Category Archives: Christmas

I Christmas: Turn Around and You’re Grown (Luke 2:41-52)


–The Child Jesus with A Walking Frame, Hieronymous Bosch, 15 c.


n the 1960’s, Kodak ran a commercial during “The Wonderful World of Disney” that became one of the most beloved in the history of advertising. It was a simple photo sequence that captured the progress of a baby from infancy through girlhood, adolescence, young adulthood and marriage, ending with the young woman coming home from the hospital with a baby of her own in her arms.

The pictures were accompanied by a song called, “Turn Around.” Parents everywhere blubbered openly when it played.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you’re two,

Turn around and you’re four,

Turn around and you’re a young girl

Going out of the door.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Little pigtails and petticoats,

Where have you gone?

Turn around and you’re tiny,

Turn around and you’re grown,

Turn around and you’re a young wife

With babes of your own.*

The ad and its soundtrack were impossibly sentimental, but something about them struck a deep chord. Little ones grow up, we all know, and they do it, it seems, when you are distracted for a split second.

Only a week ago it was Christmas. The Babe in the manger hadn’t even opened his eyes. Last week, he wasn’t old enough for strained peas. This week he’s an adolescent. How did we get here so fast? Turn around and he’s born, turn around and he’s grown…

Grown, and something of a prodigy. He’s wowing the teachers in the Temple with precocious questions. He’s a willful kid too, and he’s giving his parents fits. I’m told that Luke uses the same word to describe Mary’s anguished confusion in this episode as he uses to describe the consternation of Dives, the rich man who ends up in hell in the story of the beggar, Lazarus. Luke knew something about the underbelly of parenting, I guess.

In the church I grew up in, we called this Sunday ‘Holy Family Sunday.’ It was a celebration of the ideal family, the one we were supposed to imitate in our own. I could never figure out what was so ideal about them, though. It didn’t seem very ideal to me to misplace your kid in a big crowded public place. And when his careless parents find him,hb_32.100.123 Mary doesn’t seem to remember or much care that Jesus is Somebody Special. She’s as frazzled as any ordinary mother would be and yells at him as if he were a run-of-the-mill pre-teen. Jesus’ reply is curt, even dismissive. This sounded more like my own family, certainly not a holy one.

But the preachers of my youth didn’t seem to notice. They especially played up the last line of the story—He went down with them and was subject to them. ‘Go and do likewise’ was the moral of the story, as far as they were concerned; and every parent in the sanctuary nodded in agreement while we kids slumped in our seats. The Holy Family is a family in which parents are good and caring, and their kids submissively obey them.

–Christ among The Doctors, Cataln, 14th c.


Of course this is Kodak sentimentality passing for Christian instruction. Not only is this not a story about a Holy Family, it’s also not a story about being submissive. It’s a story about the time that comes when one must disobey. It pinpoints the moment when an authentic calling renders human absolutes relative. It’s a story in which we learn that sooner or later choices have to be made that override the obligations even of blood kinship.

Luke shows us this moment in Jesus’ life by playing on the word ‘father’ in the exchange between the boy and his mother. Mary asks, ‘Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching…’ Jesus responds, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ In this moment, Jesus shifts his allegiance from Joseph (‘your father’) to God (‘my Father’). This child is becoming an adult, and we know he’s on his way because he is sorting out competing loyalties; he is negotiating the tensions between ordinary expectations on the small stage of a nuclear family and great aspirations on the larger stage of a ministry to the world; he is making choices and accepting the obligation and pain that comes with a life-claiming, life-shaping call: ‘I must be about God’s work.’

Eventually Jesus will return home with his parents, for the time being, the story says, and ‘obediently.’ And then the gospels are silent about him for the next eighteen years. But the die is cast at twelve. According to Luke, Jesus was born for one purpose only, the common human purpose—to grow up; that is, to achieve an adulthood shaped around chosen priorities. Here Jesus is already clarifying what his will be—only those things pertaining to God’s house and God’s business. The priorities Jesus chooses will lead him to demand a wrenching reordering of everything. We know how that goes: The mighty cast down, the rich sent away empty; the meek inheriting the earth, the last moving into first place, mercy trumping everything else.

Jesus’ commitment to God’s work will also demand a new kind of kinship that persistently condemns the ordinary idolatry of clan and family. His first and final allegiance to God’s house over all other allegiances to every other house – personal, religious, political, national – will eventually mark him for a state execution; and in the meanwhile his own family will be embarrassed, confused, and disheartened by the things he says and the company he keeps.

