Oh, my! This time of the year we often hear the strains of O Christmas Tree and O Holy Night playing on radios and in shopping malls.
The Christian Church, however, is still officially in the preparatory season of Advent. While we ready ourselves to celebrate Christ’s coming at Christmas, we’re even more so preparing for His Second Coming on the Last Day. At the same time, we’re also mindful that He continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament. Thus Advent acknowledges and celebrates what we often call Christ’s “three-fold coming.”
The hymns and appointed Scriptures for the Advent season touch on all three aspects of Christ’s coming. We might sum them up by saying that Advent is our prayer to Him: “O Jesus, as You came in human flesh as the Babe of Bethlehem, come to us now in mercy through Your Word and live in our hearts, that we might be prepared for Your coming in glory to raise us to everlasting life.”
Of all the preparatory hymns, perhaps none is better known than — and well-loved as — Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel. The song’s seven stanzas use a variety of biblical images to speak of Jesus. The hymn masterfully connects Old Testament prophecies with New Testament fulfillment.
Where did we get this hymn? And what are those antiphons mentioned in this article’s title? An antiphon is a brief verse, usually sung before and after a Psalm or a canticle in liturgical churches. The O Antiphons, dating from no later than the 6th Century AD, were written to be used with the Magnificat, Mary’s song of faith from Luke 1, the traditional canticle for Vespers, Christianity’s ancient service for the close of day. They were intended to be sung over the seven days preceding Christmas Eve.
We call them the “O” Antiphons because each begins with that interjection. Their traditional order from the 17th through the 23rd of December is as follows: O Sapientia (Wisdom), O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel (God with Us). They lead in roughly chronological order from eternity to the Nativity of our Lord.
By the 12th Century, a Latin hymn based on the seven O Antiphons came into use. During the mid-1800s, John Mason Neale and Henry Sloan Coffin made an English translation. Note that the final antiphon became the first stanza, thus we normally begin the hymn by singing, “Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel.”
If we reverse their traditional order, we can form a Latin acrostic from the first word of each of the antiphons: Ero cras. This can be translated, “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.” Thus we have a reminder that our Lord promises to return for us. Therefore, His Church pledges itself to join together to receive Him by faith through Word and Sacrament until we finally receive Him by sight on Judgment Day.
Visit the post Come, Lord Jesus! Look carefully at the seven O Antiphons and the seven stanzas of the hymn. See how steeped they are in Old Testament imagery. As Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me. (John 5:39)” He fulfilled the prophets’ words. He is God’s Word made flesh, who ransomed sin-enslaved humanity, both “captive Israel” and all the other nations of mankind.
If you’re like most people, when you hear the expression, you immediately think, “I sure hope not,” or, “That’s not right.” Even if you’re not a Christian, or if you don’t believe in original sin, it’s not hard to conceive of circumstances where there is less pain, suffering, and death, where people act more kindly and lovingly toward one another. Even most who accept death as “a necessary part of life” still think that there’s something wrong when parents must bury children.
Leibniz looked at things just a bit differently. He treated God like a mathematician — or a casino odds maker. He assumed that God knew everything would come unglued once it was made and taught that He’d put everything together so as to minimize the damage once sin was loosed in Creation.
While Leibniz probably thought that he’d discovered cause for optimism, I think that it’s a really cynical way of understanding God, ultimately seeing Him as someone who’d chosen not merely the lesser of two evils but the least of all possible evils.
For this and other reasons, philosophers and theologians have rejected Leibniz’s way of thinking almost since he espoused it. Bertrand Russell considered the concept illogical. Voltaire so thoroughly scorned the concept that he mocked it throughout Candide. There, Dr. Pangloss uses “best of all possible worlds” as an ongoing mantra. From Voltaire, English gained the adjective panglossian, meaning naively or unreasonably optimistic.
Yet even when we admit that this is a broken, fallen, hurting, bleeding, and dying Creation, we also realize that it’s a Creation filled with beauty, wonder, love, and light.
I thought of this as I watched the Perseids, the annual August meteor shower. Beautiful light trails and occasional brilliant fireballs blaze across the sky as tiny dust motes from slowly disintegrating comets rip into earth’s atmosphere at amazing speed.
Much of earth’s natural beauty comes from changing, decaying nature. Erosion, a bane of crop farmers, carries off tons of fertile soil every year. Erosion also helped to carve such majesty as the mountains, canyons, caverns, and the stone arches and bridges of the West. Scarred though it be, Creation still reflects at least some of the majesty of its Creator.
The Christian knows that for all its beauty, this world is not the best but also realizes that even with its brokenness, it isn’t the worst. We still await the best world, for God says, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. (Isaiah 65:17)”
This New Creation awaits all who have faith in Jesus as their Savior and who know that the Father forgives their sins because of the Christ’s sacrifice. The worst possible world, of course, is that to which the impenitent unbelievers are condemned.
While neither the best nor the worst, we know this world is better off for having Christ as its Redeemer. His Church makes it better — this not because Christians elevate the world through their own holiness but because they bring Jesus’ goodness into bad circumstances and situations. The saints care for their broken brothers and sisters and do good even for the earth’s most wicked inhabitants in response to the infinitely greater good Jesus has done fore us. Until our time here ends, this remains the best place for us to receive Christ’s forgiveness and to show mercy for His sake.
