“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
True? Hard to say.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!
So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?
You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?
Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.
An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord." Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV
Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.
Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.
In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)
Lately, I can hardly scroll through the headlines without feeling a sense of despair. It so often seems that we are moving away from the holy day Micah describes in today’s text. We witness the lame and afflicted overwhelmed by the waters of hurricane-borne floods. We see them shut out by institutional systems that deny their worth. We listen as wealthy power-brokers amplify their own significance while diminishing those Micah promises will be redeemed.
It’s into this cacophony that John the Revelator calls God’s people to turn away from luxury and influence and look to the authority of heaven. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that John has been doing a bit too much stargazing. According to my newsfeed, the winning team is the one with money and power, not the one with poverty and disenfranchisement.
Reading these texts in the context of modern injustices, I listen as Micah speaks of labor pains and John speaks of destruction; I wonder: what will be born of this destruction? What redemption lies on the other side of all this misery and injustice?
Oft quoted American minister and reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, . . . [but] it bends towards justice.” That’s a lovely sentiment, indeed one of my favorite quotes. But first, does that arc have to be so ridiculously long and second, what of the arc of pain? Where is it headed?
On December 5, 2016, Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, the former Charleston, SC police officer accused of murdering 50-year-old Walter Scott. Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, surely stood on the arc of pain when she received the news of the verdict. Yet she strode forward and declared,
Today I'm not sad. And I want you to know why I'm not sad. Because Jesus is on the inside and I know that justice will be served because the God that I serve, he is able. . .. God is my strength and I know without a doubt that he is a just God and injustice will not prevail. . .. I’m just waiting on the Lord. I'm just gonna rest in the Lord. I'm gonna rest in the Lord ‘cause you see, . . . there's something about Jesus, when he's on the inside I fear not. . ..
And as she spoke, the arc of pain bent towards hope, towards righteousness.
Here at the beginning of the Advent season, as we await the coming of King Jesus, hear the good news: labor has begun and Hope will be born. “’Cause you see, . . . there’s something about Jesus.”
 According to his Wikipedia bio, Parker lent words to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and most certainly to Martin Luther King Jr’s “Where Do we Go from Here” speech when King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Written for and published in Gardner-Webb University's 2017 Advent Devotional. Click the link to access the digital version.
The writers are associated with GWU in some way: undergrads, graduate students, post-graduates, faculty, staff, or alumni. I enjoy it every year!
(an Advent Devotion I wrote originally for Asheville's First Presbyterian Church's Advent Devotional booklet in 1999)
I always got the back seat. The very back seat. The one in our 1972 Chrysler Station Wagon that faced oncoming traffic. My older sister and younger brother sat in the middle seat, behind Mama on the passenger side and Daddy in the driver's seat. The windows, fogged from the cold, made fresh drawing slates for us to sketch Christmas trees decorated with thumb prints and lined with fingernail garlands. Eight-track tapes sang Feliz Navidad, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. Finally! We were on our way to Christmas.
It was a tradition, that trip. Almost every year, the five of us traveled great distances to be with my Mother's family for Christmas. I got my big Raggedy Ann doll in Atlanta, my dollhouse in Tulsa, and Redhead, my very favorite doll, at home in Wilson, North Carolina. The trip was just part of Christmas.
I liked the trip. I liked my hideaway in the wayback. With Redhead and a paper sack full of books I could ride for hours reading and napping and reading some more. I liked the car games we played as a family. (I can still spot an X or a Z on a billboard a mile away!) I liked having Daddy (a Baptist pastor by trade) to ourselves with no one to minister to but us. I liked that Mother was free from her at-home responsibilities. In that station wagon we found hours of forced respite, hours of what would now be called quality time.
We would arrive at our destination, spill out of our car, and race to the bathroom or the fridge, whichever need was greatest. Tins of homemade goodies beckoned us to just taste one. Packages, their bows crushed from the journey, fought for a place under the tree. Hugs and laughter, "You're it!" "Come See!" Refreshed from hours of unhurried family and private time, we were ready to celebrate!
And so it is with advent, our journey to Christmas. My prayer is that this year, I will take time to prepare my heart for the celebration of Christ. This year, I want to spend the Advent season resting in Christ so that, when the time comes, I can fully celebrate Jesus' birth.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
To hear retailers tell it, the Christmas season started just before Halloween. From CVS to Sears, stores have been festooned in red and green for weeks. The virtual world is no better. Before we even had a chance to design our holiday cards on shutterfly.com, social media got in the holiday spirit by making a cacophonous noise about the Red Cup of Starbucks. Indeed, the world seems to define the holiday season by what will sell best, whether it’s novelty socks or news articles.
