effaced its glory and smeared its goodness, to the point where J.C. Ryle's observation of human nature can be applied to the whole world:
"We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him, a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins, a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still give some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate." (Holiness, pg 4)Or, as Paul says, "we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time" (Romans 8:22). Human sin has dragged us down to hell, and brought all the world along.
What makes this situation unbearable, is that there appears to be no hope from within nature itself. The message of creation is the message of the Law, that if only we will obey God and live moral and virtuous lives, we will have peace with God and live according to our created mandate. Yet every effort at obedience ends in despair. Nothing proves this more than the interaction between God and His people in the Old Testament. Repeatedly God reminds Israel that if only they will obey Him, He will bless them and they will live.
"Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. 15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:11-20)Yet time and time again Israel sins and rebels against God, despite having the Law, despite having prophets continuously reminding them to obey and pointing out their sins, despite having God Himself dwelling in their midst. What hope could there then be for other nations, who know this principle by nature but haven't these aids (cf. Romans 1)?
How clear then the declaration "long lay the world, in sin and error pining"? There is no hope for solving the problem of sin from within the world, since it is rooted in our very natures. Our very best attempts to be good are thwarted by what Kris Lundgaard calls The Enemy Within.
But where nature and the Law have failed to save us, God Himself has done the work necessary of salvation. On that holy night, the Son of God became incarnate, laying aside his glory and putting on human flesh, and in doing so bringing a thrill of hope to the weary soul. For where we have failed utterly in our attempts to obey, Jesus has completely succeeded. Where our every attempt at living the Law of God is tinged with our sin, Jesus embodied the Law perfectly. This is indeed a "new and glorious morn", because it is the means by which God has provided that eternal life which we are created to long for but are unable to achieve. God in His mercy and kindness takes the obedience of Jesus and gives it to us as a gift, counting it as ours so that the burden of living the Law is removed. The command "Obey!" becomes the declaration "Forgiven!"
This, in turn, should radically affect our view of the world. Instead of pining over sin, we should fall on our knees and worship. Our mourning over the smearing of the world with sin should become rejoicing over the salvation plan that began on that Holy Night.