Doubt and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 6:22
22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.

Matthew 2:19-20
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Reflection: Doubt and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

The eye of God was watching over the Israelites as they were threatened by local enemies. But I bet they were scared, anxious, and nervous. The older generation, the ones who wept at the sight of the temple foundation, carried the burdens of trauma. They remembered being forcibly taken from their land. They watched their cities be razed to the ground. The Babylonians attempted to remove their cultural identity.

The king who granted permission for them to rebuild was not the same king they appealed to now. They probably worried about how he would react. Would he honor the decision of a former king? Would he retaliate by creating a new, restrictive law? Would he ignore them?

God’s people had been through the valley of the shadow of death. They became prisoners of war when the Babylonians destroyed Judah. A foreign king terrorized their lives. Could they trust another king to be different?

Trauma sets a person on edge. It is easy to become hypervigilant and skeptical. Worst-case scenarios run through the mind. What might happen?

When Jesus was born, Herod pursued the newborn king with tyrannical fury. He didn’t hesitate to kill other children to get to Jesus. Mary and Joseph carried the weight of that moment. It was a time of anxiety and fear. What will God do?

Their relocation to Egypt was not permanent. God removed the threat through natural causes. Herod died. In a dream, God sent a messenger to tell them it was safe to go home.

Sometimes God works in miraculous ways. For the Israelites who were rebuilding the temple, the answer to their appeal to Darius was better than anyone expected. Permission to rebuild was confirmed but also expanded. God inclined the heart of Darius to fully fund the costs of construction and grant protection from any further interference. A feast of joy ensued.

God works through his creation. Sometimes the answer is time and waiting for change. God works through miracles. Sometimes the answer is a baby born of a virgin or a foreign king financing the construction of a temple he would never use.

Joy, at times, feels out of reach. We worry; we fear; we doubt. How can this all work out? Isn’t he supposed to be watching over us? The joy of Advent is wrestling with our questions and waiting for God to answer.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your Name forever and ever. — Psalm 145.1

Today’s Readings

Ezra 6 (Listen 4:24
Revelation 5 (Listen 2:39)

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Read more about One Worth Rejoicing In — Joy of Advent
The Lord is coming, who is our source of victory and joy. We are waiting for him and he is searching for us.

Peril and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 5:5
5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.

Matthew 2:10-12
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Reflection: Peril and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

The foundations of the temple were laid, and a mix of joy and grief resided over the people. As soon as they set out to do the work of God, they were met with resistance. Enemies of Judah and Benjamin bribed officials to frustrate their plans (Ezra 4.4-5). They accused the Israelites of dishonoring King Artaxerxes (Ezra 4.14). The work was stalled. But God would not be hindered.

Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets, called the people to return to their work. Despite the support from the prophets, they were met with more resistance. A local governor questioned their right to rebuild. Eager to bring punishment, he took names. But the eye of their God was watching over them.

The work of God can be dangerous. It can be unpopular. Motives can be questioned. Efforts can be confounded.

When the Magi came to visit Jesus, they were filled with the joy of his advent. Joy brimmed over. Overjoyed, they were face to face with God. They worshiped Jesus and offered their gifts. But the eye of God was watching over them. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod, enraged with power and jealousy, soon called for the murder of every infant boy in Bethlehem.

But the eye of God was watching over them. Another warning was given and Joseph and Mary fled with infant Jesus to Egypt.

The Magi could have returned to Herod and faced his interrogation. Mary and Joseph could have stayed in Bethlehem and faced the executioner. The Israelites were face to face with authorities who wanted to stop the temple rebuilding and didn’t hesitate to take names.

The road to worshiping God can be dangerous. Being faithful to God’s call is like following a path with hills and valleys and perils. Our brothers and sisters around the world face greater threats than some of us will ever know. All because they seek to worship God.

The joy of Advent is knowing the eye of God watches over us. Jesus, our God made flesh, looked upon the Magi that night. The same God who had watched over the Israelites in Jerusalem. The same God who sent a messenger to warn Joseph. The same God who sees you now.

As we reflect upon Advent this year, consider how he watches over us. “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121.8).

