"... he appeared, and the soul felt its worth ..."
This morning, as I prepared a pancake breakfast for my expanded Christmas morning family while listening to a Scott Simon interview of the The Puppini Sisters on NPR, I was struck by a lyric from their favorite Christmas carol. I’ve heard this lovely piece hundreds of times, sung it myself scores of times, but this morning the words fell upon my ears with fresh power: “'til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
The birth of Jesus, the song reminds us, forever raised mankind’s view of himself, lifting his lot from pining in sin and error to a thrilling hopefulness, to the dawning of a new and glorious morning. “ ... and the soul felt its worth.” By invading our material reality, and permeating earth with his transcendence, God forever ennobled life on this plane! By clothing himself in the flesh of humanity, God upped our stock, setting a new baseline value on what it means to be human! Nothing can impress upon the soul its eternal worth like the nativity scene, the humble babe housing infinity, the suffusion of man-flesh with unimaginable transcendent greatness.
The French wine merchant Adolphe Adam, and the English version translator John Sullivan Dwight merely assume this elevation of human dignity accompanying the divine visitation we commemorate on this day. David Bentley Hart builds the case methodically and potently in his brilliant work, Atheist Delusions. At the very core of what Hart calls the Christian Revolution is what he labels as nothing short of “the invention of the human.” As he traces the development of human worth through history, he argues cogently how effectively Jesus, the central figure in history, redefines what it means to be human. “ ... and the soul felt its worth.”
He also brings his readers face-to-face with the stark and terrifying prospect of a humankind delivered of its Christian influence. “If, as I have argued in these pages, the ‘human’ as we now understand it is the positive invention of Christianity, might it not be the case that a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman?”
The chilling day when humanism has followed the path of a discarded Christmas, the day Hart sees looming on our horizon is not yet upon us. Nor is it inevitable. For now, the essential message of the Incarnation still rings clear. And Christians should boldly herald its powerful implications: Jesus appeared! “ ... and the soul felt its worth.” every soul! every color! every gender! every age! every ethnicity! every culture! the value of every person has been forever elevated by the event we know as Christmas. This revaluing of humanity is at the heart of the mega-joy implicit in Bethlehem’s child! This is the good news. It is this gospel that should be in our hearts, upon our lips, and lived out of our lives.
“ ... and the soul felt its worth.”