December 4th, 2011
Dr. Nathan O. Hatch’s Lovefeast Message
Tonight we celebrate one of my favorite traditions on this campus: the Christmas lovefeast. For almost half a century, Wake Forest has carried forward this rich Moravian practice of a special Christmas service of readings, carols, exchanging food and drink, and then passing to each other, row by row, the light of beeswax candles. This service is a powerful blend of tradition, and memory, of joy and good will in this season. What makes it doubly special is that we do it together, with so many friends and colleagues.
Some two hundred and fifty years ago, just north of this campus, at a place they called Bethabara, (Hebrew for “House of Passage”) a motley band of Moravians celebrated the first Christmas lovefeast in North Carolina. Theirs was a starkly different experience than our own. The Moravians were religious dissenters hounded out of Europe who saw on these shores, first in Pennsylvania and then in North Carolina, an opportunity to build a special kind of social and religious community. They were not coming to the new world for economic advantage or to increase individual rights. They came, and risked life and limb, for the sake of building a special kind of religious community, radical then or now, because property was held in common by the community, and worship was built into the fabric of everyday life.
It was November 1753, two decades before the American Revolution, that the advanced party of fifteen Moravians arrived in this area after a six-week journey by horse and wagon over the mountains from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They were a bedraggled group by the time they arrived; and this was rough, even treacherous country, uncivilized wilderness. Their leaders named it Wachovia after the verdant Wachou Valley in Austria. But the name was a stretch. This part of North Carolina was hilly and the soil red and hard with clay, anything but a natural breadbasket. The Moravians were able to buy it from the Lord Granville, one of Carolina’s Lord Proprietors, because no one else was clamoring for it.
The first abode for these pioneers was an abandoned shack with earthen floor; and they had to begin building other shelter just as winter was coming on. Many decades later Bethabara, and later Salem, would become idyllic village of cozy cottages, warm hearths and neat fences and gardens, what we depict in Old Salem today. But for the first generation life was crude—everything had to be built from scratch, hewn out of the forest. It was tense—these were the years of the French and Indians wars on the frontier—and it was dangerous—in the first year one of their numbers was killed felling a tree, another seriously burned when the roof of a house caught on fire.
Yet on that Christmas Eve, and in successive years, these settlers stopped to pay homage to the coming of Christ. “We had a little love-feast,” they reported. “. . . We had our first Christmas Eve in North Carolina, and rested in peace in this hope and faith. A later writer says, “All this while the wolves and panthers howled and screamed in the forests nearby.”
The Moravian hymn, which we will sing tonight, expressed their profound hope:
“Morning Star, O cheering sight!
Ere Thou cam’st how dark earth’s night;
The Moravians knew what darkness meant: persecution, peril, struggle, and pain. Yet they found in advent and Christmas a special joy—the hope of morning star against the backdrop of the darkest night. Theirs was not a world of peace and comfort, a life sketched in pastels. It was dangerous, and unpredictable.
All of us have a tendency to romanticize the past, to airbrush out pain and failure. This is certainly true of how we view the early Moravians. It is also true at Advent and Christmas when, with candles aglow, our minds turn to scenes of the ideal: when all is calm and all is bright, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Yule tide carols being sung by a fire, gentlemen and women find nothing to dismay. Our familiarity with the trappings of Christmas makes it seem warm, cozy, and secure—much like our image of ideal and tidy Moravian villages.
Yet the accounts of the Advent in the Gospels are stark, anything but safe and comforting. It is the story of desperate times, of a cruel Roman tax system, of a young couple, on the move, she unwed but pregnant, who found no room in the inn, and were relegated to a barn in an obscure occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. The story involves angels announcing good news to lowly shepherds. In our day it would be as if the first to know were migrant workers, long-haul drivers at a truck stop, or orderlies at the hospital. Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to the advent as a great reversal, a profound statement that the last shall be first: “The throne of God in the world is not on human thrones,” he said, “but in human depths, in the manger.”
It is important for us to see Advent in this way: as a message of hope in desperate times: the morning star appearing when all seemed lost—not when everyone had it all together. History was not being made in the corridors of power but in some out-of-the-way village, and under conditions of abject poverty.
I think modern culture, in the main, misunderstands the message of Christmas; and in two respects. First, we are told that the season should be the happiest time of year, an opportunity to be merry, to have warmth in our hearts, and cheer on our faces. Yet, according to the National Institute of Health, Christmas is the time of year that people experience the highest incidence of depression. One survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.
Why is this? I think a main reason is that down deep most of us realize that our own experience don’t begin to match the Christmas card ideal. Our fears and inadequacies do not vanish during the holidays—in fact they are often compounded. Family strains can be heightened either by absence—or sometimes by too much contact. We never feel quite as cheery and festive as the season dictates.
But we have the message wrong. It is not to put on a mask of good cheer; it is to know that the Divine meets us in weakness, not in strength– hope for the discouraged, peace to the troubled, rest for the weary. The morning star broke into the darkest of nights; it is a message of hope amidst pain. It is a message to those who are at their wits end.
If you are going home to a less than ideal situation, the Christmas message is particularly for you. “Morning Star, My soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night.” Christmas is a message of hope in the face of trouble. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
There is also a second way that we have come to misunderstand the core message of Advent. In our culture, this has become the greatest season of accumulation. American retail merchants do about 25 percent of their business and make about 60% of their profit between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We give and receive a bounty of presents, and enjoy a round of festive celebrations with colleagues, friends, and family. I love all of this and would not suggest for a minute there is something tainted about all of this good cheer. Celebration is a great thing.
But it can deflect us from the simple and purer message of the Advent that we are calling to serve rather than be served, and that there is a world of acute need that needs brightening. Does the season itself, however wonderful, work to make us more self-centered, more preoccupied with our own concerns rather than to expand our attention beyond ourselves. Advent, of all seasons, should move us to recalibrate our priorities as we ponder anew the story of a child, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor.
Tonight we will pass to each other the light from beeswax candles—a tradition that the earliest Moravians used at the Christmas lovefeast. The candle tradition began among children, who would light their own candle and say, “I am the light of the world,” and then pass that light on, saying “you are the light of the world.” Tonight, we remember the Morning Star, who can brighten even the dark corners of our own lives. And who calls us to bear witness to that light in a world of need.