20161202

Restful Meditations :: Advent’s Hope

Focusing our hearts on Christ, the hope of Advent, expands the holiday experience beyond mere merriness. In the gospel our hearts find rest from pain and hope for renewal.

“Jesus, my feet are dirty,” prayed Origen in the third century. “Come even as a slave to me, pour water into your bowl, come and wash my feet. In asking such a thing I know I am overbold, but I dread what was threatened when you said to me, ‘If I do not wash your feet I have no fellowship with you.’ Wash my feet then, because I long for your companionship.”

Origen’s prayer captures the spirit of Advent: looking back at Christ’s work on our behalf, looking forward at the completion of his fellowship, and longing for his presence and power today.

Another third century prayer, an anonymous Syriac Christmas liturgy, gives words to this hope:

The radiance of the Father’s splendor, the Father’s visible image, Jesus Christ our God, peerless among counselors, Prince of Peace, Father of the world to come, the model after which Adam was formed, for our sakes became like a slave: in the womb of Mary the virgin, without assistance from any man, he took flesh.

Enable us, Lord, to reach the end of this luminous feast in peace, forsaking all idle words, acting virtuously, shunning our passions, and raising ourselves above the things of this world.

Bless your church, which you brought into being long ago and attached to yourself through your own life-giving blood…

Bless your servants, whose trust is all in you; bless all Christian souls, the sick, those tormented by evil spirits, and those who have asked us to pray for them.

Show yourself as merciful as you are rich in grace; save and preserve us; enable us to obtain those good things to come which will never know an end.

May we celebrate your glorious birth, and the Father who sent you to redeem us, and your Spirit, the Giver of life, now and forever, age after age. Amen.

Christ, may our hearts find their rest in you, the hope of Advent.

Listen: Greensleves by Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Today’s Reading
Micah 7 (Listen – 3:36)
Luke 16 (Listen – 4:27)

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20161201

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel :: Advent’s Hope

“Caesar is Lord,” the people would shout as his chariot traversed the streets. Rome’s elite culture—from philosophy to viaducts, engineering to economics—was unsurpassed and almost universally recognized as the hope of the world. It was stunning when the empire fell into decline.

In the end, Caesar proved not only unable to save his kingdom, but even himself. The fall of Rome plunged civilization into what historians have long-called the Dark Ages. For hundreds of years battles raged endlessly, pestilence and plague spread freely, and chaos seemed to gain the upper hand all too regularly.

The period isn’t significantly brighter in church history. Scripture was largely inaccessible, starving the Church of sound doctrine and increasing the growth of folk religion, superstition, and far worse. (The devastating interpretations of Scripture that lead to the crusades fomented during this time.)

“O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high, and order all things far and nigh,” wrote an anonymous monk sometime before 800 C.E. The words to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” cry out from the depths of the Dark Ages—longing for God’s presence, Emmanuel, to rescue humankind.

In some ways the unknown author behind this song is an outlier to his or her world; the lyrics demonstrate intimate knowledge of Scripture in a time of illiteracy. In other ways the lyricist was shaped firmly by the Dark Ages—depravity writ large—and its revelations of humanity’s limits. Even had there been a vision for restoration present, no one on earth would have been sufficient to breathe it to life.

O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

“Jesus is Lord,” is a revolutionary claim. It not only upends global empires, but whatever we would enthrone on our hearts to save ourselves from the insufficiency of our world.

In Advent we await the coming of the all-sufficient King; he is the wisdom we yearn for and the power we need. He is God, and his presence brings healing to our world and restoration to our hearts.

Listen: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel by Francesca Battistelli (4:20)

Today’s Reading
Micah 6 (Listen – 2:28)
Luke 15 (Listen – 4:19)

 

20161130

Depression, Anger, Redemption :: Advent’s Hope

“Charles Jennens was a collaborator of Handel’s who struggled with depression following the suicide of his younger brother,” writes Mitch Davis who produced a documentary on Handel’s Messiah. Jennens’ brother was reportedly talked out of his faith at university and subsequently took his own life. “Jennens craved the spiritual solace he found in the exalted strains of Handel’s music and sought to combine that music with the scriptural words that comforted him during his depressive bouts.” Jennings composed the libretto of Messiah from translations of the Bible from the King James Version and The Book of Common Prayer.

Handel bounced from patron to patron throughout his career. Poor management of money and the resulting large shifts in his income, led him to become significantly indebted in London. Additionally, Handel’s first biographer John Mainwaring recorded that Handel, ”paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man.” Handel eventually became overweight, but was known far wider for English tabloid reports on his temper. In one argument he threatened to throw a soloist out a window, in another he escalated a verbal fight until a friend stabbed him with a sword (Handel was spared, as the sword was blunted by a metal button).

