The Holly and the Ivy — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 6.38-40
38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

Hebrews 2.9, 14-15
9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Reflection: The Holly and the Ivy — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

In Hong Kong, where I live, the celebration of Christmas, while almost completely secular in nature, is not lacking in spectacle. Shopping malls and housing estates construct elaborate, over-the top, displays of Santas and Christmas scenes. Fantastical lighting displays on high-rise buildings in the city center dazzle and amaze. And of course, there is no shortage of chocolates and various Christmas confections!

While I am certainly a fan of doing Christmas up right, it is quite easy to forget that for centuries, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ without utilizing electricity, massive prefabricated scenes, or die-cut signs and images.

There is a beauty in nature’s simplicity that can easily be lost in the holiday extravaganza. Nature’s Christmas decorations abound: evergreen trees, beautiful red poinsettia flowers, mischievous mistletoe, natural flames of candlelight, and garland and wreaths of holly.

The use of holly as a decoration for the winter solstice has its roots in the practices of the ancient Druids, who used it as a symbol of hope, rebirth and even eternal life. As Christians began to formalize the celebration of Christ’s birth, pagan symbols were co-opted and transformed. The Church in medieval times began to endow the plant with decidedly Christian symbolism. 

The sharp, pointy leaves representing the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the bright red berries recalling the drops of blood shed for the salvation of humanity are depicted with honor in the British folk carol from the 18th century, “The Holly and the Ivy.” 

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.

While I generally prefer not to conflate the seasons of Advent and Lent, for they do serve uniquely different purposes on the Church calendar, we can nonetheless take great joy in recognizing the end game of the holy infant who was born to be a King. The shape of the holly leaves is said to resemble flames, reminding us of the burning love of God for his people, a love that would send God’s own Son to die on our behalf.

Let us take great joy in the grace that came down at Christmas. Along with all creation, we can celebrate God’s goodness and love!

The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

Listen: The Holly and the Ivy by Jon Anderson
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. — Agnus Dei

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 3 (Listen – 1:48)
John 6 (Listen – 8:27)

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The Advent we celebrate in these weeks is the gentle, loving call to be ready.

Ennobled by the Incarnation

Scripture Focus: Scripture: Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Reflection: Ennobled by the Incarnation
By John Tillman

Jews were accustomed to visitations of God in various categories but Jesus frustrated and overturned their expectations. 

They were used to ambiguous messengers such as the three “men” who visit with Abraham (Genesis 18.16-17) prior to Isaac’s birth and the destruction of Sodom, the “angel” who wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32.24-30), and the “Commander of the Lord’s Armies” who speaks to Joshua (Joshua 5.13-15). Some interpret these as angels speaking for the Lord but some call them “theophanies” or appearances of God, or even of a pre-incarnate Jesus. 

Other common visitations were supernatural, non-human forms such as the voice from the burning bush (Exodus 3.1-5), Elijah’s whisper (1 Kings 19.12-13), Joel’s image of God riding at the head of columns of locusts (Joel 2.1-11), or God’s voice speaking from the storm to Job (Job 38.1). 

In Hebrews, Jesus is the redeemer Job prophesied would “stand upon the Earth (Job 19.25).” The writers remove ambiguity, proclaiming the humanity and divinity of Jesus without sacrificing either to better explain the other. 

Hebrews systematically elevates Jesus. Jesus is “greater than” is a recurring theme. Jesus is greater than the prophets, greater than angels, greater than Moses, greater than Abraham, greater than Aaron…But despite his preeminence, Jesus comes to us. 

Jesus comes not to condemn our humanity but to share in it. The incarnation is an ennobling epiphany. (Hebrews 1.3; Colossians 1.15-18) Our bodies are not hopeless or meaningless partly because Christ has become one of us.

To the gnostics, the early church had to emphasize that Jesus was not an incorporeal spirit, pretending to have a body. In more modern terms, Jesus is not a spirit-alien wearing a flesh-space-suit. Jesus is the most “real” human to ever have lived. 

Christ’s human “realness” makes the gospel tangible. His defeat of death was not symbolic but actual. Jesus did real things in the real world and calls us to be real human beings who act to benefit our world in real, tangible ways.

Just as Jesus came to us humbly we are commanded to humbly go to others. Just as Jesus was able to live among us we are sent to live among people. Jesus shared in our humanity in order to reach us, so we should share in the humanity of those around us as we walk and serve as his hands and feet on Earth.

How is Jesus calling you to enter and experience the humanity of your community to enact the gospel?

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
That evening they brought him many who were possessed by devils. He drove out the spirits with a command and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He himself bore our sickness away and carried our diseases. — Matthew 8.16-17

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Song of Songs 2 (Listen – 2:15) 
Hebrews 2 (Listen -2:47)

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A Sin We Are Proud Of

Scripture Focus: 2 Kings 10:19
“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?”

Hebrews 2.1
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Reflection: A Sin We Are Proud Of

By John Tillman

Hezekiah is one of the greatest kings among the great kings of Judah. The writer of 2 Kings says of him, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.”

Hezekiah drove out idolatry and reestablished true worship. In Hezekiah’s day, the Temple of the Lord had actually been closed up, like a shop with no customers. The lights were out. The doors were barred. 

Hezekiah not only opened them, he covered the doors and other items in the Temple in gold and silver, reopening and restoring the Temple and the priesthood to shimmering glory

Hezekiah is, however, as deeply flawed as his father David before him. Even in our “anything goes” culture, David’s sin is abhorred, but Hezekiah’s sin is one our culture is proud of—pride. 

Other passages about Hezekiah make it clear that God was concerned about Hezekiah’s pride. God tested Hezekiah by sending Babylonians to inquire about Hezekiah’s miraculous healing. Instead, Hezekiah showed off his accomplishments and wealth to them, prompting Isaiah’s prophecy that everything that had been shown to them would be carried off to Babylon. 

At least David repented of his lust and murder, giving us the beauty of Psalm 51. All we get from Hezekiah when he is confronted with the results of his sin is a shrugging, selfish, justification. Hezekiah says that at least there will be “peace and security in my lifetime.“ 

Our culture has a hard time seeing what Hezekiah did wrong. We hesitate to equate Hezekiah’s sin to David’s. Pride and selfishness don’t seem that bad or dangerous. Storing up for ourselves is prudence. Seeking our own peace and prosperity is honorable. God thinks otherwise. Jesus spoke to his time, Hezekiah’s time, and ours when he said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then, who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” 

We do not know where Christ was standing when he told the parable of the rich fool, but I like to imagine that he might have been standing next to some of the rubble from the buildings Hezekiah built to hold his treasures of gold and silver, food and grain. Christ’s audience would have understood the significance.

Obtaining “peace and security” in our lifetimes is not a gospel-centered way of living. We are expected to think beyond ourselves. May we humbly repent.

Pride, greed, and love of wealth are sins equally heinous in God’s eyes as lust, rape, and murder. May we humbly repent.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus went on to say. ” What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it with? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden: it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air sheltered in its branches.”— Luke 113:18-19

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

Today’s Readings
2 Kings 20 (Listen -3:39)
Hebrews 2  (Listen -2:47)

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