Best world or worst? Isn’t this a nonsense question? This is the only world in which we now live, although as Christians, we know that by faith we are are citizens of the New Creation.
Here, our Good Shepherd guides and guards us. In this place we learn to trust our loving God to do what is best for us. This is where we respond in kind to His love by loving those around us.
NB: I wrote this rather quickly during the wee hours of Monday night and Tuesday morning, before and after our meteor watching excursion. I wasn’t scheduled but was asked to step in when the scheduled writer was unable to turn in something for the weekly column rotated among area ministers.
This time around, I thought I’d reply to some random questions from youth that I recently received.
1. What type of fish swallowed Jonah?
The Bible doesn’t tell us. The Hebrew merely says “great fish.” The Israelites being largely landlubbers, they don’t seem to have done much to distinguish among various sea creatures. Therefore, we cannot be sure if it was even a “fish” by scientific definition or a member of the whale family.
If it were a creature of the Mediterranean still in existence today, our candidates are limited. In my mind, the sperm whale and the great white shark would be most likely. An average sized sperm whale and a large great white are among the few aquatic animals with throats and esophagi large enough to swallow even a small man whole, without chewing him up or crushing him first.
If the vomiting was a natural act rather than one designed by the Lord specifically for the occasion, a whale is most likely, since they are capable of doing just such a thing.
2. What do you do if you’re crazy for someone who doesn’t feel the same way?
Be patient — craziness normally passes. You need to decide how much you want to invest emotionally, financially, and even spiritually in trying to develop a relationship that may or may not ever bear fruit. Then either act accordingly or walk away graciously. Continually longing from afar usually ends up leading people into resentment or full-fledged hatred. We don’t own each other and attempting to “take possession” of another is sinful. If you see no chance for mutual affection, open your options to others and let your decisions be guided by your faith and your intellect as well as your heart.
3. Why were Adam and Eve naked?
They didn’t need clothing to protect themselves since God had placed them in an ideal environment. In their case, their physical nudity wasn’t an issue until they realized that they were spiritually naked before God.
They sewed together leaf coverings and hid among the trees not because their bodies were shameful but because they signified the shame that was theirs following their fall into sin.
4. Why does God let Satan exist? If He knew the future, why did He create Satan?
Why did God make Adam and Eve? Why does he allow mankind to continue? God created because it is His nature to create. He made all things good. What happened afterwards wasn’t God’s fault but that of His creatures. We aren’t given reasons for many of God’s actions. In fact, He often cuts off such questioning: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)”
However, He does tell us the reason for His most important act. He sent His Son in human flesh to undo the Devil’s dirty work and to cleanse us from our inborn and ongoing sin because “He so loved the world” that he wants you to believe and “have eternal life. (John 3:16)”
5. Why did God make four seasons?
He may not have. Conditions at the beginning of Creation may have been quite different from those now. The seasons as we know them may be the result of the Fall.
Even if there were distinctions in the very beginning, the changing of the seasons is tied to the planting, growth, and harvesting of various plants, thus benefitting all living things. Note also that extreme northern and southern parts of the globe essentially have only two seasons and equatorial regions only one.
6. How do we build a relationship with God?
On our own, not well at all. Our tools and materials are limited, broken, and stained with sin. God is the Builder. He reaches out to us through His Son, by His Word, in the Church. He moves us to respond to Him in faith then to show love to others.
Yet once we are made His through faith, He leads us to regular worship. There we hear how much He loves us and receive His forgiveness. There we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood and are fed and nourished in this “family meal” that joins us closer to Him and to each other. Truly, most Christians draw closer to their Lord when in community with each other than on their own.
Want to say no without actually saying, “No”? It’s easy — agree with someone and then add a “but.” We like to use “but” to disagree without sounding disagreeable. When we “but in” to others’ statements, we’re actually telling them to “butt out.”
Most of us are guilty at times of using “but” to avoid going along with the thoughts of others — but when others do it to us, watch out! How dare they tell us yes and no in the same breath! And if it pains us, imagine what God thinks when we say “but” to Him.
Many classic Christian heresies grew out of people saying “but” to clear words of Scripture. Arius said, “Yes, Jesus is the Son of God — but He’s not really God.” He also would have replied in the affirmative if you’d have asked him, “Was there ever a time when the Son of God was not?”
Nestorius confessed that Jesus was God and man — but established a theology that so divided the divine and human natures that the Christ was essentially two people in one person. He claimed that certain things only happened to the man-part or the God-part and not to the entire Son. Heretics such as these accepted what they could comprehend and then rejected what was difficult or uncomfortable to believe.
Today, millions of people will agree that Jesus was a great teacher or a mighty prophet — but not God’s own Son. When they hear Him say, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, (John 14:6)” they’ll say, “Yes, but not the only way, the only truth, and the only life.” Often, they would rather embrace the contradictions of conflicting beliefs than the paradoxes of biblical Christianity, where God’s harsh, sin-condemning Law stands beside His gracious Gospel that forgives and forgets our wickedness.
In our own faith and personal piety, we also can be guilty of using “but” in order to hold God at arm’s length. Often this comes in our hesitance to fully and completely accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Our fallen natures resent divine monergism — the idea that God is solely responsible for establishing and maintaining our salvation, our faith, and our new lives as believers.
