Have we given up on Jesus? Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)? Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other? Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?
Laura Gibbs of Bestiaria Latina has rounded up a month’s worth of Latin Christmas carols (and two Hanukkah songs, too!). I’m not just talking about “real” Latin hymns like “Adeste fideles,” “Gaudete,” “Hodie Christus natus est,” etc. She has also compiled Latin versions to more modern carols and holiday songs such as “Deck the Halls” (Aquifolia Ornate), “Silent Night” (Silens nox), and even “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (Avia Renone Calcabatur).
Michael Ruffin sums it up rather nicely:
First, Advent is a particularly Christian observance. You are likely thinking, “Now, wait a minute—Christmas is a Christian holy day.” Of course it is. But Christmas has also been co-opted by the culture at large so that for many people the secular and commercial aspects of it are much more important than the religious aspects….
Advent is different. There are no secular Advent carols; there are no Advent presents; there are no Advent sales; there is no countdown of shopping days until Advent; there are no Advent television shows or movies….
Second, Advent encourages an alternative to pre-Christmas frenzy. One of the reasons that the observance of Advent runs so counter to the flow of our culture is that it is all about waiting, an activity at which our society is not practiced and that it thus does not embrace. Our Christmas practices, fueled by unrealistic expectations and by barely bridled materialism, lead us to approach Christmas at a frenetic pace that results in exhaustion and disappointment.
The observance of Advent, on the other hand, reminds us that life is not finally about what we do but about what God has done, will do, and is doing…. Advent slows us down and teaches us to pay attention.
Because it’s good for you, as Rob Bell explains.
Advent, then, is a season. Lots of people know about holidays—one day a year set apart. The church calender is about seasons, whole periods of time we enter into with a specific cry, a particular intention, for a reason.
Advent is about anticipating the birth of Christ. It’s about longing, desire, that which is yet to come. That which isn’t here yet. And so we wait, expectantly. Together. With an ache. Because all is not right. Something is missing.
Why does Advent mean so much to me?
Because cynicism is the new religion of our world. Whatever it is, this religion teaches that it isn’t as good as it seems. It will let you down. It will betray you.
That institution? That church? That politician? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down.
Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you, just give it time.
Advent confronts this corrosion of the heart with the insistence that God has not abandoned the world, hope is real and something is coming.
We talk about the Ten Commandments, and when we do I always think about how God asked this young Jewish girl to put herself in the position of being censured and shunned, at the least, and even stoned to death because of the perception that she was breaking the law.
What was God up to, seemingly breaking his own rules to accomplish something so grand?
What was he doing, asking this young girl to put herself in the position of appearing to be scandalized by breaking the laws of her people?
Later, Jesus scandalized the religious culture of his day and turned the values of his day upside down, eating with prostitutes, touching the unclean, lifting up the downtroddent and making friends with women. He befriended the lowly, the outcast, the littlest and the least, and whenever the woman caught in adultery was brought to him, he dealt with her with unusual sensitivity, compassion and forgiveness. I’ve wondered if Jesus’ compassion was born out of a memory of hearing stories of his mother’s plight.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‚ÄúJoseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.‚Äù All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‚ÄúLook, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call him Immanuel,‚Äù
which means, ‚ÄúGod is with us.‚Äù When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Mt 1:18-25)
The mother of one of my co-workers is a member of my church. She is a fine Christian lady‚Äîsmart, pleasant, and obviously a person of deep faith. I have joked to Dave that he chose a great mom! But wouldn‚Äôt it be nice if we could choose our parents? We would comb the world for just the right couple. We would make sure they were kind, just, loving, and patient. The cruel, the rigid, and the irresponsible need not apply.
The incarnation represents the only time in history that anyone ever got to handpick his parents. While Luke‚Äôs Gospel focuses on Mary, Matthew highlights Joseph. In particular, Matthew wanted us to know that Joseph was ‚Äúa righteous man.‚Äù He wanted to do right by God and by Mary, even after hearing the distressing news that his fianc?©e was pregnant‚Äîand he was not the father. He might have made a public spectacle of Mary, but instead he thought it best to divorce her quietly.
