26 December 2008

The Second Day of Christmas - St. Stephen

Happy Second day of Christmas. My Christmas day was quiet. It was just me, my honourary granddog, Raven, and the small tree which I finally decorated on Christmas day.

About six o'clock, my honourary son, Josh, and his partner, Matthew, arrived and we had a small, quiet meal together watching South Park Christmas shows. How sacrilegious can it get?

Following Christmas Day there are a couple of major feast days of the church that get lost - almost completely lost. The first is today, and it honours Stephen, the first martyr of the followers of Jesus. Steven is the principle figure in the holy card. I'm sure he didn't look that femenine or holy in real life, but I chose this card because it follows the Eastern Orthodox tradition - there are two things going on in the card.

Stephen was one of the first deacons of the church. If you notice the holy card at the right, you'll see that he holds the napkin which became the maniple, the chief vestment for deacons even today. The maniple was used long before the deacons began wearing soles. Sadly use of the maniple has fallen out of favour. I remember when the bishop used to make his annual visitation and he would have his bishop's vestments on, and the priesthood vestment and the maniple to show that he held all three offices of our church. Being the traditionalist I am, I wish the priests and deacons would return to wearing the maniple.

Stephen was called before the council and made a brilliant defense of Jesus. For that he was stoned to death. In the holy card you'll see that martyrdom going on in the back ground. Like Jesus, as Stephn was dying, he said "Lord, do not hold them accountable for this. You'll find Stephen's story in The Acts 6:8 - 7:2a, 51-60. Go read it.

The Collect for St. Stephen's Day
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Now go over and read Bro Tobias' post of his Christmas sermon. You'll be glad you did.

25 December 2008

The Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Day

Christmas Day
In festa Natalis

Year B

The Collect of the day:
O God, who makest us glad by the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

One of the readings suggested for Christmas Day is from the first chapter of Hebrews. It starts out with this introduction:
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”

How appropriate it is that we leap from the birth narratives of Christmas Eve to the full, exalted maturity of the Hebrews passage overnight! It is a pity that so few of us attend services on Christmas Day, thus missing out on sermons that delve into the mysteries and wonders of the Letter to the Hebrews. This magnificent theological treatise is not studied frequently enough in the lectionary, maybe because it is so profound that it is not easy to preach on its riches.

But something remarkable happens in the prologue to this letter, or long sermon, by an unknown writer. Over the weeks of Advent, we have been almost lulled by the sweetness of anticipation and the tenderness of Luke’s and Matthew’s narratives into thinking of Jesus the infant; Jesus, born poor among the poor; born of a woman. We are sensitive and emotional and longing to give gifts of love not only to those who are close to us, but also to those we have never met but only heard about. We are overflowing with generosity, food, and images of angels.

And here comes this remarkable, brilliant writer to remind us that it is the Christ of God we should be thinking of and worshipping, not a child in a manger. With breathtaking beauty and with alliteration of explosive consonants in the Greek, the writer opens his letter to remind us in one very long sentence that the one whom we have been anticipating through Advent and adoring on Christmas Eve is God’s heir, a reflection of God’s glory, God’s exact imprint, sustainer and redeemer. We have been singing about angels, but this writer assures us that the Christ is superior to the angels.

We have been kneeling before a mother holding a baby in her arms. We now kneel before the One who was at the beginning of creation with God the Creator.

We have no way of knowing whether or not this writer knew the prologue to John’s gospel, but the two here converge. These two prologues in all their earth-shaking faith and profound thinking encompass the grand theology of the Incarnation. They are not concerned with the earthly Jesus but with Christ the Son of God. They remind us how quickly the early Church arrived at a solid, complex, and intricate theology and that the people writing of the Christ possessed not only great hearts but admirable brains; they confirm also that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged early and was not a creature of the minds that gathered in Nicaea.

Reading these two prologues, we leave the comfortable realm of storytelling as found in the birth narratives and enter the complex realm of intricate theology. These writers have already moved from Jesus to Christ. It is the glorified Christ that matters to them, the same one who appeared to Paul and changed him and the history of humanity unto eternity.

The one who emptied himself to take on human form is on this day the One who was at the beginning with the Father, the one whose word creates with the Father and sustains all things. The writer of Hebrews sees the Christ as the one who, after he has made “purification from sin,” is sitting “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” both in control and in touch with those he has created.

We feel a tremendous sense of connectedness as this magnificent prologue and the one that opens the Gospel of John take us to the beginning of creation and lead us to this moment of acknowledgment – that the one who came as a helpless infant is the one who is superior to the angels, superior to the prophets and to Moses. He is the Logos of God, the expression of God; but above all he is the one who gave us power to become children of God.

