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Reflections for Christmas and Advent
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Table of Contents
GOD IS COMING! Reflections for Advent and the Christmas Season
- First Sunday of Advent: YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW!
- Second Sunday of Advent: LIKE A REFINER'S FIRE!
- Third Sunday of Advent: PROMISE TO A WEARY PEOPLE
- Fourth Sunday of Advent: THE UNQUALIFIED "YES"
- Christmas Eve: WHERE THE MESSIAH IS
- Christmas I: REMEMBER THE INNOCENTS
- Epiphany: GO HOME BY ANOTHER ROAD
Reflections for Advent and the Christmas Season
God Is Coming!
by Milo and Connie Thornberry
Milo is the former long-time Executive Director of Alternatives and pastor of First United Methodist Church. Connie and Milo Thornberry have lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Oregon.
Get to know Milo at Post #181.
As we make ourselves ready for Christmas, do we find times to make ourselves ready for the coming of Jesus? Every Christmas, we, as Christians, are called to remember the roots of our faith.
While finding meaning and joy in the midst of Christmas commercialism is sometimes difficult, there are things we can do. By setting aside time to reflect and worship together, we can prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.
The weekly sessions provided here are meant to offer individuals, families and other small groups a way to remember the reason we celebrate this holy season. The sessions begin the first week of Advent and follow through the Feast of Epiphany.
Before Advent begins, you will need to make an Advent wreath. Find a book with instructions for making an Advent wreath. Or follow these simple directions. Take a large, flat shallow bowl (at least 9 inches in diameter) and fill it with sand or coarse salt. Place four purple candles around the edge of the bowl. Place a large white candle in the center. Stick the candles down into the sand or salt so that they stand securely in place. Make a circle of evergreens and place them around the bowl.
You will also need a manger scene, a Bible and matches for the worship service. Depending on the ages of those in your group, adults may want to read the biblical reflections beforehand. Set aside a time each week to worship, perhaps prior to dinner on Sundays or another day of the week. Invite those who may be alone to join in your worship.
Gather around the Advent wreath. Take turns reading, lighting the candles and praying. You may want to review the service beforehand to adapt the content as needed for your group.
The services are designed to precede events during the season. Look ahead at the family calendar. Decide on the dates to use each service.
The reflections may be used as part of the services or separately.
GOD IS COMING!
YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW!
There is always a tension between faith and culture. In our society, that tension is nowhere more apparent than in our celebration of Christmas. A few years ago, when Alternatives was making the video Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, the producers were shooting some live footage in a Sunday School class of five-year olds. They were discussing Christmas and this is what one said: "At Christmastime we like to sing a lot. One of the songs we like to sing is 'Santa Claus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Santa loves the little children of the world.'"
That innocent perception is a stark reminder of the intermingling of faith and culture that has brought confusion and has caused many persons of faith to feel more than a little concerned about the way Christmas is celebrated in this society. The tension between faith and culture has been present in the celebration since its beginning. In the fourth century the feast of the Sun God, Mithras, was observed on December 25th. It was also the last day of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival commemorating the golden age of Saturn. Christmas was set on that date to provide a Christian alternative to celebrate. As early as the fifth century, there are records of Christians worrying about how these festivals were shaping the way Christmas was observed.
The Biblical texts for the first Sunday of Advent point in a direction different than our cultural observances. They tell us "God is coming! Get Ready!" We are to prepare to celebrate the coming of God, not Santa Claus. On the first Sunday of Advent each year the texts encourage us to look to the past and to the future. They tell us to remember the hopes for the coming of the Messiah. In the dark days just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah, looked beyond destruction to the coming of "a righteous Branch." In a time of confusion and chaos the prophet looked toward the coming of One who would "execute justice and righteousness in the land." The Gospel texts on the first Sunday of Advent point toward the end of history when God will come again to complete what was begun in Christ. The admonition is to "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life..."
God has come in our past. God is in our present. God is coming in our future. It is God who is love, sent to us in Jesus. And it is Jesus who "loves the little children, all the children of the world."
GOD IS COMING!
LIKE A REFINER'S FIRE!
Throughout time, God's coming has been heralded by messengers. The prophet Malachi looked ahead to a time when a messenger was coming to prepare the way for the coming of God. John the Baptizer was identified by the Gospel writers as the one anticipated by the prophet, the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. The voice and cry come to us in Advent. How do we prepare the way for the coming of God?
Advent is a set-apart time for preparation. The fourth century, in which the Christian calendar took its basic form, was the beginning of a new era for the Christian church. For over three hundred years the Christian church had been persecuted by the Roman authorities. That ended with the Edict of Toleration in the year 311, when the Emperor Constantine I turned the persecuted church into the tolerated church and later into the favored church. Within a hundred years the number of professed Christians jumped dramatically. Whole tribes became "Christian" overnight when their leaders decided it was "politically correct."