Not wanting to think of their natural-born selves as sinners, rebels, God’s enemies, or spiritually dead, people try to put a “but” after agreeing with our Lord’s absolutes. Yes, Scripture plainly teaches that God rejects, condemns, and finally damns unrepentant sinners — but I’m not really all that sinful. Yes, I’m saved only by grace through faith in Christ — but I have to do or undo something before this salvation takes effect.
When we say “but” to the Law, we tell God that we aren’t really as bad as He says we are. When we say “but” to the Gospel, we demean Jesus’ sacrifice by claiming that there’s something good and right in us that can share the credit (and the glory) for our salvation.
When the Holy Spirit catches us in this error of agreeing with God and then contradicting Him, He moves us to repent and receive full forgiveness. Instead of the self-accommodation of “but” the Spirit teaches us to say, “Amen.”
Amen is the “anti-but.” It means “truly” or “so be it.” Amen is faith’s answer to an all-powerful, incomprehensible God. Amen tells the Lord, “You’re right. I may not understand or even like what You’re saying — but that’s fine, because You’re God and I’m not.” Instead of our “but” negating God’s holy Word and perfect will, our “Amen” becomes the “but” that negates our own sinful disagreement with Him.
“Verily, verily,” Jesus often said. This, “Amen, amen,” was and remains His way of saying, “My Word is truth.” When that truth lives in us, it drives out our sinful “buts” that we might respond in kind. When the Law rebukes our wickedness and calls us sinners, we say, “Amen.” When the Father invites us to receive His forgiveness for Christ’s sake, we say, “Amen.” When Scripture tells us that we cannot save ourselves or cooperate even in the slightest manner in our salvation, we say, “Amen.” And when we open our hearts and minds to Him in prayer, we close with “Amen” because we are certain that He truly hears and will answer in the way that is best for us.
God grant you the integrity in your everyday life to avoid hiding behind your “but.” May you plainly and clearly agree or disagree with others, yet always in humility and respect, letting your yes be yes and your no be no. And when receiving God’s Word or responding in prayer, may He lead you to ever reply with the whole Church, “Amen! Yes, Lord! Amen!”
Genesis 11:1-9 is the appointed reading for Pentecost in the One Year Lectionary and Year C of the Three Year cycle of readings. It tells of the confusion of tongues at Babel. Pentecost shows God undoing the curse of Babel as He brought the Gospel to disparate tongues through the Apostles’ preaching.
This hymn tells the story of Genesis 11 and continues it into the New Testament. Human disunity — a sign of our lack of oneness with God Himself — is undone by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. As we are made one with God, so now God also works to unite the world’s disparate tongues into a united voice of faith and praise.
I wrote Upon the Plain of Shinar in the LM (88 88) meter but it also works as an LMD hymn. Therefore, I’ve provided versification and suggested tunes for each form and a link to a copier-ready PDF with both LM and LMD included.
Upon the plain of Shinar stood
The sinful heirs of Adam’s fall.
They formed and fired bricks of mud
To raise a town with tower tall.
They said, “This tow’r and city bold
Shall serve as beacons for our race.
Their majesty our hearts shall hold,
To cease our straying from this place.”
Their wicked, vain, and prideful hearts
The Lord condemned: “It shall not be.
Your evil minds pervert fair arts —
You think yourselves to be like Me.
“This unity of sinful pride
Has led you to deep shame and woes.
Your evil efforts I’ve denied —
Now turn, O neighbors, into foes.
“Your tongues,” He said, “Shall speak no more
What each the other comprehends.
Your pridefulness I do abhor;
Be banished to the earth’s far ends.”
This curse upon our fathers’ pride
Its full and fell intent achieved.
Mankind was scattered far and wide
And foreign tongues were ill-received.
To join the scattered tribes again
The Son of God took human frame.
By bloody death, through bitter pain,
He reconciled us in His name.
Then came the time for Christ’s ascent
To God’s right hand, His heav’nly home.
The Holy Spirit Jesus sent,
To grow and counsel Christendom.
The Holy Spirit testifies,
“Believe in Christ; be whole again.
Forsake fore’er satanic lies
And live as one with God and men.”
Come, join in faith, each race and tribe;
Sing praise to God, the Father wise,
The Spirit, and the crucified
And resurrected Jesus Christ.
Q: Is it okay to “bless” things in the Church? I’m thinking specifically of things like ashes, palms, or even wedding rings.
A: Our current Agenda for Lutheran Service Book and its predecessors all have sections on blessing of new buildings and additions, new fixtures (organs, bells, altars, windows, etc.), new paraments and vestments, and the like. The LSB Agenda has some seventy pages devoted to the topic, with both rites and resources.
The “blessing” of the rings printed in the LSB marriage rite is actually a blessing of the union they symbolize and, at the barest of minimums, it passed LCMS doctrinal review: “Send Your blessing upon the couple who shall wear these ✠ rings as a constant reminder of their marital fidelity.”
In the past, many Lutherans kept the practice of blessing the coming planting and growing season on Rogate (the Sixth Sunday of Easter). In some places, this practice continues. There are also churches (not necessarily Lutheran) that annually bless domestic animals (both livestock and pets). Others near ports and marinas hold blessings of watercraft.
Parts of Christendom also observe the Rogation Days (25 April as the Major Rogation Day and the three days prior to Ascension as the Minor Rogation Days). “Rogate,” the traditional name for Easter 6, got its name from the traditional Gospel of the day. It means to ask or petition, based on Jesus’ teaching the disciples to ask the Father for what they need in John 14.