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you, and so will my soul, which you have redeemed. — Psalm 71.23

Today’s Readings
Ezra 5 (Listen 3:02
Revelation 4 (Listen 2:09)

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The testimony of Ezra tells us that kings come and go, but it is the Lord who is our only hope and protector.

Grief and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 3:11b-13
11b And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Matthew 2:16-18
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

From John: Advent has parallels in many parts of scripture. We look forward this week to Erin’s reflections comparing the return of the exiles in Ezra to the truths of Christ’s coming at Christmas and to his second Advent which we also look forward to at this time of year.

Reflection: Grief and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

What if Christmas is not the greatest time of the year? What if there is nothing merry?

The holidays are marked by stress, depression, and anxiety. For Christians, it is a perplexing mix: joy for Jesus’ birth and the painful reality that December 25 does not end all sorrow.

As we read through Ezra, the Israelites return to the Promised Land. Exile was over. The temple, however, was in ruins. God’s dwelling place was a pile of rubbish.

The people set out to rebuild the temple, albeit in a more humble and meager size. When the foundations were laid, the response was mixed. The younger crowds rejoiced with praise and jubilation. The older crowds wept with grief.

For these older travelers, the journey has been traumatic and painful. In decades gone by, they had filled their hearts with dreams of a happy future. Solomon’s Temple, the first temple now in ruins, was majestic and praiseworthy. But all those dreams were cut down. Their lives had become beacons of pain and loss.

Yes, this new temple was worth celebrating but even this happy moment was a reminder of their grief.

Advent, too, holds both pain and joy.  Like those who would come to a pile of rubbish to worship God, the Magi visited the incarnate deity in a humble home. It was a time of celebrating and worshiping the newborn king.

Words of praise and joy were likely heard that night when the Magi came to visit. This new foundation had been laid. Not just a place to meet with God. But now it would be God with us!

Mary would cherish the honor and privilege of raising Jesus and caring for his mortal body. But other mothers would weep. Although Jesus had come, the world was still pierced with darkness. Herod’s pride would cause the death of innocent children and the grief of their parents.

We know that the season of Advent is a time to rejoice. We try to be happy. Holidays sometimes include a newly empty seat at the table. Sometimes the phone is silent because of severed relationships. Sometimes the financial burden of the holidays makes for a meager and sparse Christmas.

Advent is not the time to put away your grief. The joy of Advent has space for pain and sorrow. May we let the sound of joy and grief collide into one voice to our God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. — Psalm 118.24

Today’s Readings
Ezra 4 (Listen 4:27
Revelation 3 (Listen 3:53)

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Sears suffered from illness, depression, and an eventual breakdown…In the aftermath of his personal struggles, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”

We Three Kings — Carols of Epiphany

Scripture Focus: Psalm 10.16
The Lord is King forever and ever;
    the nations will perish from his land.

Matthew 2.1-2, 11
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

From John: We are thrilled to have a “bonus” carol from Jon Polk today, on Epiphany, sometimes called, “Three Kings Day” or the twelfth day of Christmas. Epiphany is the true conclusion of the season of Christmas, called Christmastide, and the true purpose of the incarnation is revealed to us in it. Christ is a gift to all people but today, he receives gifts fit for worship.

Reflection: We Three Kings — Carols of Epiphany
By Jon Polk

Have you ever been to a birthday party where guests received gifts but not the one having the birthday?

January 6 on the Christian calendar is known as Epiphany, the celebration of the gifts and journey of the Magi.

“We Three Kings” was the first widely popular carol written in America. Composed in 1857 by Episcopal minister and church music instructor at General Theological Seminary in New York, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the song was created for a Nativity pageant at the seminary. 

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

For dramatic purposes, Hopkins assigned a gift and a verse to three Magi, traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Note that Matthew’s account mentions three gifts, not three men. In some Christian traditions, they are twelve in number.

Furthermore, there is no indication in Matthew that they were kings. The word magi refers to astrologers, thus their interest in following a star. Not royalty, but most certainly foreigners, these Magi were likely familiar with Hebrew prophecies.