But all this is in the future. It will come soon enough. In a split second of Marian distraction, he will be fully-grown. In another blink of an eye, he will be dying on a cross. But for this split second now, he is a boy, learning the Law and beginning to walk in the pathway that will be his life.

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

–Christ in the House of His Parents, John Everett Millais, 1849-50


In the Christmas season, I hear many smart, faithful Christians say they don’t believe any longer in the New Testament’s infancy narratives—especially Christ’s miraculous birth from a mother who was also a virgin. As I grow older, I find these ancient stories easier and easier to believe, at least to believe in that way theologians call ‘a second naïvete.’ My problem is not with the divine child in the manger, but with the precocious, willful boy in the Temple who is figuring out that God’s business merits the unswerving dedication of a whole life. As Will Willimon once noted, it is harder to believe in a life ‘unreservedly shaped around the priority of God’ than it is to imagine that a virgin could bear a son. It’s not that hard to embrace the possibility that God came as a human baby if God stays a baby and does not grow up to be a man who is God’s alone, and does not demand that we choose to be God’s too.

Former UCC General Minister and President, John Thomas, tells this story:

“Bethlehem, Pa., was named by its Moravian founders after their first communion service was held on Christmas Eve. Today ‘the Christmas City’ offers a delightful array of Moravian Christmas traditions [to the public] every year… [Annually], a Nativity scene is erected on the plaza between the library and city hall, dominated by a huge lighted star on the mountain overlooking the Lehigh River to the south.”

One year, John continues, while he was serving a church in nearby Easton, “the newspaper reported that the figure of Jesus had been stolen. Jesus was eventually located… where the vandals had left him and, to avoid a recurrence, the city mothers and fathers bolted him to the manger after they returned him to the plaza.”

Most of us, as John comments, are “happy to keep Jesus bolted to his manger.” Who wants him grown up and walking around, “meddling in the greed that denies children health care, or a decent home, or a safe school? Who wants him challenging our easy resort to violence as the only way to personal and global security? Who wants him asking us awkward questions about why we treat the creation as little more than a convenience store filled with raw materials to satisfy our endless desire? Who wants him holding up a mirror to the deceits and betrayals of our personal lives? Better to keep him bolted [to] that manger.” (2)

Yes, indeed. We hate to see the Infant Jesus grow up so fast. He’s such a pretty little baby. We want to savor the Kodak moment forever. But it’s not just because he’s so sweet and cuddly that we hate to see him outgrow his crib. It’s also because deep sown we know that when the infant becomes a boy, and the boy becomes a man, we will be asked to grow up too.


*“Turn Around,” by Harry Belafonte, Alan Greene, and Malvina Reynolds

And Love Is Everything: A Newtown Carol



Sweet on the breeze of angels,

songs in the night ring clear:

Heaven to earth is singing

anthems of peace and cheer.

Unbrightened, in reply

poor earth sends up its groaning:

Peace is an orphan here.


Swift on a path of longing,

roused by the angel song,

shepherds run to the stable;

hope makes their going strong.

The manger cold and still

meets eagerness with anguish:

Here hope is killed by wrong.


Brighter than sun and planets,

sign of the ancient vow,

Star of the East is shining,

even the wise men bow;

but shadowed hearts in mourning

see only rays of darkness:

No light shines on us now.


Close by the cradle, Mary

bravely the secret sings:

Love is a sea of sorrow,

love is a broken wing;

love has no guns, no forces,

love cannot win a battle:

And love is everything.

It’s O and O and O


O, O, said God, when at one word

the day burst forth from night:

O light, O lovely, God declared,

astounded by the sight.


O, O, cried Mary in alarm

when God begged her assent:

O mystery, O yes, she said,

unknowing what it meant.


O, O, the kneeling sages wept,

their tears with stars entwined:

O love, O ken beyond the ken

of star-pursuing minds.


O, O, the longing church has sighed

through all things ill and well:

O Day, O Mystery, O Lord,

O come, Emmanuel!


And when our healing comes at last

we’ll hear a word we know;

for heaven makes but one sweet sound:

it’s O and O and O!

Housekeys: The Flight Into Egypt


Eastman Johnson,  A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862)

Matthew 2:13-22

Unlike Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s has no journey home to be counted, no overbooked inns, no shepherds, no manger, no swaddling clothes. Instead, Matthew has Joseph and Mary already living in a house in Bethlehem, their own house, presumably; and it is there that the Magi visit the child Jesus and give him gifts.