It is never wrong to seek God’s blessing on godly vocational and recreational pursuits, let alone on those things that the Church uses in its proclamation of the Gospel. That in mind, however, I think that of the three things mentioned in your question, I would be much less likely to participate in the blessing of either ashes or palms than of rings.
I think that house blessings are one of the most loving types of pastoral ministry in the flock, as the ministers visit homes and pray for the Lord’s protection of those dwelling within. So also the blessing of other structures where godly vocation is practiced. And if one’s vocation involves a truck or tractor, then blessing a Peterbilt or a John Deere likewise is right, fitting, and proper.
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks a time when those who follow a liturgical calendar of the Church year change seasons. From the time of Christmas (Jesus, the Word becoming flesh) through Epiphany (Jesus shown as the Christ to Jews and Gentiles), we move into the time of Lent (Jesus setting forth to die). From a time of feasting and celebrating, we transition to one of penitence and fasting, of looking backward at our lives and inward toward ourselves and seeing nothing truly good that we are or have done.
Epiphany ends with the Transfiguration of Our Lord, which celebrates that day when Jesus stood on the mountaintop conversing with Moses and Elijah about His upcoming departure (exodus; see Luke 9:31) from this life. Lent concludes with our Savior’s disfiguration at the hands of those who tortured and crucified Him, as the Church gathers in solemn remembrance of His suffering and death on Good Friday.
Both of these events are part of God’s plan for saving sinful mankind from the evil with which we are born and our accumulated wicked thoughts, words, and deeds. Both the glory and the gore testify to God’s love for sinners as He came down in human flesh to bear our sins and win our forgiveness.
Jesus, Moses, and Elijah all knew grief and pain as the Devil and sinful people attempted to thwart them. Yet each overcame and triumphed in the tasks God assigned. Jesus supplanted Moses as the great Rescuer. Moses led an exodus of Hebrews from bondage in Egypt while Jesus headed the exodus of all believers from eternal slavery to sin, death, and Satan. Elijah gloriously and bodily ascended to the Father without suffering earthly death. Jesus even more gloriously rose from the dead before His own ascension to God’s right hand.
As we begin the season of Lent, we trust that Jesus already cemented our victory. We may still suffer, whether because of others’ actions, the consequences of our own sins, the weakening of our bodies or minds due to age, illness, or accident, or because of Satan’s direct assault. However, just as Moses and Israel crossed the Red Sea, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal and showed the Lord’s might, and Jesus conquered death by dying and rising, so we will one day attain everlasting life.
Life’s events may disfigure our bodies or crush our minds but Christ’s Holy Spirit transfigures our spirits, creating and sustaining faith through Jesus’ forgiveness applied in Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. Transformed by the Gospel, you need not fear the Devil’s attempts to malform you, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)
Jesus, the perfect Image of His Father suffered the disfiguration of His Passion and death in order to transfigure us who were born hideously disfigured by sin into His own image. Exchanging the glory of heaven for the pain and death common to man, He then exchanges our sins for His righteousness and promises to glorify us in the Resurrection.
May God keep the image of Christ crucified before your eyes so that you may always trust that “he was pierced for our transgressions ... and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)”
Complaints about people not knowing “the true meaning of Christmas” started this year in mid-October, as the first holiday advertising began. Most Christians complain at least a bit about commercialism obscuring or obliterating a godly celebration of our Savior’s birth. We’re joined by many non-believers who likewise deplore the money-first mentality of the season’s advertising.
While there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around, we who claim to be Christian cannot accuse others without at least partially accusing ourselves. After all, don’t we already know about “the true meaning of Christmas”? Most of us can tell the story, many able to recite it word-for-word from our old King James Bibles.
Unfortunately, knowing the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t guarantee our celebrating a truly meaningful Christmas. In all of life, Christians too often experience disconnects between what we know and what we do. So it is with the Feast of the Nativity. We remember the angel’s words, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)” Then we forget why we need this Savior.
The Christmas hymn Hark the Glad Sound first announces His coming, then invites our response: “Let every heart prepare a throne And every voice a song.” The next stanzas tell how He brought salvation from “Satan’s bondage” and our own sinful actions. They sing of Christ rescuing mankind from the effects of sin, including mental defect and illness, blindness, fiscal and spiritual poverty, heartbreak, and the like. We know that in time, we receive these only in part; however, we are certain that we’ll enjoy them fully in the Resurrection.
The true meaning of Christmas certainly includes the fullness of Jesus’ life, work, suffering, death, and resurrection. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)” and no amount of commercial or sentimental excess can change this fact. The Christ Child came not to market violent electronic games, expensive new cars, or other consumer items. Likewise, His virgin mother “laid him in a manger (Luke 2:7)” not to invite our cooing over the cute Baby but simply to give Him a place to rest His newborn, helpless body as He entered the world to which His Father sent Him as Savior.
How could any true Christian peer into Jesus’ first bed without also seeing cross and tomb? At the beginning of His life of humble service, Mary “laid him in a manger.” After He died, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Him to “a new tomb” in a garden and “laid Jesus there. (John 19:41-42)” The almighty Son of God began and ended His saving work unable to bed Himself. He depended upon others to lay Him to rest after He drew His first breath and once He drew His last. He willingly “made himself nothing” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of ... death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)” We understand the true meaning of Christmas when we realize that everything Jesus Christ did, He did to save us from our sins.
