Bah-humbug! Of all the words associated with Christmas, “bah-humbug” is hands-down my favorite, not because I like the sentiment, but because the word is just plain fun. It even has an interesting history. “Bah” first came on the scene in the year 1600 (as did the words: barky, batty, and beachy). It was used, as it is used today, to express disdain or contempt. “Hum,” in Old English, meant “to deceive.” Now, we could have guessed that. What do you do when you don’t know the words? You pretend you know them by humming. That’s right, humming, besides being extremely annoying, is a form of deception. And the word “bug” seems to be related to the same word from which we get the term “bogeyman.” Put it together and “bah-humbug” referred to some sort of contemptuous fake bogeyman or some unfavorable commotion that was pure hooey, hokum, humbuggery. But that’s just its meaning. The word probably would have been long forgotten if Ebenezer Scrooge had not decried that Christmas was nothing but “bah-humbug.” From that point on, the word went viral, and anyone who believed that Christmas and everything it stood for was nothing but pure hogwash was called a “Scrooge.” Now, while I love the word “bah-humbug” and plan on using it a lot more in my everyday conversations from this point on, when we say Christmas is bah-humbug, I think we’ve crossed a line. Christmas, bah-humbug? No bah-humbug way! Christmas is light and love and salvation and prayer!
The fifth stanza in our prayer, (the fifth) antiphon, is directed to the Messiah as the “Morning Star.” We pray: “O Morning Star, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of righteousness, come and give light to them who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death!” Now, we like praying for light and illumination and grace and peace and salvation. And praying for light reminds us of the introduction to John’s gospel because Jesus is the light for whom we are praying. In John, we read:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And yet, in a prayer that is centered on light and illumination, we unfortunately encounter a measure of darkness and confusion. Our confusion is wrapped up in the term, “the Morning Star.” Now, we know what it means, but we are not sure how this symbol came to be. But it is Christmas, and so we can apply some Christmas kindness to this situation and only say what we know: Jesus is the Morning Star. And how do we know? Revelation tells us so:
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you his testimony for the churches.
I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
And so does Peter (Jesus is the one who will rise in your heart to give you the knowledge of salvation):
“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable,
and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
(2 Peter 2:19)
And, in case your confusion has not burst into illumination, look once more at the book of Revelation (Jesus, here, gives those who overcome eternal life in the Spirit):
“To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end,
I will give authority over the nations—
that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—
just as I have received authority from my Father.
I will also give that one the morning star.”
So, how did we get here? Good question. Our best answer is that, somewhere along the line, the term “Morning Star” became a symbol for the Messiah and everyone (way back then) knew it. Now, we know that in the book of Numbers, there is a prophecy of a coming star who is the Messiah. We read in Numbers 24:7:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
And we know that, over time, stars became symbols of righteousness. Here’s a classic example from Daniel 12:3:
“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness, [will be] like the stars for ever and ever.”
And yet, at some point the Morning Star, the star prophesied in Numbers and the righteousness spoken in Daniel got together for Christmas; and while singing, “Brightest and Best are the sons of the morning,” they concluded that “the Morning Star” was a great name for the Messiah. Unfortunately, they didn’t write down the sequence of steps of how they got there, but that’s okay. It’s Christmas. All sins are forgiven. But maybe we can connect some of the dots.
Technically, the morning star is Venus (because Venus is often the first light to appear before dawn). And dawn always precedes the day. And “day” in the Bible, often referred to a time of God’s coming. Sometimes that day is to bring redemption, and sometimes it is to bring judgment. This idea of God’s coming became known as “the Day of the Lord.” Now, there were many “days” where God came and rescued his people, but over time, Israel began to long for “The Day,” a final coming of God when he would restore Israel, institute the New Covenant, put all things to rights and bring an end to time itself. The Day of the Lord would bring the creation of the new heavens and a new earth (Is. 65:17ff—it’s a great passage. It’s Christmas, give yourself a gift and read it!). And then, the New Testament comes along; and “The Day of the Lord” becomes “the Day of the Lord Jesus” (or something like that because, according to New Testament scholar, Doug Moo, there are 18 different variants of this phrase). This will be the day when Jesus will return in glory and power.