Whereas Christian leaders had focused for almost three hundred years on preparing Christians for persecution and martyrdom, they soon were faced with the prospect of the church being overwhelmed by people who had little or no idea of what Christianity was. They faced a "Christian education" task of gigantic proportions. The seasons of Advent and Lent were established to provide the necessary preparation for two of the most important celebrations in the church - Christmas and Easter.
Advent is just as necessary for us today. It is our opportunity to "prepare the way" in our culture for the celebration of the birth of Christ. We complain about the commercialization of Christmas in our society, but Malachi's message to the returned exiles in Judah some four and a half centuries before Christ was that "preparing the way" of the Lord did not begin in society at large, but in the community of faith. The coming of God, for which the messenger would prepare, would be like a "refiner's fire," quite a contrast to our images of the nativity. Preparation is serious business, but it is "hope-full" business. The image of the "refiner's fire," made popular in Handel's Messiah, is one of purification, not destruction or rejection. And when John the Baptist came on the scene four hundred and fifty years later, his message was "repentance for the forgiveness of sins." And that was, and is today, the necessary preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
GOD IS COMING!
PROMISE TO A WEARY PEOPLE
Philip Schaff, a prominent nineteenth century Church Historian, observed that from its very beginnings the Church had to struggle between two kinds of misuse of its "holy days" and seasons. There was the struggle to keep the celebration from being swallowed up by popular non-Christian celebrations. There was also the struggle not to do what the Pharisees had done to the great Jewish holy days and seasons: to make such requirements to keep the celebrations "pure" that the celebrations became millstones around the people's necks, a practice - Schaff reminds us - that "provoked the denunciation of Christ and the apostles."1
When John the Baptist reminded his listeners that the axe was lying at the foot of the trees, ready to cut down any trees not bearing good fruit, the people asked him: "What shall we do?" To the crowds he said: "Share your coat and food with any who need them." To the tax collectors who asked: "Collect no more than is due you." To the soldiers who asked: "Do not extort money... and be satisfied with your wages."
What about us? How do we prepare for Christmas without being swept away by the commercial version of Christmas and without adding rules and requirements that destroy its spirit?
In his short story "Where Love Is, There God Is Also,"2 Leo Tolstoy captures the spirit of Advent preparation, its joy and its renewing power. The shoemaker Martin has a vision that Christ will visit him the next day. He prepares his modest quarters and sets the table. He watches through the day but only encounters an old man in need of warmth and a cup of tea, a young mother with her child in need of food and warm clothing, and an old woman struggling with a young boy trying to steal an apple. Martin offers hospitality to each. In the evening when he opens the Gospels to read and his eyes fall on the words from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew - "For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in." - he realized that he had not been deceived. The Savior had come to visit him.
In the midst of the struggles to keep the message of Advent clear, what is God's promise? To a weary people, the prophet Zephaniah said "The Lord your God is in your midst...God will renew you in God's love." Claim the promise for yourself this Advent.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), p. 387.
2 More popularly known in a contemporary retelling for children as The Shoemaker's Dream.
GOD IS COMING!
THE UNQUALIFIED "YES"
When God decides to do something great, human calculations of power and status are irrelevant. Looking past the threat of the mighty Assyrian empire in the eighth century before Christ, Micah anticipates a time when a new ruler of Israel will come from tiny Bethlehem. That it was the hometown of King David, was a reminder of the continuation of the ancient promises God had given to David.
Whether what Micah had in mind was the coming of Jesus seven hundred years later, or one to be crowned after the exiles have returned is an important but unanswerable question. The church has seen in Jesus the fulfillment of God's promise to send "the one of peace." We need to pay attention to what Micah meant to say, but neither should we limit God to the prophet's vision. Whatever Micah's intentions, Jesus would be born in tiny Bethlehem. That modesty in location and not pomp and circumstance is a clue to the way God comes into the world, in Micah's time, in Jesus' time, and in our own time.
God not only comes in places where we would not expect, but deliberately chooses people we would probably dismiss as unlikely prospects for carrying out God's mission. Mary was such a person. And in the Magnificat, we hear the wonder in Mary's voice as she confesses that God has "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."
Why Mary? We may assume that it would have been possible for "the fullness of time" to have come at some other place and through other people. But, perhaps, down through the centuries, God had invited others, but for all we know, Mary may have been the first to give an unqualified "Yes." The "fullness of time" came because the lowly woman, Mary, said "Yes." Is it possible that there are other "fullnesses of time" awaiting our unqualified "Yes!"?
WHERE THE MESSIAH IS
The waiting is almost over. Tonight is the night when Advent waiting will be transformed into joyous Christmas celebration. We read Isaiah's words again and anticipate their fulfillment: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." But not everyone sees the "great light" or senses the joy. For every harmonious gathering, there is a painful lonely hour just across the street or down the hall. For every delightful gift exchange, there is some fresh hurt unwrapped or some sharp word which cuts to the heart. For all the joy in every corner of the world tonight, there is also the pain of memory or contemplation of a bleak future.