Unfortunately, we often get stuck between knowing the true meaning of Christmas and converting that knowledge into a Christmas that’s truly meaningful. When we become caught up in buying and exchanging gifts, we forget that true gifts aren’t exchanged — they’re given. Indeed, if you expect something of equal value in return, how can it be a gift? We can get tired and frustrated when we desire to focus on the holiday’s central meaning while still going along with so many of the world’s distractions. In this, we don’t differ from Saint Paul, who lamented, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:19)”
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was terrified into changing his outlook and actions. Dickens commented on the miser’s conversion: “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” He then expressed the wish, “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Dickens may have gotten some of the actions right — “Love is the fulfilling of the Law (Romans 13:10)” — yet nowhere recognizes that permanent change comes not from within but without. Scrooge’s change was wrought by fear, and fear is a tool of God’s Law.
If we were able to keep the Law, we’d have no need for our Savior. However, we can no more truly and fully “keep Christmas well” than can we “listen to the voice of the Lord ... do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes. (Exodus 15:26)” Christ kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling its demands of which we were incapable. We can’t make ourselves into “better” Christians any more than we can make ourselves into Christians in the first place. The ability and the glory belong to “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)”
Likewise, keeping Christmas cannot happen because we hate our own actions or despise the world’s greed. Christ’s birthday celebration holds deeper meaning as we quit trying to “keep” or to “do” or to “change” and instead are kept by Him, changed by Him, and have His good done to us. Having a meaningful Christmas doesn’t necessarily mean singing in the Church choir, preaching the festive sermon, or placing a larger than usual offering in the plate — although each of these can be wonderful ways of celebrating the holiday’s meaning.
Christmas becomes meaningful when we quit trying to bend it into our own shapes and instead let it shape us. Instead of a time of demanding that God do what we desire, we ask Him to work His desires upon us. Having a meaningful Christmas means having the knowledge that nothing we can give God could ever match His Gift to us — all the while seeking new ways to offer our thanksgivings by offering ourselves to Him in thought, word, and deed.
A meaningful Christmas won’t be found in malls or online shopping sites. It will not come in a dream delivered by ghosts. Watching A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or A Charlie Brown Christmas aren’t the right answers, either — although Linus’ recitation of the Christmas Gospel to Charlie Brown (see video below) points us in the right direction. Not even at home, gathering around decorated tree or blazing fire, do we usually find a completely meaningful Christmas.
A meaningful Christmas comes when we recognize that God gives us every good gift, including meaningful lives. It comes from the pure preaching of the Gospel Word and the proper use of the sacraments. It comes where and when it pleases the Holy Spirit — and the Spirit is quite pleased to give us the goods in Christ’s Church. Meaning fades through“neglecting to meet together” in Christ’s Church rather than “encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:25)” in corporate worship.
Nothing has changed since apostolic times. Christ still intends for us to receive His gifts in corporate worship. We find a meaningful Christmas as we continue devoting ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)” In the gathering of the saints, Baptism saves us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly. (Titus 3:5-6)” Hearing the Gospel, “the word of the cross” applies “the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18)” that forgives and renews us. Holy Communion feeds us on our pilgrimage, restoring and enhancing meaning through the sealing of a new covenant relationship with God “for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)”
A truly meaningful Christmas comes not by what we say or do. It isn’t anything we can produce or purchase. It isn’t reckoned by the number and value of presents given or received. A truly meaningful Christmas happens only when we realize that without Christmas, none of life would have meaning.
“God bless us, every one!” Bless us with faith, with meaning, and with a fervent desire to give to others the Love that came down at Christmas.
While many Christians give presents sometime during early winter, many avoid gift-giving on Christmas. Some wait until Epiphany on 6 January, since this day celebrates the Wise Men arriving in Bethlehem and giving their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child.
In much of Europe, children will receive presents this Thursday (6 December), which is Saint Nicholas Day. Stories about this Third Century pastor’s generosity gradually led to tales of his ongoing bringing of presents. Yet the Nicholas of history bears scant resemblance to the “jolly old elf” of Clement Moore’s poem or the chunky, red-clad image developed by Thomas Nast and expanded by Coca-Cola.
Actually, we know very little about the original St. Nick. A study of his remains indicates a man barely 5 feet tall who at one time suffered a broken nose. Whether broken as an adult or a child, we don’t know — although he seems to have had a rather combative nature, particularly when faced with an unrepentant heretic. Because Arius denied the full divinity of Jesus, Nicholas reportedly slapped him during a meeting of the Council of Nicaea.
The other bishops didn’t take this lightly and Nicholas’s violence dismayed even the most orthodox among them. Their strong rebuke included a threat to strip him of his bishopric but Nicholas quickly repented his action and remained in office.
The bringer of gifts obviously grew out of different stories. He seemingly came from a wealthy family. Desiring to serve God in physical poverty, he gave away his inherited fortune and gained renown for his generosity, especially toward the truly poor and needy. The stories say that he gave his contributions in secret whenever possible.
An apocryphal story tells of three sisters whose father wasted the family fortune. If a girl had no dowry, she had no way to marry into a respectable family. Normally, only slavery or prostitution would be such a woman’s means of support. When Nicholas about them, he sneaked up to the house and tossed sufficient dowry money through the sleeping family’s windows so that the girls could each wait for a proper marriage. Some versions have him wrapping coins (and jewels) in stockings — beginning a tradition of gifts in stockings.
