Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: 2016 (Page 1 of 85)

December 25, 2016 — Peace on earth

Today’s Bible reading

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” — Luke 2:13-15

More thoughts for meditation

Jesus was probably born in September, not December. After Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the Christianizing powers decided to make the “birth of the sun” celebration into the birth of the Son. So they set the date on December 25. You can read why that date is unlikely for the actual birth here. The holiday was not widely observed until the 400’s, so it is not connected to practices in the early church.

Nevertheless, it has become the focus of the Advent season, which begins the church calendar. Today the “twelve days of Christmas” begin, leading up to the day of Epiphany, when we mark the revelation of King Jesus to the wise men.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If you are reading today, you must be seeking a moment to pray and reflect in the middle of all your togetherness or all your aloneness. We are praying in the middle of a world always on the brink of disaster. We are praying with fellow believers having babies and losing babies, celebrating the joys of family and seeing their families destroyed in Aleppo and Southern Sudan.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpgWe can also pray with the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (18071882), whose poem “Christmas Bells” was put into song. It reflects his own struggle to deal with his difficult experiences and still welcome the joy of Christmas Day.

During the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter after Charles had left. It read, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, after nine months in the army, he was severely wounded. Longfellow was still grieving the tragic accidental death of his wife, whose dress caught on fire, as he nursed his son on Christmas Day, listening to the bells in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the middle of it all, Longfellow was inspired to write “Christmas Bells”.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Casting Crowns created an updated version of the traditional melody put to Longfellow’s words in 2007

December 23, 2016 — Enter the hush

The Newborn. Georges de la Tour, 1640’s

Today’s Bible reading

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. — Matthew 2:11

More thoughts for meditation

Ceremony with the church in Provence on Christmas Eve.

“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” (French: Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle) originated in the Provence region of France in the 16th century. The carol was first published in France, and was later translated into English in the 18th century. The tune was originally dance music for the French nobility. It was likely plucked from history by the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier to use with these words.

The song evokes the tradition of erecting a crèche in the village square to honor the Christ Child and the many traditions surrounding midnight mass on Christmas Eve. In the carol, visitors to the stable have to keep their voices down so the newborn can enjoy his dreams. To this day people in Provence, especially children, put on plays depicting the Christmas story and carry torches and candles to midnight mass, often singing this carol – or so we who have not been to Provence are told.

The journey of Advent moves toward our own experience of entering in, like in the reading for today, toward our own entering into the house and paying homage, worshiping the newborn King. People do not act out the story merely because they like plays (well, some might); sincere believers act it out because they want their behavior to sink into their thoughts and feelings or they want to use a behavior as an expression of their thoughts and feelings. Singing a song like “Bring a Torch” may test one’s ability to enter in, since it is from a foreign culture to Americans, it is old, and it has been reduced to lovely background musak in Target. But you can probably do hard things in the cause of entering in. The wise men came from Persia, Jesus came from oneness with God.

Suggestions for action

Use the song to enter in. The version below is slower than we usually hear it (and in French! — with translation below). Don’t just use it as an interesting mental exercise, let it slow you down and hush you up. It could be the hush of a bygone time when car alarms were not going off. It could be the hush of awe as you realize who this baby is again. It could be the hush of respect because you should stop talking and thinking about yourself as if you are the center of all stories.

Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabelle!
Bring a torch, to the stable call
Christ is born. Tell the folk of the village
Jesus is born and Mary’s calling.
Ah! Ah! beautiful is the Mother!
Ah! Ah! beautiful is her child

It is wrong when the child is sleeping,
It is wrong to talk so loud.
Silence, now as you gather around,
Lest your noise should waken Jesus.
Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers;
Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!

Softly now unto the stable,
Softly for a moment come!
Look and see how charming is Jesus,
Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!
Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;
Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!

December 21, 2016 — God’s children

Today’s Bible reading

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. – Galatians 4:1-11

From the 1860’s-80’s, Thomas Nast’s drawings enlarged Moore’s picture of Santa Claus, including his North Pole home and elven helpers.

More thoughts for meditation

“A Visit from St. Nicholas” is more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” (Want to hear Michelle Obama and Kermit the Frog read it?). It is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 in Troy, New York, and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837. It may be the best-known verses ever written by an American. It is largely responsible for everyone’s conception of Santa Claus and has had a massive impact on the history of Christmas gift-giving. Before the poem gained wide popularity, American ideas had varied considerably about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors.

According to legend, “A Visit” was composed by Clement Moore on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. His inspiration for the character of Saint Nicholas was a local Dutch handyman as well as the historical Saint Nicholas (for the saint, check here). Moore originated many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today while borrowing other aspects, such as the use of reindeer.  His conception was influenced by his friend, Washington Irving, but Moore portrayed his “jolly old elf” as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred family holiday of the season among the upper crust, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as full of Catholic influences (as in St. Nicholas) and still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its problematic religious associations. As a result, New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was eventually set to music and gained even wider influence.