We who tell and celebrate the story on this night should not be surprised, nor should we pretend it is otherwise. When it all began there was cruel isolation. Young Mary and puzzled Joseph must have suffered many a stare. The edict of Caesar Augustus that brought the family to Bethlehem-enrollment so that this colonial people could pay taxes and soldiers be conscripted for Caesar's armies-was not a happy one. For all the wonder of the shepherds and magi there was hostility and death, the rage of Herod, the grief of the other mothers of Bethlehem. Some sang songs of praise while others wailed laments.
Christmas is a wonderful season, unparalleled in the possibilities for reconciliation, for healing, for generosity, and for great joy. When those gifts flow freely for you, look around and listen well. Just across the way, or across the table, or one phone call away are those for whom all is not joyful. You can pay attention and signal, "Yes, I understand." And as you do you will help keep alive hope in those who feel no joy on this night.
Christmas joy, after all, was not a matter of heaviness of the world suddenly being lifted, not for Isaiah, not for those gathered in Bethlehem around the manger, nor for us. It is not true that where the Messiah is there is no suffering. What is true is that wherever there is suffering there is the Messiah. And so on this night we celebrate the arrival of a Presence, a Divine Solidarity in all our solitude and pain. It was, is, and ever shall be, Joy to the world, even when it hurts. Tonight we light our candles in the deep winter darkness knowing God is with us in Jesus, the incomparable Light, whom we are privileged to share.
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26
or Matthew 2:16-18 (for Remembering the Innocents)
REMEMBER THE INNOCENTS
It is still Christmas. Lights and decorations remain. Christmas gaiety persists. But in the midst of rejoicing there is a solemn reminder that not all that surrounds the coming of Jesus is celebration. In the ancient church December 28th was set aside as "The Day of the Holy Innocents," a day of mourning for the children slain by Herod as he tried to remove Jesus as a contender for king of Israel. Seldom observed by Protestants, this mourning has its roots even earlier than the date of Christmas. It was not part of the celebration of the Nativity. It was a commemoration to the martyred children. This is the dark side of the Christmas story, stark reality sobering any excess of sentimentality created by Christmas.
The Old Testament text records the boyhood of Samuel, how he "continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people." This is the same language Luke chose to describe the maturing of the boy Jesus. The Gospel text for this Sunday jumps from the Nativity to the time when Jesus was twelve and he amazed the teachers in the Temple. Jesus did not get to be twelve years old apart from the suffering of the Innocents of Bethlehem.
This commemoration of the Holy Innocents is a pleading not to forget. It is a pleading for the Innocents of our own time - children victimized by war, hunger, physical and sexual abuse, drive by shootings, drunk drivers, indifference, neglect, and an avalanche of other destructive and violent evils. It is an outcry to the Church to name these present day children as martyrs, too, to denounce the evil forced on them, and to renew the ministries of protection for "the least of these."
God cherishes and holds children precious. The very sign of Emmanuel, "God is with us," for the shepherds and us is a vulnerable baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. How God must have grieved at the suffering of the Innocents at Bethlehem, and how God must grieve at the suffering of Innocents today. What can we do to see that all children have an opportunity, like Samuel and Jesus, to grow "in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor?"
GO HOME BY ANOTHER ROAD
With this Sunday the Christmas season draws to a close. For many, it closed on December 25th. But for others, the tradition of "Twelve Days of Christmas" extends the season to January 6th. Before Christmas was set on December 25th in the Western (Roman Catholic) Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church was observing both the birth and the baptism of Jesus on January 6th. In the Western Church the two dates were linked to make the "Twelve Days of Christmas."
On January 6th, or the Sunday just before it, the story of the coming of the magi is the dramatic reminder that the "good news" of Christ's birth is for Jews and Gentiles alike. The text from Isaiah recalls God's promise to the returned exiles sitting in the rubble that once was their homeland that "the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" and that "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn."
But the "light" of God's revelation produces two responses. In the magi, the star in the sky was the occasion for great celebration. For those who have eyes to see, the star leads to an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. And so the magi journeyed from the East to find the child so they could worship him . In King Herod, however, the "light" was the occasion for fear. Serving as a puppet ruler over Judah at the pleasure of the Romans, Herod feared the possibility of competition more than God. His fearful response was first to attempt to deceive the magi so he could find and destroy the baby. Failing that, it was to destroy all of the boy babies in Bethlehem.
The "light" of God's revelation to the magi was not simply an indirect guiding of their astrological calculations which led them to Bethlehem, it was also quite specific. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they changed their course and returned to their own country "by another road." The consistent Biblical witness is that genuine revelation always calls us to make changes in our lives.
For almost seven weeks we have played our parts in the great Advent/Christmas drama. We have anticipated the coming again and again of God into our world. We have remembered the longings of people in dark and dreary times. We have joyfully celebrated the birth of Jesus the Messiah as hope for us and hope for all people. We have mourned the Innocents in Bethlehem and everywhere. Now, as we return home from our journey in spirit to Bethlehem, what are the changes in direction the "light" of God's revelation calls us to make? Is there "another road" on which you are being called to travel?
Page last updated 26 Nov. 2014
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