After the Magi leave, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is coming after the Child. The tyrant is prepared to slaughter many children to be sure he’s rid of one. Joseph should take his family and run for it, the angel says; cross into Egypt. Stay there until the tyrant dies.

Here’s what I wonder…

After he woke up, and while he was still shaking from the dream, and after they had packed a few things and saddled up the donkey, did Joseph take the key to the front door of his house in Bethlehem, string it on a rawhide cord, and tie the cord around his neck?

Or did he give the key to Mary after he boosted her onto the beast, handing up the child first, and then the key? Did she tuck it in the travel bag underneath the diapers and the talcum powder and the brand new copy of Goodnight Moon?

At the end of their street, did Joseph stop and turn around? Did he look back at the house they had just abandoned, one ear cocked for the hot breath of the horses, the other for the boots of bloody soldiers, conscripts most of them, kids, just following orders?

Did he find it surreal that he, a terrified man fleeing with his family, was also, in that very moment, wishing he’d gotten around to fixing the creaking tread on the stairs, the one Mary said would come right up some day and trip her, sending her headlong down the narrow flight? Did he say to her with his eyes, “Hold onto that key. Don’t lose it. I’ll fix the stairs, really I will. As soon as we get back…”

And when they made it over the border and found a place that rented to people without papers, did he wrap the key in a cotton cloth and place it in an olive wood box with leather hinges and a brass latch, and place it in a niche in the wall, and cover the niche with an old calendar from a company selling insurance?

And on days when no one would give him work, or during the night when Mary was out cleaning offices, or that first time he realized that his toddler couldn’t remember anything about home and was acquiring an Egyptian accent, did he take the key from its niche behind the calendar and lay it on his palm and rock over it, singing songs of Zion in a foreign land? Did he dream at night of return? Or did the good St Joseph drink himself into a stupor over what was lost? Did he buy too many lottery tickets? Did he take out his rage on the furniture?

And when the news finally came that Herod was dead and they could go back home, did he take the key from the box, knot it back on the cord, and tie the cord around his neck? Or give it to Mary to put in her bag, this time tucking it into one of the little boy’s sneakers so that it would be easy to find if they got to their door very late on a moonless night?

And when they crossed the border again and discovered that the danger had not passed—because for the refugee, the exile, the poor, the person with the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong opinion, the wrong sexuality, the danger never passes—and Joseph decided not to go to Bethlehem where they had a house with a door that the housekey fit, but to settle up in the Galilee, what, I wonder, became of that key?

What did he do with a key that was useless in a new lock in a new house, a key that opened no doors in Nazareth? What became of the key that worked only in the lock of the front door of the little house in the little town of Bethlehem?

Here’s what else I wonder:

Whose necks do such keys hang from now? In whose bags packed for a midnight dash to the border are they tucked away underneath the baby’s shirts and the sippy cup that quacks like a duck when you squeeze it? In whose small boxes are those keys resting? Who is rocking on tired knees singing songs of home over them, like lullabies to a baby, or anthems to a flag, or offerings to a god?

And what traumas are being inflicted, what grievances are being nursed, what resentments are building, what terrors contemplated, what weapons amassed in the name of keys and locks and doors and houses and memories and dreams and towns and lands and borders and nations?

How will it end, this Christmas story? For this cold hard story is as much the story of Christmas as the one about lowing cattle and awestruck rustic men. How will it unfold, and how will it end, this story of Jesus, barely begun?

And is there an angel lingering over earth fierce enough to rouse us from our deep and heedless sleep? Is there any message frightening enough to alert us to the danger we’re in? Is there any light from heaven bright enough to show us this old story as our neighbor’s story, and as our own?

A Communion Service for Christmas Day




*Carol On This Day Earth Shall Ring         

*Lighting the Christmas Candle

Lift up your heads; the day of peace is here!

God has visited us with healing!

All the ends of the earth can see it,

And the distant coastlands rejoice!     

The Christmas candle is lit.

The light of Christ!

Thanks be to God!


[A traditional Gloria may also be sung, chanted, recited here.]

Come, let us praise our God!

Glory to God in the highest,

and peace to God’s people on earth!

We worship you, we give you thanks,

we praise you for your glory! 

Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Child,

you take away the world’s sin!

Have mercy on us! 

Lamb of God, you sit at God’s right hand!

Receive our prayer!

For you are the Healer and the Holy One,

the world’s hope and the heart’s desire.

You preside in love forever, with the Holy Spirit,

in the glory of God, the Sovereign. Amen.


