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

Reflection: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel :: Advent’s Hope
By Steven Dilla

“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)

The Request for Presence
For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him — Psalm 62.6

– From 
Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
1 Chronicles 28 (Listen – 4:45)
2 Peter 2 (Listen – 3:52)

Depression, Anger, Redemption :: Advent’s Hope

Reflection: Depression, Anger, Redemption :: Advent’s Hope
By Steven Dilla

“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.

The Request for Presence
Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. — Psalm 86.4

– From 
The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
1 Chronicles 26-27 (Listen – 9:39)
2Peter 1 (Listen – 3:06)

Hurting through the Holidays :: Advent’s Hope

Reflection: Hurting through the Holidays :: Advent’s Hope
By Steven Dilla

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.

The Morning Psalm
The righteous cry, and the Lord hears them and delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed. — Psalm 34.17-18

– From 
The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
1 Chronicles 24-25 (Listen – 7:01)
1 Peter 5 (Listen – 2:11)

Why We Celebrate Advent :: Advent’s Hope

Reflection: Why We Celebrate Advent :: Advent’s Hope
By Steven Dilla

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 Kings Kaleidoscope (4:07)

The Request for Presence
Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” — Psalm 16.1

– From 
The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
1 Chronicles 23 (Listen – 4:20)
1 Peter 4 (Listen – 2:50)

Thanksgiving in Times of Trial

Scripture: 1 Peter 1.6-7
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Reflection: Thanksgiving in Times of Trial
By Steven Dilla

The first-century church suffered greatly under the foot of Rome’s hostility. The first Christians were heavily persecuted under the Roman emperor Nero, banished by Domitian (John wrote Revelation after he was exiled by the emperor), and excluded from commerce and public office by Trajan.

The book of 1 Peter highlights the differences between the early church and its culture in a surprising way. “We expect injunctions to reject the ways of the world; instead we find admonitions to follow the path of Christ,” says Miroslav Volf. “The faith of the Petrine community is nourished more on its own in­trinsic vision than on the deprecatory stories about others.”

Dr. Volf, who is the founder of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, notes that, “The author seems less interested in hurling threats against the unbelieving and ag­gressive non-Christian neighbors, than in celebrating Christians’ special status before God. Christian hope, not the damnation of non-Christians, figures centrally in the letter.” Volf explains:

Identity can be forged through two related but clearly distinct processes: either through a negative process of rejecting the beliefs and practices of others, or through a positive process of giving allegiance to something distinctive. It is significant that 1 Peter consistently establishes the difference positively, not negatively. There are no direct injunctions not to behave as non-Christians do. Rather, the exhortation to be different centers primarily on the positive example of a holy God and of the suffering Christ.

When we encounter negative examples of how Christians should not behave, then our attention is drawn not so much to the life-style of non-Christians as to “the de­sires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (2:11). These are, as 1 Peter points out ex­plicitly, the former desires of Christians themselves. The force of the injunction is not “Do not be as your neighbors are!” but “Do not be as you were!”

The first Christians were thankful in suffering because their focus rested not on the storm around them, but on the solid rock of Christ. The Church was, as it is today, the earthly testimony that the miracle of grace always outshines the darkness of suffering.

The Cry of the Church
O God, come too my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!

– From 
The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
1 Chronicles 19-20 (Listen – 5:02)
1 Peter 1 (Listen – 3:53)

This Weekend’s Readings
1 Chronicles 21 (Listen – 5:03) 1 Peter 2 (Listen – 3:48)
1 Chronicles 22 (Listen – 3:25) 1 Peter 3 (Listen – 3:30)

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