Knowing all this, why should we be afraid? Knowing all this, why should we worry that Wall Street has fallen?

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” What is more important than this reality that we are urged to grasp onto on this Christmas morning? Nothing! The eyewitness of John’s gospel assures us: “We have seen his glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.” Let us then rejoice and be glad.

-- Katerina Whitley teaches communication at Appalachian State University and is the author of two books on Advent: Waiting for the Wonder and Light to the Darkness. She can be reached at katewhitley@charter.net.

24 December 2008

And she brought forth her firstborn son...

...And she brought forth her first born son and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn...

This sermon extract is sixty years old, but it's the best Christmas Eve sermon I've ever heard.
Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sounds of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except for one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's his birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.
If you are young enough that you didn't recognize the excerpt, it is from The Bishop's Wife.

The Collect for Christmas Eve
Let us pray:

O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech thee, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.

23 December 2008

Rejoice, the Christchild comes soon!

This is the first Christmas song I learned. I was about five years old. I learned it from German Mennonite friends.

Softly falls the snow,
Still and frozen rests the lake,
The forest looks like Christmastide,
Rejoice, the Christchild comes soon!

In every heart it's warm
Quiet from worries and harm
Cares of life are restrained.
Rejoice, the Christchild comes soon!

Soon is the Holy Night
Choirs of angels awaken
Listen now, how lovely it echos!
Rejoice, the Christchild comes soon!

22 December 2008

Mama and the trees - all fifty-six of them

I feel like telling a family story, for some reason.

For a variety of reasons, my mom neither had nor saw a Christmas Tree until 23 December 1938. On the 3rd, she had married the man who would be my father and she moved to his parents home.

On the 23rd, my grandfather, who never called mom anything other than sister, said "Sister, get your coat; we're going to town."

Grandpa bought lights and ornaments an a couple of presents, some ribbon candy and Christmas pillow candy (do they still make that stuff? The little white ones with orange stripes were my favourite) and some corn for popping.

Later that afternoon, grandpa sent my dad out into the woods to "bring home a Christmas tree." Mom and grandma popped corn and strung it on thread. When dad arrived with the tree, they decorated it. That was mama's first Christmas tree.

Mama told me that it was the prettiest thing she had ever seen and that she made a vow that every year her children would have a tree. Perhaps there would be nothing under it but a dime store toy (it was the depression, remember), but that there would always be a tree.

And there was for the next 56 years until she died. Papa had been dead ten years by then.

Every year mama made a big deal out of putting the tree up. She preferred it to go up just a few days before Christmas Day, but we kids usually won the discussion and the tree went up too early in Advent. And mama's prophecy was true - sometimes the dime store supplied our presents, but we never knew and it didn't matter to us.

When I was about 12 years old, I inherited the job of decorating the tree and the house. I'd spend far too long, but the tree had to be "just right." And each year, when it was finished and I'd cleaned up the war zone I created during the decorating, my dad would always say, "Mama, he did a good job; I think this is the prettiest yet." Mama would pass the comments on to me because for some reason, dad never gave me a compliment, to my face, about anything.

This year the treatments have really killed me off and I really am tired, but I have an SOS out to a friend who is coming over Tuesday to dig out my tree. It will only be one small three-foot tree this year, though, not one of the nine huge trees I have. There will be no other decorations this year.

I'll get out the box of special ornaments. Things from decades long past -- the snowman that was mom's ornament, the pink and blue 1950's tree birds that are my brothers' ornaments;. I remember the day we bought them at Kreisinger's mercantile and grocery store. There will be the caroler ornament my oldest oldest brother made in school in 1951 and the wee pine cone bird I made in kindergarten. And the wee pink pig, and the elephant given to me by Leona Kaiser of blessed memory.

As each ornament goes on the tree I'll remember each person and all the Christmas parades, shopping at Western Auto, candy canes, toy cars, Aggravation games, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer show year after year, and that Red Rider BB gun that actually shot sideways, and all the turkeys that helped make our Christmas Day celebration. (The birds, by the way.) And all the love--and all the love. I'll probably cry a little bit, too.

Like my friend Wayward said, "The tree is an old friend" of mine, too.

I'll thank God for blessing me with such a good mother and for the dysfunctional family in which I grew up, and for allowing my memory to be clear of those long ago days. And thank God that because of the wee bairn in the stable, I'll see them all again. That's the best Christmas present I ever received.