The three bags of gold were later stylized into three golden balls, which passed into usage as the sign of pawnbrokers. Perhaps the connection is that those in dire financial straits often turn to such people in order to gain ready cash to tide them through their troubles. Because of this, when patron saints became popular, he became favored by pawnbrokers. Additionally, many sailors looked to him for help.
His patronage for children stemmed from another apocryphal story, one much less likely than that of the three sisters. In it, he raised three boys from the dead after they’d been murdered by an evil butcher and placed in a brine barrel to be cured and sold as ham. Perhaps the salty brine also led to the connection with sailors.
So if you’re tired of the commercialization of Christmas but still want to keep Santa in some way, or if you just want your presents three weeks sooner than everyone else, maybe you should look into celebrating St. Nicholas Day. And if you do pause to remember the saint, here’s a hymn verse I wrote for the commemoration:
With joy Your Church remembers
Saint Nicholas, the blest,
Who gave up earthly treasures
And Jesus’ name confessed.
The poor and weak he welcomed,
The heretic he scorned;
Through faith and life and preaching,
Christ’s Gospel he adorned.
Hank Williams, Jr. had a huge hit in 1979 with the song Family Tradition. In it, he defended his hard-living, hard-drinking lifestyle against country music purists who wondered why he didn’t act more like they did. His response was that his behavior was just a “family tradition,” a statement that has some merit, since Hank, Sr. also frequently was at odds with the status quo of his day.
The song can be expanded beyond the Williams family — rebellious, illegal, wrong-headed, and self-destructive behavior is also a family tradition of Adam and Eve’s entire family tree. It may be expressed in different ways, subtly by some and brazenly by others, but no one conceived and born of human parents is exempt from sinful attempts to uphold the initial rebellion of our first parents in Creation’s early days.
It’s a family tradition to think of ourselves too highly and to look to gain unfair advantage over others. Conversely, it’s also a family tradition to despair of ourselves, to think that we are utterly without worth and having no place in the world. Self-control is practiced most frequently when it involves self-interest.
This doesn’t mean that drinking, dancing, or enjoying ourselves are wrong in and of themselves. Neither are walking, talking, or a host of other activities. But sinful intent — often followed by sinful excess — can turn any good gift of God into a mockery and make any blessing into a curse.
The entire tradition of the family of man, then, is a giant rebellion against God, usually accompanied by the misuse of His good gifts and normally at the expense of our brothers and sisters. Like the song says, some people “drink” (to excess) or “roll smoke” (even though marijuana is illegal for most people in most parts of the country). However, even if we abstain from these, all of us find ways to “live out the songs” that we write for ourselves by envisioning a sinful narrative for our lives and then acting it out.
Thank God that He has another “family tradition” — that of showing grace and mercy to undeserving, rebellious sinners for the sake of His holy and perfect Son Jesus. In the divine Family, the Son perfectly follows the Father’s lead. He accepted the burden of flesh carried by Adam’s family but lived His life according to His Father’s will.
Jesus broke our human tradition of breaking God’s commandments. He enjoyed the gifts of Creation in moderation, treated others with kindness, acceptance, and forgiveness, and never rebelled, no matter what the Father asked Him to do. Even taking our sins upon Himself, suffering the consequences for His human family’s rebellion, and dying on the cross He did willingly and “for the joy that was set before him. (Hebrews 12:2)”
In faith, we are adopted out of our sinful family and made God’s children through Holy Baptism. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God moves us to embrace new traditions of faith toward Him and sincere, active, fervent love for our brothers and sisters. As we practice living and loving as Christ lived and loves, these new traditions become ever more deeply ingrained and we may find it increasingly easy to love our neighbor — even our enemy — as ourselves.
We won’t see the old, sinful traditions pass away until we depart this life, either in death or when our Lord returns. Yet Christians are already allowed to practice the new traditions of our perfect family that will remain with us through the Resurrection of the Dead and into life everlasting.
What if you held a feast and no one came? Jesus dealt with this in the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24). He told of a rich man who “invited many” but kept hearing excuses. Dismayed with the responses of his friends and acquaintances, the man had his servants invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” but there was “still room.” So he sent them out again to compel strangers to join the party and declared that no one who’d first declined would be able to attend.
In the Christian calendar, Ascension Day reminds me of the Great Banquet. Traditionally one of the major feast days, it celebrates our Lord returning to His Father on the fortieth day of Easter. This year, it falls on 17 May. Jesus ascended to His heavenly home because His earthly work was complete. He lived a perfect life and died an innocent victim in order to pay for mankind’s sins. He left that He might gift His disciples and the Church with the Holy Spirit. He also ascended so that He might “go to prepare a place for” believers (John 14:2).
After telling the Twelve why He would soon depart, He then said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (v. 3)” This promise is ours, also, and is why the Church so highly regarded the Feast of the Ascension. It was Jesus’ final earthly deed before He returns bodily to end the world, judge the nations, and bring the faithful to eternal life.
Our Host joyfully awaits the guests He has invited to the eternal feast, “the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:9)” We are not wealthy enough in righteousness and good works to merit an invitation. Instead, we are the spiritually “poor and crippled and blind and lame” who deserve nothing yet are promised all good things. He only asks us to trust His words and, with His blessing, to love others as He loves us as we live out our vocations.