Then the angel appeared with words of assurance that Mary‚Äôs incredible story was true. Joseph responded immediately, as only a righteous person can do. It would be hard to stand by Mary amid the rumors that certainly would have circulated in the town of Nazareth. Doing the right thing is rarely easy. It takes kindness, justice, love, and patience. Thankfully, Joseph (and Mary!) had these traits in abundance.
God chose well.
O Immanuel, God present in our midst,
long awaited Savior and King:
come and save us, O Lord our God.
For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. (Hag 2:6-7)
Rather than write a reflection for today, I thought I would invite you to contemplate one of my favorite icons:
(from the Baptist school of iconography
in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia)
You read that right: the Baptists of Georgia adorn their churches with icons.
O King of the nations, so long desired,
cornerstone uniting humankind:
come and save the work of your creation.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:78-79)
The song of Zechariah, known to Christian tradition as the Benedictus, is good news for people who dwell in darkness: God‚Äôs own dawn will break, and darkness will give way to light. Zechariah caught a glimpse of God‚Äôs salvation breaking forth and transforming Israel and all creation. His praise gives voice to our own hopes and prayers, for darkness is a fitting description of our world. Few are interested in worshiping God in holiness and righteousness (vv. 74-75). Many have yet to hear of God‚Äôs salvation or trust in him for the forgiveness of sins (v. 76). The threats of war, terrorism, disease, domestic abuse, and other destructive forces cast “the shadow of death” (v. 78) over us all. As a people we do not experience peace, and we don‚Äôt know where to find it (v. 79).
From ancient times the Benedictus has been sung at Morning Prayer. No doubt this traditional usage was suggested by the promise in verses 78-79 that dawn would break upon us, giving the light we so desperately need. It is appropriate to sing of the breaking dawn at sunrise. The physical phenomenon of the rising sun (in the northern hemisphere, sunlight seems so scarce this time of the year!) illustrates what God promised. The mercy we need is on its way‚Äîwe who live in a dark world will see the light of God in his promised One. Only a little while, and the Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4:2) will shine upon us. Those who follow the Light of the World (Jn 9:5) will be guided into perfect peace.
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light and Sun of justice,
shine on those lost in darkness:
come to enlighten us.
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:
‚ÄúI know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.‚Äù (Rev 3:7-8)
Sometimes, when trying to be obedient to what we think is a calling from God, a door gets slammed in our face. It‚Äôs hard to be thankful in times like that, but we probably should. Who knows what pains God may have spared us by keeping us out of a situation which, though it seemed to be just what we wanted or needed, would have taken a toll on our spirit, soul, and body?
Sometimes, when we least expect it, God opens a door. It could be a simple as a “random” chance to do something good for a neighbor or as profound as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something to change the world.
Sometimes, we sit in silence because we don‚Äôt know what may open up for us‚Äîor what may unexpectedly close. In those times especially, it is good to be able to confess that God is in control.
O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel,
what you open none can shut:
come and lead us out of darkness.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Isa 11:1-3)
While I was pastoring, Connie and I would occasionally be so in awe of some parishioner’s kindness, devotion, or service that we would say something like, “I wish we had more people like X” or even “With a church full of Xs we could make a real difference here.” Truly excellent people are such a rarity that we take notice when we meet one. When someone rises above the herd to do something extraordinary, we ask, “Are there any more at home like you?”
Maybe that sense of surprise is at least part of Saul’s reaction when David slew Goliath: “Saul said to him, ‘Whose son are you, young man?’ And David answered, ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite'” (1 Sam 17:58). It would have been quite natural if Saul’s next question had been, “Do you have any brothers?”
Fast forward a few hundred years, and David’s royal house has experienced its share of ups and downs. A new young king is on the throne, and unlike his grandfather Manasseh and his father, Amon, Josiah seems serious about serving God and restoring Judah to faithfulness. This son of Jesse looks like the real deal!
Two generations later, however, Nebuchadrezzar marched through a still unrepentant Judah, captured Jerusalem, and deported the house of David and other leading families to Babylon. The people longed for another David to set them free and reverse their national calamity.
Jesse, do you have any more sons you could send us?
O Root of Jesse, Standard of the nations and of kings;
whom the whole world implores:
come and deliver us.