The Son's Generosity

In his Sermon for Christmas Day 1617, Lancelot Andrewes took as his text, verses ten and eleven from Psalm eighty-five:

Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall flourish out of the earth: and righteousness has looked down from heaven.

He also drew heavily on this psalm in one of his Christmas sermons (date unknown) in Ms. 3707, Lambeth Palace Library, London, to which I also refer. 

Andrewes commenced his 1617 sermon by reminding his auditors that this psalm had been chosen by the Primitive Church as one of the set psalms for worship to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, and had been retained “as part of our office … of this day, as being proper pertinent to the matter of the feast”. 

Although acknowledged by this divine as being originally composed by one of the psalmists after the thankful return of many Jews from their captivity in Babylon, he insisted that that these Jews and many after them would experience other captivities, not only physical but also spiritual. 

Of all the captivities, Andrewes perceived there is not one worse than the captivity of sin. “Sin … will destroy us all. … Nothing so dangerous, so deadly unto us,” as he had preached in another Nativity sermon . Under the Law one lived in captivity as St. Paul told the Christians in Rome. There was just no release or escape from it. Only the Righteous One could deliver one from the captivity of sin. That One was Jesus Christ, the Son of God born into this world (Rom.3.20- 23). 

A birth was needed. In the above Christmas sermons Andrewes outlined how these verses of this psalm illustrated why this birth happened; a birth designed in heaven to rescue mankind’s continual captivity by sin. However before this birth could occur there was a great debate, often passionate, in the heavenly realm. 

This divine, through his immeasurable learning, knew that over the centuries these verses had been the subject of many writings and sermons by the Fathers. They had imagined this great debate in heaven after the Fall and the subsequent captivity and depravity of human beings. They had envisaged in this debate that Mercy and Peace sided together in convincing God to rescue human beings from their cruel fate but Truth and Righteousness had other ideas. These four attributes had been “in the bosom of God from all eternity.” Now they were divided. Who or what would re-unite them?

For his Christmas sermon in Ms. 3707, Andrewes drew heavily on a homily that St. Bernard of Clairvaux had given on the feast of the Annunciation. In this sermon Bernard depicted Mercy and Justice standing before the throne of God with Mercy the closest. Tearfully she requested God to have pity on human beings even though they really did not deserve it, but that was the more reason for His “more infinite and boundless clemency”. As Mercy pleaded, Justice stepped up angrily denouncing Mercy’s tears. Hadn’t God already shown so many acts of mercy to human beings by creating the first from nothing and then making human beings His lieutenants upon earth? What did they do in return? Through their pride, presumption, ingratitude, luxury, cruelty and infidelity they sinned grievously. They needed to be punished otherwise they will become so bold and “despise not only thy Justice, but thy Power and thy Truth and thy Wisdom.”

Upon hearing this, Mercy was struck to the heart and cried out once again for human beings to feel the tender mercy of God but Justice would not yield and so it went back and forth. At times, the Almighty favoured Mercy but then as He looked upon Justice He did not want to show disrespect. There seemed no way out to break this deadlock until “the Love of God calls upon Him and prays Him to set His Wisdom at work to meditate a Peace between Mercy and Justice” in order “to find some innocent Mediator” who would suffer the punishment that human beings deserved and to die so human beings could live. 

Accordingly Wisdom fixed her gaze on “the eternal Son of God” who in turn looked to the Father and said “Behold I am to do thy will, … fit me a body … for I resolve to be made Flesh, and to dispatch this business. Hereupon Mercy and Justice straight ways met together, they embraced and kissed each other.” 

Justice is now satisfied by this reconciling gesture by the Son. Mercy is ecstatic when Christ was born of a woman and lived amongst human beings and gave His life as a ransom. 

What about Truth and Righteousness? In the silent hours of the night in Bethlehem, perhaps in a cave, Truth met Mercy. He is who is the Truth is born and has taken human nature. From this moment, the Son will always bear man’s nature and thus will always be one of us. This means that He will never be against human beings again. Furthermore, He will always work to reconcile human beings to Himself. Consequently after the birth Truth and Mercy have been reconciled.

That only left Righteousness to be won over. Looking down from heaven, she witnessed “a clean birth, a holy life, an innocent death, a Spirit and a mouth without guile, a soul and a body without sin,” In the Son, Righteousness saw “her full satisfaction”, and that mankind had been pardoned by His righteousness. She is now content and is able to look “upon the earth with a goods aspect.”

Hence through the birth of the Son of God, Mercy, Truth and Righteousness are all reconciled and run to kiss the Son. So, it was not only pax in terris that the Son had to achieve when He became flesh but also pax in caelis. After all if there were not harmony in the celestial realm how could there be peace on earth? That there was pax in terris was proclaimed by the angels on the very night of the birth in Bethlehem. “So by virtue of this birth, heaven is at peace with itself, and heaven with earth is now at peace. So is earth with itself.” 

When preaching Andrewes always applied his text to his auditors and to himself. Hence, he unveiled how these four attributes can meet in every Christian life. The first is applying Truth to one’s life by a true confession of sins. As a result Mercy, will meet straight with Truth while looking on approvingly “from her heavenly throne” is Righteousness, who “in turn reaches out to Peace.” So, unless one decides to wear “fig-leaves” and deny this meeting of all four virtues manifested in Bethlehem, human beings can now live in the surety of reconciliation with their God. Mercy and Truth have embraced while Righteousness and Peace have kissed as they look down from heaven. 

Reflecting on these two sermons Andrewes preached at Christmas emphasises once again what the “good news” really is. Even if we have lived a good life, we could never be free of falling short of the Law. There would always be a feeling of frustration and of failure. That had been Luther’s problem precisely. It did not matter what he did or how much he mortified the flesh he still sinned. Then one day when preparing for a lecture on Romans a phrase leaped from the page. For the first time he understood the Righteousness of God. It is through the Righteousness of Jesus Christ, not our righteousness that enables us to be free of the burden of sin. As Andrewes preached, “There is no joy in the world to the joy of a man saved, no joy so great, no news so welcomed, as to one ready to perish, in case of a lost man, to hear of one who will save him.” 

That is the message of Christmas. God has rescued us from our predicament of death-like life to a life of love, vitality and virtue. Let us be truly reconciled with the Prince of Peace this Christmas.

Marianne Dorman is an author and scholar, specializing in Lancelot Andrewes and the Caroline Divines.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.