There are not many times when evangelical pulpits will devote sermons to Mary. This is typically due to reactions against Roman Catholicism, but it also comes from the simple fact that Mary does not actually occupy much space in the New Testament. However, there is a time where she does factor in a big way, and it is in the beginning of the gospels and the birth of Jesus. The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel tell us the most about her, and her famous song, The Magnificat, teaches us something about how she understood God to work. This morning we will look over Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth and her reaction to the fact that already her son-to-be was recognized as the Lord Himself. We will see how she is blessed by this and how she reflects that blessing back to God to magnify the Lord.
Mary and Elizabeth
The story of Mary and Elizabeth meeting together is primarily meant to show us that Jesus’ special identity was known already, even if in part. He isn’t even born yet. He is just recently conceived, alive in Mary’s womb, but already His spiritual significance can be detected. This teaches us something about prenatal life as well: both John and Jesus already have clear and irreducible identities, and John is portrayed as having a sort of awareness. Indeed, he is able to identify Jesus as he leaps in the womb. Continue reading →
My wife hates it when folks play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And so you can imagine how it has been to learn that people here in Central Florida begin celebrating Christmas on the second week of November. Lights are up and trees and wreaths are hung all over town well before Thanksgiving. And the really remarkable thing is that nobody feels at all bad about it. You people are totally unapologetic in your Christmas creep. And you know what, I’m kind of ok with that. That’s right, I’ll come out into the open with my secret. I’ve been quietly singing Christmas carols to myself for weeks now. One of my favorites is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You know how it goes:
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.
The song goes on to mention “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots” as well as “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk.” It concludes by saying “Soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.” That imagery reflects the classic Americana Christmas. It’s all about shopping, sweets, and feeling that warm spirit down in your heart. And I don’t mind this sort of American Christmas too much. It’s a lot of fun, and it reminds me of my childhood. But you know, none of those things have much to do with the Biblical picture of Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the problem of consumerism or greed. I’m sure we could talk about those things some other time. I’m just talking about the general picture. What I’m talking about is Advent. Continue reading →
Christmas is a story of enlightenment. This concept presupposes a situation of darkness, a need for new light. The secular world is familiar with this idea, but its take on the story tends to be all about education. Much like Prometheus bringing down fire from the gods, they say that human race is slowly being elevated through the accumulation of knowledge. The darkness was ignorance, and the light is progress. There are some parallels with this and the Christian gospel, but on the basic level Christianity is something very different. It tells a story of an original light— righteousness and communion with God— which was lost through man’s sin, the misuse of his will. This original light is brought back, not by man or some intermediary between God and man, but by God himself, through the person of His divine Son, Jesus. We find out that Jesus’ light is not a new light at all, but rather the old light, the original light of God which made all things. And it is because Jesus is the light of creation that he can also be the light of recreation, which is what He has come to do. Salvation means that Jesus came to make us new.
Jesus is God Come into the World
John’s prologue is clear that Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Continue reading →
The Christmas season concludes with Twelfth Night. Associated with merrymaking and even mischief, Twelfth Night serves as a bridge between Christmas and Epiphany. It seems appropriate then to finish up our survey of Christmas Carols with a wassailing song. Wassailing was a practice that, in some ways, goes back to pre-Christian Europe, but took on most of its popularity in the middle ages. It involved door-to-door caroling and, of course, the drinking of wassail. “Wassail” is actually an expression, of Anglo-Saxon and possibly older Norse origins, which means “be hale” or “be healthy.” The name was transferred to the drink, typically a hot mulled cider, over the years as people would offer “Wassail” as a toast. And so the tradition of wassailing was that of door-to-door caroling with the drinking of wassail and the wishing of God’s blessing upon the residents of the house, and it was typically done on Twelfth Night.
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” is a German hymn first printed in 1582. Written anonymously under the title “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” this song originally had about 19 stanzas. As we’ve seen, those Germans really love their long songs. In 1599 they even bumped it up to 23, but these days it’s usually trimmed down to 5 or 6. A lot of hands have been involved in the transmission and translation of the words to the hymn. In the 19th cent., Theodore Baker gave us the first two stanzas in English, translating from the German original. Friedrich Layritz wrote two more stanzas around the same time, and these have been translated by Harriett R. Spaeth. John C Mattes added another stanza in 1914. Catherine Winkworth even got involved by translating a variant version of the hymn. There were so many different options because of all those earlier stanzas, quite a bit of source material I’d say, and because of the fact that this hymn has been theologically redacted in a big way. Most of us assume the “Rose” is Jesus. That’s how our current English versions present it, and I bet you’ve never thought a thing about it. But that’s actually not what the original meant. You see, the Rose used to be Mary! Continue reading →
Here we have a Christmas song whose original tune might still be more famous than the new seasonal lyrics. “What Child is This?” is set to the old Renaissance love song “Greensleeves.” A series of folks songs and ballads about “the Lady Greensleeves” were written in England between 1580-1584. Often played on the lute, “Greensleeves” is a classic Renaissance “lover’s lament,” where the singer cries over lost love and longs for the day that he might win back his lady. I’m sure that this song was considered public domain and freely modified over the years. At one point it had 18 verses, each followed by the chorus. It’s still fairly common to hear this tune with no intended relation to the Christmas carol, and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about using this one in worship services. Still, it’s awfully pretty. Continue reading →
Today we have a combination of ancient and modern. The words to “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” were written around the 4th cent., the tune was composed in the 17th cent., but the combination of both as we know it today was not until 1906. Ralph Vaughan Williams gets the credit for the final product, and while he is another one of those names whose association always signals something great, in this case he was working with truly excellent resources. The tune “Picardy” comes from a popular French folk song, and the lyrics date back all the way to the Divine Liturgy of St. James.
