Do You Hear What I Hear? :: Advent’s Peace

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people,” observes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, God is in the Manger.

God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety.

True to this, the Christmas story is full of unlikely characters. At the center we have a single mother, in a culture that scorned those in such circumstances, and a father who was thinking about bailing. Together they form a subsistence-level family carrying enormous amounts of stress.

The next groups to arrive are the shepherds, outcasts of society, and the wisemen, who were likely both superstitious and pluralistic. In the midst of this we find the Son of God—first in a barn, laying in a feeding trough, then in the arms of political refugees fleeing across international borders.

If earthly comforts and riches are “blessings,” Christ lived a radically unblessed life. He was found far from the palaces of men. He spent much of his adult life homeless, detached from even the slightest of luxuries, and, upon his death, possessed only the clothes on his back.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” asks the carol, of the same name, by Noël Regney. ”I am amazed that people can think they know the song—and not know it is a prayer for peace,’’ Regney told the New York Times.

Rome brought peace through the sword. God offered peace freely, though it was bought with the humbling and destruction of his own son. Grace confounds power and pride. Bonhoeffer concludes;

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly.

Listen: Do You Hear What I Hear? by Mary J. Blige 

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 27-28 (Listen – 6:27)
Revelation 14 (Listen – 3:51)

What Child Is This? :: Advent’s Peace

Christ is the gift we did not want. Herod, the king of Judea, was uninterested in another ruling power and went on a murderous rampage to destroy him. The religious elite were looking for a military leader in Jerusalem, not the baby of an impoverished refugee family in north Africa.

Even today the gift of Christ is uncomfortable because the world’s need for him draws attention to our own insufficiency. Modern versions of the 19th century song, “What Child is This?”—by Chris Tomlin, Josh Groben, Sarah McLachlan, and Michael W. Smith, and others—highlight this by dropping out the lines that speak of who Christ truly is:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

“’It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” observes. Stanley Hauerwas in Shattered Christ. “’It is finished’ is a cry of victory. ‘It is finished’ is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work.” He continues:

The Gospel of John makes explicit what all the Gospels assume—that is, the cross is not a defeat but the victory of our God. On the sixth day of creation ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ So on the seventh day ‘God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done.’ Accordingly the seventh day was hallowed.

But God’s work, the work of the Trinity, is consummated in Jesus’s great declaration from the cross, ‘It is finished.’ His life, his death, his resurrection, as Irenaeus insisted, recapitulates creation, recapitulates God’s covenant with Israel, uniting creation and redemption in Incarnation.

What child is this? He is Immanuel—God with us. Christ eschewed earthly riches, embraced sinners, and gave up his life so that we might live. He is our hope and peace—he is the gift we long for.

Listen: What Child Is This? by Rebecca Roubion (3:42)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 26 (Listen – 4:00)
Revelation 13 (Listen – 3:20)

O Little Town of Bethlehem :: Advent’s Peace

The Christmas story is not, primarily, a news report of Jesus’ birth—it is an account of the significance of Immanuel; God with us. In his book, The Hungering Dark Frederick Buechner explains:

The longer I live, the more inclined I am to believe in miracle, the more I suspect that if we had been there at the birth, we might well have seen and heard things that would be hard to reconcile with modern science.

But of course that is not the point, because the Gospel writers are not really interested primarily in the facts of the birth but in the significance, the meaning for them of that birth—just as the people who love us are not really interested primarily in the facts of our births but in what it meant to them when we were born and how for them the world was never the same again, how their whole lives were charged with new significance.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of His Heaven.” remarks Phillip Brooks’ 19th century hymn, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” Brooks had visited Bethlehem and was so moved by Christ’s birthplace he said the experience would be forever, “singing in my soul.” In a letter to his father in December of 1865 he wrote,

After an early dinner took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to fold.

The simplicity of Bethlehem became Brooks’ artistic contrast for the remarkable brilliance of Christ’s advent. In the same spirit, Buechner concludes, “Once we have seen Him in a stable, we can never be sure where He will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation He will descend in His wild pursuit of men.”

Listen: O Little Town of Bethlehem by Sarah McLachlan (3:50)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 25 (Listen – 3:30)
Revelation 12 (Listen – 2:58)

Joy to the World :: Advent’s Joy

The promise of Advent is that of longings met. In this way, Advent—longing for God’s presence—is contrast to hell, which C.S. Lewis describes as a place of “infinite boredom.” In A Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis contrasts the brilliant longings of humankind (Adam) with what he calls the profound “un-interestingness” of evil personified:

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole im­mensity has found only one thing that interests him.

Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament. Certainly, he has no choice. He has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to ‘be himself,’ and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted.

To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.

Compare Lewis’ (and Milton’s) vision of hell as self-consumption with Isaac Watts’ celebrated 18th century hymn, “Joy to the World.” It is profoundly communal—“Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”—wonderfully enveloped in ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

Watts was burdened by lifeless worship; ”To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

His answer wasn’t simply better, or “more relevant,” music, but the restoration of the soul that comes filling the longings of our hearts in “the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

Listen: Joy to the World by Red Mountain Church (3:56 – lyrics below)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 21 (Listen – 3:25)
Revelation 9 (Listen – 3:30)

O Come, All Ye Faithful :: Advent’s Joy

John Francis Wade was a published hymnist and a rebel who died in exile—though little else is known about his life. The song he is now best known for, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” was originally believed to be an anonymous Latin hymn. Recently discovered fragments of Wade’s journal revealed the four original stanzas, penned in 1744, and the centrality that faith played in his life.

Not long after he completed the hymn, Wade filled the margins of the page with calls for the Jacobites to rally against England’s King. It’s unclear how entwined the lyrics of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” were with the Jacobites larger mission—the then century-old commitment to restore the lineage of James II—although it is clear that the hymn is a rallying cry at its heart.

History did not favor the rebels. The Jacobite Rising of 1745 was decisively defeated by the British in less than a year. The uprising’s leader had a price placed on his head and fled to France with what was left of his men.

“Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” was originally written in French and published in England in 1751, between the Jacobite exile and Wade’s death in Douai, France. The hymn fell into relative obscurity until it was translated into English by Frederick Oakeley in 1841.

Nearly a century after Wade first marveled at the Christ, the song would be adopted by the Church, with new verses added and translations made into over 100 languages.

John Francis Wade also left a reminder that Christ’s birth is a rally cry. All earthly kings must be displaced. Wade wanted to replace them with kings of his own choosing; Christ’s call is for purity in lordship—he is a good King and he will not share the throne.

Through Wade’s words, we are also reminded of the power of awe. It is rare, even more in our world than his, to stop and marvel. But what we find in meditations strengthens our souls, readies our hearts for action, and roots our lives in the true faithful one.

Listen: O Come, All Ye Faithful by The Baylor University A Cappella Choir (2:59 – lyrics below)

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 19-20 (Listen – 8:09)
Revelation 8 (Listen – 2:15)

 

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