But the church defines the season in a different way. The Christian church celebrates the season of Advent for the four weeks preceding Christmas Day. But what is Advent? Too many Christians don't have any idea. So, in an effort to help remedy this, I thought I’d offer this somewhat academic post about the Advent season. Here you go: your very own Advent Primer.
History & Tradition
The name, “Advent,” comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “coming.” During Advent, Christians focus on the incarnation of Jesus Christ and on Christ’s eventual return, thereby highlighting both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Advent is a celebration of the mystery of the trinity, made manifest in Jesus Christ who was fully human and simultaneously fully God.
Interestingly, the church has not always recognized this season leading up to Christmas. By the fifth century, the church had begun toying with the idea of a time of preparation prior to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Modeled on the Lenten season (40 days of fasting prior to Easter), Advent was observed in the West long before the Eastern church adopted the idea. By the 11th century CE, most countries had set aside approximately four weeks before Christmas for focused liturgy, abstinence, and fasting. Today, both Catholic and protestant congregations observe Advent as a time of reflection and contemplation.
A part of Advent worship is the lighting of the Advent wreath. Traditionally, the wreath, circular in design and made of evergreen branches includes five candles: four around the wreath and a center Christ candle. The candles are lit in successive weeks, adding one each week until Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit along with the four candles encircling the wreath.
The Christ candle is white. The candles for weeks one, two, and four are either blue or purple, depending on the church’s preference or tradition. The candle for the third Sunday is pink or rose in color. Themes for Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love.
Hope, the First Sunday of Advent
The candle lit on this day is blue or purple and is called the Prophecy Candle. On the first Sunday of Advent, the church reflects on the coming Kingdom of Christ. Texts for this Sunday are eschatological in nature. According to www.webster.com, eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” But, the focus of this day is hope, not fear or anxiety. You see, we can get glimpses of God’s kingdom every day. Celtic Christians call these glimpses “thin places,” places where heaven seems to touch earth. On this Sunday of Hope, we can rest in the knowledge that in Christ, the Kingdom of God will certainly come in the future; let us also anticipate encounters with these thin places in which we experience the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Peace, the Second Sunday of Advent
On the Second Sunday, we light the blue or purple Bethlehem Candle and the church remembers the Hebrew Prophets. It may seem confusing that today’s candle is called the Bethlehem Candle and we’re talking about Hebrew Prophets, when last week’s candle was named Prophecy. The confusion arises from our misunderstanding of the work of Hebrew prophets. Often, modern people think of the verb “prophesy” as a synonym for “predict.” But an Old Testament prophet was not a kind of ancient soothsayer who predicted future events with eerie accuracy. Instead, they were truth-tellers, delivering divine words of warning and of redemption to the people of God. Today, we look to Bethlehem, where Redemption was born.
Joy, the Third Sunday of Advent
On the third Sunday of Advent, the pink Shepherd’s Candle is lit, the. The candle is pink in commemoration of an ancient tradition in the church. In the early days of the church, the seven-week term of Lent was the only recognized liturgical season. On the third Sunday of Lent, the church took a brief break from fasting to celebrate the joy that was forthcoming in Easter. On this day, the Pope gave a pink rose to a congregant. Churches today use the pink candle in tribute to this custom from the church’s earliest days and as a reminder of the coming season of Lent.
On this Sunday, the church recalls the ministry of John the Baptist. John connects the prophets of old who spoke of righteousness, to Jesus Christ who embodied it. John the Baptist resembled an Old Testament prophet, yet as contemporary with Jesus, his message carried a unique sense of urgency. The biblical account the birth of Christ places the shepherds on the scene at the time of the nativity. Their rush to the manger resulted from their understanding of the magnitude of the moment. There is only one more Sunday of Advent. Time is drawing nigh! On the first Christmas, the Shepherds understood the immediacy of the moment; and during his ministry, John the Baptist did too.
Love, the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The last Sunday before Christmas the church lights the remaining blue or purple candle, the Angel Candle. Texts focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we await the coming of Christ, we recall the joyous proclamation of the angels and Mary’s faithful obedience to God. When the angel Gabriel delivered his message to her—that she, a virgin betrothed to be married, was pregnant with the son of God—Mary gave herself fully and completely to God’s plan for her life. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we look to Mary’s example for guidance on how we might also fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.
Advent. It’s intentional and slow, not harried and fast. The world shouts, “Hurry up! You’re so far behind!” The church whispers, “Be still. Listen.” The world says, “You’re not doing enough! You’re running out of time.” The church says, “This is the moment. Be fully present in it.”