That liturgy is still sung by certain Christian churches in the East, and a few of them even maintain that it dates all the way back to James the brother of Christ, the bishop of the church in Jerusalem. This would make it of apostolic origin, but their claim seems overreaching. One obvious objection is the language. You’ll find the beautiful line, “the triune light of the Godhead, which is unity subsisting in trinity, divided, yet indivisible: for the Trinity is the one God Almighty,” which also indicates the Nicene character of the theology. While pre-Nicene Christians shared the substance of the theology, much of this terminology did not actually exist prior to the 3rd cent. The anaphora (the consecration of the bread and wine) also shows historical development from the catechisms of Cyril of Jerusalem and older Egyptian prayers. So most scholars agree that this indicates a 4th cent. origin. Still, that’s not too shabby. How old is your liturgy? Continue reading →
I think it’s about time for a bona fide Reformation Christmas hymn. “Vom Himmel Hoch” was written by Martin Luther in 1539 and has been translated into English by Catherine Winkworth under the title “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” (The Trinity Hymnal lists Winkworth as the translator but then uses the later modification by Winfred Douglas titled “From Heaven High I Come to You”). As a general rule, if Catherine Winkworth liked it, it’s good. Additionally, Luther tunes are always solid, and this one is classic Luther. The final bar sounds very similar to the end of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and the whole thing is very easy to pick up. The tune was made more famous by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote five more ornate variations for the organ in his Christmas Oratario and Magnificat. Bach’s are fantastic listening, but the plainer earlier version is the one for congregational use.
But watch out friends, there are a whopping fifteen stanzas to this song! That’s far too stout for most Americans these days, and so they tend to shorten it to five or six (which is still more than most can handle). Of course, the jolliest among the faithful should demand to sing the entire song, but as that other Reformer John Calvin once said, “Good luck.” It will work best if you play it at a brisk tempo or even split it up. Continue reading →
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” was also originally a Roman Catholic hymn, and it has a bit of a bumpy history. Originally written in Latin, but by an Englishman, in 1743, a time when all but the Roman Catholics would have been writing in English, folks were not exactly sure who the author was. At that time it was considered proper to leave liturgical pieces anonymous, since the song wasn’t really meant to be “his” but rather the church’s. Also, since it was in Latin, there was no reason to suspect that it was an Englishman who wrote it. The French began to claim that it was theirs. Some Irish said that they heard it first. Even in England, the tune picked up the name “The Portuguese Hymn” because it was played in the Portuguese chapel in England. This lead people to think that maybe it had been written by someone from Portugal, perhaps even the king! You can read all about the history here, but what seems to be proven (though wikipedia says that “it has been concluded that… probably…”, so take this “probable conclusion” how you will) is that it was written by the English Roman Catholic, John Francis Wade. Wade had spent some time in exile in France, and so the French may well have heard the tune there. He was also in Ireland for a while, so there’s the Irish’s claim. Wade wrote the tune in Latin, and so it was called Adeste Fideles, in 1743. In fact, the song is known by its Latin title in most all official discussions, particularly because this allows it to be shared in the multiple countries that all sing it. Continue reading →
Now we’re to the song that those herald angels actually sung. Well, ok, they may not have actually “sung” in Luke 2, but they might as well have. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” while in Latin, contains the correct words of “Glory to God in the highest.” Though it existed earlier in France (no one seems to be quite sure when it was written), it made its way into English hymnody through the 1862 translation by James Chadwick. What’s interesting about this is that it is a Roman Catholic origin. Chadwick was an Irish immigrant to England who became Bishop of Newcastle. He took a popular French carol, changing it a little (a stanza seems to have been left out, but I’m not sure when or how that occurred), and made it into the song we love today. The tune, however, is Protestant, making this song a truly ecumenical creation. Edward S. Barnes was an organist who made his way from fancy Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in New York and Philadelphia to finally settling at 1st Pres. in Santa Monica, CA. He put “Angels” to the famous tune “Gloria” in 1937, giving us that great chorus. Continue reading →