Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: Advent 2016 (Page 2 of 7)

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!

December 19, 2016 — Faith holds wide the door

Today’s Bible reading

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace. — Micah 5:2-5

More thoughts for meditation

Many hymns that were written originally for children have captured the imagination of everyone. Such is the case with “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote the lyrics for the Sunday school children of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He was inspired by his pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865. Louis H. Redner (1831-1908), a wealthy real estate broker who served as a church organist for his avocation (who increased Sunday school attendance from thirty-six to over one thousand during his nineteen years as superintendent) wrote the tune.

According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. He wrote, “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” He later participated in an observance in the Church of the nativity which lasted from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.

The now omitted original fourth stanza seems directed to children, and certainly applies to children now locked in the ongoing violence and oppression of Palestine (see them above):

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

The song beautifully describes the little town asleep in the December night; it also modulates from a description of the facts into an examination of the meaning of Christmas: first in its encouragement of charity and faith, and then into the coming of Christ into the human heart.

Suggestions for action

Isn’t that modulation where our meditations are designed to lead? As you listen to the song, appreciate the scene, the facts, and, mostly, the meaning of what is happening in Bethlehem, then and now — what happened for you then and what is happening in you and us, now.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel






December 18, 2016 — Stay by my cradle

Today’s Bible reading

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a child, whom he put among them,  and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. — Matthew 18:1-5

More thoughts for meditation

In 1887 an American hymn writer, James R. Murray, wrote the tune for the children’s hymn “Away in a Manger.” At that time he titled the song, “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and published the story that it was written by Martin Luther and that Luther sang the song to his children each night before bed.  The idea of Luther and hundreds of German parents singing this song to their children really spread; however, it wasn’t true.  The song is purely American, written by an anonymous author (some say a man named, J.E. Clark) sometime in the mid-1800s.  Charles Hutchinson Gabriel has been named as the author of the third verse.  But because of Murray’s strong reputation as an accomplished hymnist, the story of Luther’s authorship stuck. By 1945 when the U.S. was battling Germany again in WWII, more research was done about the origins of the song. Richard Hill claimed that Murray himself wrote the song, but that’s been disputed since Murray usually claimed credit for songs he wrote. It’s unlike he would have deferred credit to Luther.  More guessing has suggested that Murray probably got the story about Luther from whoever gave him the song. Murray adapted the German-influenced tune into four part harmony and published it.

Regardless of origin, this song is a wonderful reminder of Jesus, the impoverished baby who comes to us as our Infant King. Jesus turns the world upside-down and changes how we think about power and achieving greatness. It’s a favorite of children all around the world and even if Luther never sang it to his children, many of us have sung it to our own.

Suggestions for action

Away in a Manger, perhaps more than any other Christmas carol, is for children and for the child in all of us.  Listen again to this version with young voices and remember that Jesus calls us to a child-like trust in God alone. Tell him you trust him and love him.  Tell him of your longing for him to watch over you. Ask him to stay.

« Older posts Newer posts »