Perhaps our inattention to the Ascension is a sign of the busy-ness of our lives. Our calendars are filled to overflowing and it seems difficult to carve out the time for worship on this one special Thursday each Spring. Perhaps we also downplay Ascension because it doesn’t have the cute Baby, sweet mother, shepherds, angels, and all the trappings of Christmas and because it lacks the deep valley and spectacular peak of Holy Week and Easter.
However, Ascension Day may also slip by because we are too grounded in things earthly. Family and friends, business and agriculture, labor and leisure — these are all wonderful blessings from God. Yet they pale before the Father’s Gift of Jesus and the Son’s wonderful gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and life eternal. But we cannot see, taste, or touch them in the same manner as we do the people and things surrounding us and if we aren’t constant in the Word and attentive to His promises, these greater gifts become distant and less important to us.
Is it necessary that congregations hold special Ascension services? No.
If they do, is it imperative that we drop everything to attend? Of course not!
Paul wrote the Colossian Christians, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (2:16)” However, when holy days are regularly overlooked, it becomes much easier for us to forget the reasons why the celebrations first began.
Returning to the Parable of the Great Banquet, we see how easy it is for sinners to forget the enormity of the debt Christ paid, the fullness of His forgiveness, and the certainty of our salvation. When asked to stop our day-to-day tasks, to step away from things that provide brief earthly pleasure or diversion, and to specially prepare for a special day, we’re tempted to compose our own list of excuses. We might be pastors who don’t want to prepare an extra sermon and service. We could be parishioners who want to come home from work and relax, farmers who want to plant a few more acres, or parents who’ve already planned to drive our children to their regularly scheduled athletic activities. Each of us finds ways to say, “Sorry, Jesus, I’m a little to busy right now.”
I say this not to drive you to church but to invite you to always remember the Lamb’s Feast. We won’t fully participate until the Last Day dawns but already we have a foretaste as we gather to hear the Word and eat His Supper here on earth. Why celebrate Christ’s Ascension? Because it reminds us of — and guarantees to us — His return! For even as Paul challenged narrow, legalistic demands that all Christians worship at the same set times, He also reminded those same Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (3:2)”
Remembering the Feast of the Ascension, particularly attending church that day, is one way to turn our eyes away from things earthly, to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” and to focus on “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)”
I pray that whether at home or in the house of the Lord, you remember why He came, where He has gone, and whom He will invite to join Him in the never ending banquet He has established.
The ancient calendar followed by most of the Christian Church for almost two millennia intersperses beauty and awe with violence and death. Aside from Holy Week and Easter, this is nowhere more apparent than during the days of Christmastide.
Following the joyful celebration of our Savior’s nativity, the Second Day of Christmas commemorates Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, on the 26th. Saint John, the only apostle believed to have avoided a violent death, is remembered the next day. Through him, the Holy Spirit provides theological depth to the Gospels. John’s writings offer a treasury of understanding and living our lives as forgiven sinners, the promise of divine protection even in times of persecution, and the unshakeable, certain hope of our resurrection to eternal life.
The uplift of the Feast of Saint John dissolves into bloodshed on 28 December, the Fourth Day of Christmas. Holy Innocents Day marks the massacre of Bethlehem’s children by Herod the Great.
The account of the Wise Men who traveled to find the King of the Jews (see Matthew 2:1-12) inflamed Herod’s jealousy. In response, he sent his soldiers to kill all of Bethlehem’s boys two years old and younger in order to protect his throne and lineage. This was one of the last major decisions Herod made in a life filled with vainglory and descending into bodily sickness and increasing madness.
Matthew 18:13-18 records what happened following the Wise Men’s visit. The evangelist concludes his account with a heartbreaking quote from the Old Testament: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (v. 18; from Jeremiah 31:15)”
The slaughter of Bethlehem’s boys testifies to the world’s denial of God’s rule and its rejection of Christ’s Gospel of forgiveness. Fear drove Herod to do what he could to destroy Jesus. God rescued His Son but allowed the other young sons to be killed.
Some try to use this massacre to accuse God of lovelessness. However, He intends it to strengthen our faith. The story of Christ’s Nativity may belong to the “milk” of Christian doctrine (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2); the slaughter of the Innocents is certainly tough meat, a food for which we often still find ourselves “not yet ready.” Dining on the Word’s difficult passages fortifies us to face similar trials to those of Scripture’s saints. We learn that there is no “pain-free” Christianity anymore than there was a pain-free Christ. Though we are healed by Jesus’ wounds, devil and world remain eager to wound us anew.
Even though God allowed it to happen, He certainly took no pleasure in infanticide and bereavement, nor did He ignore the pain of the victims and their survivors. Callous disregard was Herod’s way, not God’s. We know how the Father’s heart was stricken because we see the depth of His Son’s woe at other times of spiritual or physical loss: Jesus cried over Mary and Martha’s loss of Lazarus (John 11:32-36) and wept for sinful Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44).
Bethlehem lost her children because of God’s sympathy for our plight. They were part of the painful cost Christ accepted when He came to save us. He died not to keep these children from Herod but from Hell. He knew personally and intimately the pain felt by sword-pierced babies and grief-stricken parents. He carried it in His flesh and felt it fully as He hung from the cross.