Mesmerized when he saw Jennens’ impassioned libretto, Handel worked feverishly on an oratorio, completing it in less than four weeks. Messiah was a turning point for Handel; its success freed him from his debts, and he became extraordinarily generous with the wealth his fame allowed. Something beyond material success seems to have happened as well. During the composition, Handel had what some call a spiritual epiphany. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Handel wrote as he composed the Hallelujah Chorus. “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not.”

”Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,” observes Harry Bicket, the director of The English Concert chamber orchestra. It’s clear both Jennens and Handel found personal grounding in Messiah and wanted to share that experience with others. Messiah seems to be both both men’s declaration that Christ is sufficient in the chaos of the world. They approached Messiah, as we can during this season as well, drawing solace and strength from the glory of Christ.

Listen: Hallelujah Chorus by The London Philharmonic.

Today’s Reading
Micah 5 (Listen – 2:21)
Luke 14 (Listen – 4:36)

20161129

Hurting through the Holidays :: Advent’s Hope

Physical and emotional pain can make the holiday season feel like a torrent of expectations to appear happy. The unspoken demand of “Christmas joy” weighs on those mourning the loss of a loved one, suffering a long-term illness, or carrying the pressures of daily anxiety or depression. At some point this converges with the seasonal stress of wrapping up the final quarter of the year, scheduling events, and traveling through busy airports.

The musical messages that flood every store and streaming site are less than helpful. While festive, the top 10 Christmas songs in the U.S. are unapologetically devoid of spiritual joy. From Lennon’s Christmas-as-political-statement, “Happy XMas (War Is Over),” to Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which desperately pleads with a lover to fill a need far too large for any person, these songs speak of happy feelings but miss transcendent peace.

Settling for happiness as proxy for true joy isn’t a recent change in America’s Christmas tradition. In 1944 Judy Garland sang, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the song mandates merriness—challenging, “from now on your troubles will be out of sight,” while predicting, “through the years we’ll all be together”—yet offers no sufficient solution as to how any of this will come to be.

The season of Advent, contrary to demanding a facade of holiday spirit, is an invitation to rest in the promise of Christ’s redemptive joy. When Christ talked about anxiety and trust he wasn’t minimizing the stresses of life, he was revealing the sufficiency of his love.

It’s only by placing our faith in the gospel that we are given the opportunity to displace it in ourselves and our circumstances. We stop looking to calm daily anxieties with our own success, appearance, or accolade—which change far too often to offer the security and hope we need.

“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said to his followers. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Lord, renew in us, this Advent, the hope of your victory, the promise of your relief, and the joy of your redemption.

Listen: As With Gladness Men of Old by Choir of the King’s College, Cambridge.

Editor’s note: When Christ talked about anxiety, or discouragement, his words were focused on the daily pressures common to all people. He was not, nor are we above, trying to speak to mental health conditions that persist despite great effort and desire. In all things we look to Christ, but in many we find ourselves holding on for future relief, future glory, future joy—Christ will return, he will make all things new.

Today’s Reading
Micah 4 (Listen – 2:33)
Luke 13 (Listen – 5:02)

20161128

Why We Celebrate Advent :: Advent’s Hope

As a commercial event, Christmas seems to come too soon each year. In the church calendar—observed by Christians around the world for centuries—Christmas morning marks the beginning of the season, and our hearts now rest in the season of Advent. To put that in the language of modern music, celebrating “Joy to the World” before we cry “O Come O Come Emmanuel” misses the hope of Advent.

“The ancient theologians of the Church, such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria, look upon the Christian life as one continual festival,” observed Ida von Hahn-Hahn in the 19th century. “Because the night of sin has been overcome by redemption, because reconciliation with God has brought peace and true joy to the soul, and because from this joy no one is excluded who does not voluntarily separate himself from God.”

Hahn-Hahn, a German countess who wrote a series of books on church history, highlighted the importance of Advent throughout history in preparing the souls of the faithful for Christmas:

Particular times were set apart as festivals, which, like faithful messengers of religion, returned every year, unceasingly announcing the work of redemption, and by their attractive festivity enkindling man, and preparing his soul for the everlasting feast of heaven.

The fast of the four weeks of Advent, to prepare the sinful world for the merciful coming of the Lord… is not to be fulfilled by a trifling and superficial joy, but by the supernatural rejoicing of a heart entirely resting in God, and a life wholly consecrated to Him. Zeal for sanctification should extend over all the aims and objects of life.

Our goal in this season isn’t to usurp materialism only to restore an idyllic image of Christmas-past. Advent is a season where we seek the renewal of our souls in Christ as we prepare for Christmas-present, and long for Christmas-future—the great second Advent where the broken are restored, the dead are revived, and the hope of the gospel brings forth the restoration of all things. So in this season we joyfully, and longingly, sing together, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Listen: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Christy Nockles (2:59)

Today’s Reading
Micah 3 (Listen – 1:51)
Luke 12 (Listen – 7:42)