Although it was Clement Moore who created the image, our present picture of Santa Clause comes from Coca Cola’s advertisement campaign, first generated in 1931. Coca Cola recognized a loss in sales during the Christmas holiday; to encourage sales, the company created a Christmas advertisement featuring Moore’s image of Santa. However, Coca Cola replaced Santa’s pipe with a glass of Coke.  These advertisements provided Santa with his customary red and white suit, Coca Cola logo colors.  The presence of Santa in shopping centers and homes provided a strong visual presence for the Santa brand. Movies like “Miracle on 34th Street” did even more to solidify the Coke Santa as central to the holiday. Christmas has been transformed through advertisements, movies, and music into a season of materialism, purchases, and commercialism.

An interceding saint who gives gifts to much-loved children might be excused as a charming expression of the grace of God, though maybe too unfactual to be healthy. A coke-drinking Santa overseeing a magical toy-making factory at the North Pole is a consumer-driven mess. How do we sort through the mess to the meaning?

The scripture for today helps. While Paul would have no trouble upending the Christ-replacing celebration of Christmas in the United States. He would also insist that our secure place as God’s children gives us the freedom to receive our inheritance and not let anyone demean or destroy it. We are no longer  “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” due to the work that began with the birth of Jesus! So we would not observe various seasons like the world around us like we used to when we were enslaved to “weak and beggarly elemental spirits.” Rather, we move through our time as God’s children, having received the “Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” That relationship sorts out the mess and opens us up to receive whatever goodness is in each moment, even as we vividly recognize the evil tempting us to fall back where we came from.

Suggestions for action

It might be difficult, but it is possible to teach your children a Christian view of Santa Claus that honors the original saint and strains out the nonsense that accrued in the United States.

You might say to them, “Santa Claus is all about how your parents and our Lord love children. He is a symbol of the grace which is deep in the heart of who we are.” We might have to say such things a lot, because Coke will be offering their version, too, which is heavy on elemental spirits and denuded of Jesus.

As you listen to the ultimate musical-comedy performance of the song that came from the poem, from the home of musical-comedy lovers: Utah, see if you can sort out the fun and the love while you strain out the nonsense, including the nonsense associated with your own refusal to receive the fun and the love of the season. Just because many people are blind and silly, doesn’t mean their corruption should infect your joy. You are God’s child and God is a gifter: “you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”

December 20, 2016 — Chains shall he break

Today’s Bible Reading

Turn to me and be saved,
   all the ends of the earth!
   For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
   from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
   a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
   every tongue shall swear.” — Isaiah 45:22-23

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
   and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God. — Romans 14:7-12

More thoughts for meditation

The story of the song, O Holy Night, is a checked story of mistakes and triumphs.  It starts when an obscure French priest asks an ambivalent parishioner poet to create a new poem for Christmas mass. In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was asked to write the poem and he penned the French version of the song, using the Gospel of Luke as his guide and imagining himself in Bethlehem for the birth. He finished the poem quickly and felt inspired by his own work.  He decided the poem should be set to music and so he turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, an accomplished composer and a Jew. Their combined work pleased the local priest and “Cantique de Noel” was performed at midnight mass just a few weeks later. It was well-received and became a favorite among the people.  Later when Cappeau became a socialist and walked away from the church and it was discovered that Adams was a Jew, the song was banned in French Catholic churches as “unfit.”  The people kept singing it at home. A decade later an American writer, John Sullivan Dwight, translated the lyrics to “O Holy Night.”  As an abolitionist, he identified with the third verse: “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, And in his name all oppression shall cease…” The song became extremely popular across the North during the Civil War.

Back in France, the song was banned for over two decades, but remained a favorite of common people. Legend records that in 1871 during fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian Wars, on Christmas Eve, a French soldier jumped out of his trench without his weapon and sang the song to his enemies. A German soldier then answered with a German hymn and a cease-fire took place for 24 hours to celebrate Christmas.  And on yet another Christmas Eve in 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, used a new form of generator and spoke into his microphone, broadcasting a human voice for the first time in history.  Shocked radio operators and wireless owners at newspaper and on board ships around the world, heard Fessenden reading from the Gospel of Luke instead of the coded impulses they expected. When he finished the account of the birth of Jesus, Fessenden picked up his violin and played O Holy Night. Fessenden had no idea he had shaken the world and the first song ever broadcast via radio was this favorite carol.  

Suggestions for Action

Small beginnings, greater ends… sing along with boys in  this version of the song and remember that you are in this story as Cappeau imagined. We are a part of the holiness Christ has unleashed on earth.

O Holy Night

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world1 rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;

Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming;
With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand:
So, led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land,
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our friend;

He knows our need, To our weakness no stranger!
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King! your King! before him bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!

Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!

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