Today, enjoy "Alle Jahre Wieder" - it's for Frau Gwen Frank, my college German instructor, a woman whom I was privileged to call friend and who honoured me by allowing us to "Dutzen." Frau Frank died this year. I miss her, too. The clip a modern rendition and the scenes are from the Frankfurt Advent festival. The song captures the essence of this post, and in my opinion, what it's all about, year after year.
Alle Jahre Wieder -------- Every Year again
Kommt das Christuskind ---comes the Christ child
Auf die Erde nieder --------Down to earth
Wo wir Menschen sind. ---- Where we humans are.

Kehrt mit seinem Segen ---Sweeping in with His blessing
Ein in jedes Haus ----------One in every house
Geht auf allen Wegen ------Walks in every path
Mit uns ein und aus. -------With us in and out

Steht auch mir zu Seite ----Stands also at my side
Still und unerkannt --------Quietly and unrecognized
Dass es treu mich leite -----To guide me loyally
An der lieben Hand --------By his dear hand

21 December 2008

Evensong Advent IV and Concert

I'm doing something a bit different tonight. In addition to the BBC Evensong, I'd like to direct you to the online recording of the 2007 St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Go, enjoy; it is more than worth the click.

For the BBC Evensong, click here.

I'm posting a Christmas song that is quite popular in Scandanivia. I wanted to post it in Swedish, but I couldn't find a good version of it. So, it's in Norwegian. Here is the English translation. My thanks to Goeren for correcting my Swedish.
Now thousands of Christmas candles blaze
Upon the dark round earth
And thousand, thousands beam
Upon heaven's deep blue background.

And over town and land tonight
Goes the glad tidings of Christmas
That born is the Lord Jesus Christ
Our Savor and God

Thou star over Bethlehem
Oh, let they gentle light
Shine in with hope and peace
Into every home and hosue.

In each heart, poor and dark
Send thou a soft beam
A beam of God's loving light
This blessed Christmastide.

Advent IV

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38

“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”

The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer "yes."

Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been at the top of God’s priority list when it comes to interaction with human beings. God would never force a “yes” from anyone, would never trick anyone into a response of love, would never make obedience the best choice if people didn’t truly have the option of disobedience as well.

That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God would even allow people to continue in their own disobedience, turn them over to their own ideas of how to make their own way, to get their own way, to find themselves in the prison of their own designs, hit bottom if necessary, if only to give them a firm place from which to say, “Okay, yes. Your will be done.”

God respects our freedom – has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God wouldn’t have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes – freely say yes to God. And now those ways had culminated in this moment, when an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host and even God wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?

We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Here am I, the servant of the Lord. With this answer, all the heavens rejoice, and the plan is set in motion that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness, new hope, new peace, new freedom. And Mary’s answer gives words for us too. These are words that change everything.

During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciple – the follower of Christ – you are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us: a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things and people and ways of life and behavior that keep us from drawing close to the God who is always rushing to meet us, whether we acknowledge that God and God’s open arms of love for us and the whole world or not. Today’s Advent gift is the gift of commitment, of turning toward God and making the commitment to offer ourselves as no less than the servants of God, to say, along with Mary, our own “yes”: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.

Mary wasn’t the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I.”

Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and told him that he would spend the next forty days feeling seasick and wondering about God’s sense of humor in making this his reward for being righteous.

Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to get his wife, pack his things, and go sight unseen to a land God would show him.

The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be, King Saul in particular, and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head, let alone his job, in the morning.

And Mary, this young girl, probably just old enough to bear a child, ponders and asks and wonders, and then says the words that change everything: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

And she would give birth to the one who would make service, even service unto death, the way of life. She would give birth to the one, in the words of our Prayer Book, “in whose service is perfect freedom.” The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh or 'God' liberates.” God brings freedom.

When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, it is freeing. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know freedom.

When we are freed from all attempts to be self-important and self-serving, we can be truly freed – freed for service, for purpose, for meaning.

When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. Then we will find ourselves set free to perform both small acts of care and compassion and large ones. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us, uniquely, to do.

That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you, and you in particular, to do it.

Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God isn’t asking you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think, just because you can’t hear it, that all the heavenly hosts aren’t singing, “Alleluia!” when you say, freely, “yes.”

God works with groups this way too. God asks particular things of particular communities, gives them particular gifts and opportunities, and only asks that we answer "yes." But don’t get distracted thinking that someone else is taking care of things. Sometimes it’s through a group like the church that you will be asked to help a group answer “yes” to God’s call.

Either way, you don’t need to find new words. These will do: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

-- The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. E-mail: arichter@ang-md.org