Until this world ends, God will continue to use death, often savage and sometimes seemingly senseless, to open the gates of eternal life. Baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Each saint’s death reminds us of the Savior’s death. Funereal sorrow gives way to supernal joy as we remember the One who died for us, since “to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)”
May the Lord use the account of the Holy Innocents to lead us to sorrow over our sins and joy in His redemption. So we ask in the traditional prayer for this day: “Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Lord Jesus, our Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
Many of us who watched television as children in the early 1960s included King Leonardo and his Short Subjects (later renamed The King and Odie) in our Saturday morning schedule. One recurring segment involved Tooter Turtle, a young turtle living in the forest who wasn’t content with being a young turtle living in the forest. Because of this, he regularly (over 39 episodes) visited the lizard known as Mr. Wizard, asking him to change the time and place of his circumstances.
Tooter thought that going to another time and place would give him the opportunity to remake himself. In every episode, Mr. Wizard sent him off to new experiences, including working high iron, exploring the polar regions, flying a plane, and even riding with the U. S. Cavalry (which ended at Little Big Horn). The trouble was always the same: You can take the turtle out of the forest, but you can’t take the foolish thinking out of the turtle.
However, Tooter never suffered permanent consequences — at least not until his cartoon show was cancelled. Whenever a new endeavor collapsed and he was on the brink of absolute ruin or certain death, he would call out, “Help me, Mr. Wizard!”
As soon he cried out for help, Mr. Wizard chanted, “Drizzle, drazzle, druzzle, drome; time for zis one to come home.” A swirling spell surrounded Tooter, who quickly reappeared in the lizard’s presence. After his return, Mr. Wizard gave him the same advice every time: “Be just vhat you is, not vhat you is not. Folks vhat do zis are ze happiest lot.”
Discontent with our own lives may lead us into like troubles. We may try to be someone we are not or do things for which we are unprepared. People reinvent their pasts and tell a story contrary to their personal histories. They become heroes when they were once participants, participants when they were once observers, or observers when they were once uninvolved.
Among our cultural stereotypes is the man facing a mid-life crisis. This movie and television plot staple feels trapped by a dead-end job or a marriage without the zest it once had. In milder settings, he makes foolish purchases of a motorcycle or a sports car or he starts dressing, talking, and acting like someone years younger. In more serious shows, he may have an affair or just walk out on his family, perhaps taking a new, younger wife. The reason this Hollywood stereotype abounds is that it’s built on actual events that happen all too often in the “real world.”
While aging white men are the customary on-screen culprits, no segment of society is without people desiring to be something — or someone — different and better from the way they perceive themselves. Yet, like Tooter Turtle, the fantasies they invent for themselves always seems to unravel, often with extreme consequences.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t examine ourselves nor that we should be satisfied with our personal mediocrity. It means that we should pin our hopes for positive, real, and permanent change on something more than reinterpreted memories and wishful thinking. For example, the imprisoned Saint Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Philippians 4:11)”
However, Paul’s contentment was with his station in life, not who he was by nature. For this same apostle could also complain about himself, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18, 24)”
Paul recognized that the Source of his contentment was also his Rescuer from discontent: Rather than inventing a new version of himself, he turned over his old, sinful self to God. Instead of chasing fantasies of what might have been, Paul focused on the reality of Christ crucified for his sins and raised for his justification (cf. Romans 4:23-25).
Paul realized that it wasn’t his circumstances, his friends, or his past that needed changing but rather his present, sinful self. He was certain that such a change didn’t come from within but from without, therefore, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25)”
Rarely does God reach out and save us unscathed from the consequences of our fantasies of discontent. To do so might leave us thinking that we could continue to fall back into the same sinful desires with no lasting ill effect. However, he never abandons us. When we cry, “Help me, God,” He hears and responds by forgiving that which we have thought, said, and done. He may not stop the catastrophe but He always leads us through. We may carry scars in our flesh or in our memories but we also trust His words: “I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)”
If we hear Him in time and take Him at His Word, we may never find ourselves hopeless at the edge of existence. When we realize that our root problem isn’t that we aren’t smart enough, heroic enough, or well-enough liked but that we are “brought forth in iniquity” and from conception tainted by sin (Psalm 51:5), God also teaches us that our problem isn’t fixed by reinventing ourselves but by being remade by Him. Only from the Lord do we receive “a right spirit” and “a clean heart (v. 10)”
Our rescue isn’t a cheap magic trick. There’s no Mr. Wizard or genii in a bottle to bail us out. The only salvation we have comes through brutally hard work and absolute adherence to the Word and the will of God. Yet it’s not our work or our faithfulness that saves but that of Christ. By the grace of God, through faith in Jesus, we receive the benefits of His perfect obedience and innocent suffering and death.
As God changes our condition, He continues to work on our persons. His discontent with our sinful natures leads Him not to banish us but to repair, restore, and redeem us. He blesses us with the same contentment Paul carried; that is, the peace of knowing that we’re in His care while He works through Word and Holy Spirit to recreate us in the divine image our first parents abandoned in Eden.
We remain works-in-progress as long as we remain on earth. Yet we know that our healing will be complete in the Resurrection. Finally, we will be free of all our sin-brought discontent when we stand before our Savior on the Last Day and hear His invitation to enter His Father’s eternal presence in purity and glory. This story has the real “happily ever after” ending that our broken spirits crave — an ending already guaranteed by our living, loving Lord Jesus Christ.