Despite these slight missteps the carol makes, Hopkins does a fine job describing the symbolism of the gifts.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again

Gold is the most frequently mentioned valuable metal in scripture, used as currency but also for making jewelry, ornaments, and utensils for royalty. This gift is fit for a king.

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh

Frankincense, derived from Boswellia tree resin, produces a sweet odor when burned and was part of the incense allowed on the altar. This gift is fit for worship.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom

Myrrh, sap from a small tree in Arabia, was used as a perfume and to stifle the smell of a dead body before burial. This gift is fit for death.

As astrologers, not royalty, the gifts came at a significant financial cost to the Magi. Traveling from as far away as Persia, a two-year journey, required time and energy. These gifts were sacrificial, intended for worship.

However, what do we do at Christmas time? We give gifts to everyone but the guest of honor himself.

What if this year you begin a new tradition? What if your new year “resolutions” were not simply ways to better yourself or be more successful, but instead were gifts from you to Jesus?

What present would you give Jesus? More time in prayer or Bible study? Kicking a habit that is holding back your spiritual growth? Focusing attention less on yourself and more on those around you?

If you give Jesus a gift this year, what will it be? Following the example of the Magi, let it be sacrificial and intended for worship.

Listen: We Three Kings by Tenth Avenue North and Britt Nicole
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; his is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

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

Today’s Readings
Job 6 (Listen – 2:56) 
Psalm 10 (Listen – 2:13)

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May we wear Christ’s gifts prominently, like new…clothing. Through the wearing, may we allow them to transform us into the manifestation of the giver.

The Coventry Carol — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 11.32-35
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.

Matthew 2.16-18
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Reflection: The Coventry Carol — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

The peaceful sounding hymn, “The Coventry Carol,” with its calming chorus of “lully, lullay” (an onomatopoeia also found in the word lullaby), could be a perfect song for singing a sweet baby to sleep.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

The carol takes a decidedly dark turn in the second verse.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

Not what we might expect from a lullaby, these are the words of Bethlehem mothers grieving over their doomed sons. Yes, this carol depicts the often-overlooked postscript to the nativity story, the grim ‘Massacre of the Innocents.’ 

The mothers’ despair results from Herod’s order to kill all the male infants in Bethlehem under the age of two, his reaction to the inquiry of the Magi about the baby born to be king.

Certainly not a scene one typically finds in a modern Christmas pageant.

“The Coventry Carol” originates from 16th century Coventry, England, where it was performed, in fact, in a play called, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a medieval performance depicting the complete nativity story from chapter two of Matthew, including the death of the young boys.

Of this horrific incident, Walter Wangerin writes, “It’s a hard thing to think about that event—especially now when it interrupts our Christmas joy. Yet it must be remembered, because lives of happiness are always interrupted by trouble.”

This haunting song reminds us that even the birth of our Savior is accompanied by grief and tragedy. For many, Christmas may not be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ but instead, a time when painful memories of missing loved ones or difficult days past overshadow our experience of the season.

Something lovely happens in the final verse, however. 

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

The lamenting mothers recognize “thy parting,” that Mary and Joseph are able to flee to Egypt with the baby. Solace can be taken in the knowledge that Jesus has escaped the wrath of Herod. Christ’s final ‘parting’ will come with his own brutal death, which will serve to bring ultimate peace to humanity.

If you are grieving over loss this Christmas time, know that is okay.

If you are lamenting the past this Christmas, know that is okay.

If you are struggling to feel “Christmas-y” this year, know that is okay.

Take heart. Christ is coming. Peace will prevail. The empty manger ultimately leads to an empty tomb.

Listen: The Coventry Carol by Alison Moyet
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Image Note: The picture used in our image is from an artistic display at the Canterbury Cathedral by the British artist Arabella Dorman. It is made up of hundreds of items of refugee clothing, found largely on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos. It is a reminder to us of the violence and darkness refugees flee from, as did the holy family, and the light of Christ that promises to overturn that darkness. The unedited image can be viewed here

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. — Psalm 31.24

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

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 8 (Listen – 3:33)
John 11 (Listen – 4:44)

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Martha greets us at the darkest point of her life. When faith has failed. When her wick smolders. Martha shows us how to wait.