This Christmas, let’s stroll through Advent, enjoying the sights and sounds of the season and with hearts full of hope, peace, joy, and love, let us listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
(Check Wikipedia for this year's Advent dates.)
Back before holiday greetings came under scrutiny, it was easy. Sometimes I would say, “Merry Christmas!” More often, though, I would say, “Happy Holidays!” because it applies to the whole season: Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s. Today, if I say “Happy Holidays,” I might be accused of secularizing the sacred; but if I say “Merry Christmas,” does it sound like I’m trying to proselytize?
It all started several years ago when a few prominent retailers purportedly required employees to wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” These over-anxious merchants then painted over their “Merry Christmas” signs to read “Happy Holidays,” putting the kibosh on spreading Christmas cheer. Why, you ask? I don’t really know, but I can guess: money. It’s always about money. I’d bet you an elf on a shelf that this greeting adjustment was meant to increase profits by attracting shoppers of other faiths and appealing to customers who don’t identify with any religion at all.
Now, I don’t know much about the retail business, but I think this decision was profoundly stupid. It’s pretty clear to me that the last person a shopkeeper wants to offend in December is someone celebrating Christmas. I mean, a high percentage—somewhere between 20 and 60 percent—of all annual retail sales are attributed to Christmas buying. Alienating these shoppers could lead to a serious financial shortfall.
Anyway, once word of this ixnay on istmasChray got out, media moguls began enlisting Christian soldiers to fight in the War on Christmas. Pretty soon, folks from throughout Christendom—Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, you name it—were moving beyond theological differences to join in this holy war. Bumper stickers appeared on sedans, pickups, and hot rods saying “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “I still Celebrate Christmas” or “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas to me.” Soon you could buy clothing, accessories, and more emblazoned with these loaded messages.
Here’s what I think. Political correctness is a good thing. The idea is basically, “Think about your words before you say them aloud.” Who among us couldn’t benefit from that basic restraint now and then? Like many good things though, political correctness can go too far.
Take your roadside “Holiday Tree” vendor. Now, this person is in truth selling Christmas trees. I know this because I have Jewish friends; I have Muslim friends; none of them have trees up in their houses. Paying good money for trees that once grew in our mountains but now stand, freshly axed from their roots, bunched together under multi-colored lights—well that behavior is singularly Christian. Wait, I take that back. I have friends who are atheists. They buy Christmas trees too. But I don’t know anyone who buys a Hanukkah pine, or a Ramadan bush. Same thing goes for wreaths. I mean really: It’s not an Arbor Day wreath. It’s not a Kwanzaa wreath. Whatcha got yourself there is a Christmas wreath, plain and simple. So if you’re a seasonal foliage pusher, call them Christmas decorations—because that’s what they are. Or call it all “Holiday Greenery” if you want--it's your business.
That is what it is too: business. And since when was it retailers job to keep Christ in Christmas? What matters to corporations is money. So, if they are putting the name of Jesus Christ on something to make it sell, then I believe they are using God’s name in vain. Plus, I don’t know anyone who has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because they looked up in Toys-R-Us™ and saw a “Christmas Discounts” sign; do you? (One more thing, I don’t think we can begin to guess what Jesus the Nazarene would do with this mess of affluenza and consumerism we’ve got going on in this country; but I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want his name on it. Just sayin’.)
Years ago, my daughter and I were watching a Christmas movie when a Wal-Mart™ commercial aired. After advertising the prices that had just been lowered on Christmas must-haves, they signed-off promising, “Christmas costs less at Wal-Mart™.” I winced like I do when someone uses the name of God as a swear word. My daughter looked at me with 14 year old wisdom and said “Christmas doesn’t cost anything.”
She was right; it doesn’t—at least not in the way that commercial meant. Yet there are incalculable costs: the preparations for Christmas meals; the sacrifices we make to be with family; the practice time musicians invest in preparing annual concerts. These things can’t go in sale papers. They can’t be discounted. They can’t be put on glitzy signs in high-dollar department stores.
In order to Keep Christ in Christmas, we don’t need merchants to put the name of the holiday on their signs. Instead, we need to turn our own eyes away from the modern accoutrements of the season, and focus instead on the gift God gave us in God’s son Jesus.
“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth (and in social media) Peace to All People!” Luke 2:14 (paraphrased)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
I preach from time to time at First Baptist Church of Weaverville. Here are my most recent sermons.
December 6, 2015, "Let There Be Peace," Luke 3:1-6, Psalm 126.
October 11, 2015, "From Affliction to Proclamation," Hebrews 4:12-16, Psalm 22:1-15.