But don’t forget that the word “day” can also speak of righteousness and godly moral conduct. For instance, Paul in Romans 13 (1-14) writes:
“And do this, understanding the present time:
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber,
because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness,
not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,
and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Here, the “day” is when good works are done, while the “night” is filled with sin. So, the “day” and “righteousness” are intertwined.
So, before the coming of the “Day of the Lord,” when righteousness will flood over all the earth, there will be a dawning. The Messiah will come and proclaim salvation to all. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the dawn of the eschatological Day of the Lord when God’s kingdom will come in full. And this Day will be a day of salvation and of judgment. And this dawn testifies that the end is near, that the day of salvation is at hand and that now is the time to turn to God. And since in the physical world, before the day comes, the morning star rises, so it is in the spiritual realm—before the Day of the Lord comes, the Morning Star, the Messiah must rise. And if that is so, like the Maji, we need to follow the star into righteousness and truth.
And that is why we pray for Jesus, our Light, our Morning Star, our Sun of righteousness and justice to come and give us light: the light of salvation, the light of truth, the light of godliness, and the light of hope. Why? Because we are sinful people who carry with us fear, shame, guilt and death. But the light of Jesus casts all darkness aside. Francis of Assisi said it beautifully: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” But it is even better than that, the light of Jesus extinguishes all darkness.
Note the light/darkness distinction in Isaiah 9:1-2 says:
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.
In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations,
by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
And consider one of the great promises of God from Malachi 4:2:
“But for you who revere my name,
the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.”
That’s the focus of our prayer in this antiphon, that God’s son of righteousness will heal us from our sin, from our doubt, from our fear, from our shame and from our darkness. And we pray this so that the utter darkness that once flooded our souls would be overcome by the light of Jesus.
The sixth antiphon is directed to the King of the nations and their desire. We pray, “O King of the nations, and their desire! The Corner-stone that makes the two one. Come and save the human race which you fashioned out of the dust of the earth!”
Time for a quick review. Each antiphon begins with a messianic title (preceded, of course, with an “O”). That title is then elaborated upon, in this case, “The Corner-stone that makes the two one” explains and explicates the title (The King of the nations). The verb “come” is the third element in the structure and the kick-start to the prayer. The last line contains the heart of the request: “Come and save us.”
Now, granted, of the six antiphons that we have looked at so far, this one seems the dullest, but don’t jump to conclusions. From the very beginning, Israel had a mission. She was to be a light to the nations. But Israel failed in that mission; and instead of being light, she became saturated with darkness herself. But God was not interested in simply saving a nation. His purpose was always to redeem the whole world. This antiphon is a prayer that God’s kingdom would sweep over all the world and that every country would rise up and worship our Creator King. At the end of Matthew, we read (Matthew 28:18-20):
“Then Jesus came to them and said,
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
In this antiphon we are praying for the Great Commission to happen: for people of every tribe, language, people and nation to come to Christ. We are praying that the barrier between peoples will be broken down and we will become one in Christ Jesus. We are praying that God would restore his world and that all people will know him and worship him in Spirit and in truth. And why are we praying this? Because Jesus is Lord over all the earth and because this theme resonates throughout the whole Bible. We read about it in the promise to Abraham.
“I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
We read about it in Isaiah:
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
And again, in Isaiah we read:
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples;
the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”
And we read about it in Revelation (as I said, this resonates throughout the whole Bible):
“I did not see a temple in the city,
because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.
The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.”
That’s the focus of our prayer when we lift up this antiphon: that the gospel will take root in every nation and in every heart so that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. And that is a request worthy of our time and attention.
So, if anyone comes to you and says Christmas is just another day, that prayer is more or less meaningless, that written prayers are inauthentic and boring, that we don’t need a special day to celebrate Jesus, and that reading a long Christmas-themed blog is unhelpful and unimportant during these crazy-busy days, well, after reading all this about these two great antiphons, you now have my permission to look them in the eye and say, “Bah-humbug!”