Reading      Isaiah 52:7-10

*Carol   Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light          

Reading     Luke 2:1-20

*Carol   O Come, All Ye Faithful

Shared Reflection [or Homily]


[Short sung refrain, carol, or a recited statement of faith.]


[A few moments of reflection, could be undergirded by instrumental music.]

Prayers for the Church and World

[Congregational response:  Lord, hear our prayer!]

In peace, let us pray to the Lord for the church and the world:

That the heart of the world might rejoice today

at the birth of a merciful savior, let us pray to the Lord…

That the works of justice may capture every human heart

and lead to peace, let us pray to the Lord…

For an end to war and all violence,

that all people may live in hope and safety,

so that free of fear we may build a new tomorrow, let us pray to the Lord…

For the health of the earth, and the integrity of all creation, let us pray to the Lord…

For the sick, the troubled, the sorrowing and the dying,

that they may know the comfort of God’s mercy, let us pray to the Lord…

For our enemies and for all who have done us harm,

and for all whom we have harmed, let us pray to the Lord…

For the church throughout the world, that we may love God,

God’s world, and one another; welcome and serve all people,

and show forth the mercy of our Savior, let us pray to the Lord…

And now, in the words our Savior gave us, we are bold to say:

Our Father…

*Carol Angels We Have Heard On High 

Holy Communion

*All who are able may rise.

The newborn Child be with you!

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts!

We lift them joyfully to God.

Let us give thanks to God, our God!

It is right to give God thanks and praise.

We are right to praise you, Maker of heaven and earth,

for you have always loved us.

Even when we strayed like sheep, you loved us.

You planted hope within us and sent messengers

to keep that hope alive,even in the worst of times.

At last, in the fullness of time,

in the stillest night, you sent us our healer.

Born on life’s margin, he was one of us,

full of our joy and subject to our frailty,

our brother and your delight.

He welcomed everyone who was unwelcome elsewhere.

He kept faith with you, even when it cost him his life.

You vindicated him, and he lives, our healer still.

From his fullness we all receive mercy after mercy, grace after grace.

Therefore, most wonderful God, with the Christmas angels

and the faithful of every time and place, we praise you, saying [singing]:


[A traditional Sanctus may be sung, or a Gloria in excelsis Deo refrain from a popular carol may substitute.]

Holy, Holy, Holy God, Lord of heaven and earth!

The cosmos shows us your glory!

Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is the Child who comes in your name.

Hosanna in the highest!


You may be seated.

[These remembrances may be interspersed with an alleluia refrain or the refrain of a familiar carol.]

Now we remember the Garden, Adam and Eve and God’s footsteps.

We remember that long ago we sinned and were left without a home.

We remember Abraham, and Sarah, Moses, the sea, the desert.

We remember the manna, and water from the rock.

We remember the prophets, the longing, the promise.


We remember an angel interrupting a young woman’s day.

And we remember Joseph’s dream.

We remember a hard journey, inns with no room.

We remember poor things –a manger, a child, some straw. 

We remember the cold, the shepherds, the night.


We remember midnight glory, God in human face outshining.

We remember Jesus.

He came to us then.

He is with us still – we are not alone.


And when he was all grown up,

in the middle of another night when the end was near

and betrayal was in the air, he shone all the brighter with love for his friends.

He ate with them, taking bread, the staff of life.

He gave thanks to God for it, called it his body, and shared it all around.

He drank with them, too, taking a cup and blessing it,

pouring it out like life-blood for the forgiveness of sins.

He said to them: Whenever you do this, remember me.

Calling on the Holy Spirit

Send your Spirit upon these gifts, O God –

fruit of the earth and work of human hands!

May they be for us life-giving food and drink.

As we share in their goodness, give us love for each other

and make us willing servants of your justice in the world.

Sharing Bread and Cup

Meditation in Music

[During or after communion. Could be choir, piano, organ, or whatever you have!]     


All may rise.

Let us give thanks for all we have received.

We thank you, O God,

for making yourself known to us in the human life of Jesus.

Keep us always in the joy of this Christmas Day,

like Mary and Joseph, like angels and shepherds –

servants of your love and bearers of your grace.

Glory be to you in the church and in all creation,

now and forever. Amen.

*Carol                                              Joy to the World!


Beloved, do not be afraid! Today a Child is born to us.

God is alive among us, closer to us than our own hearts.

God will never leave us or lose us.

Unfailing love will always save us,

and the blessing of God is forever upon us,

Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

*A Sign of Christmas Joy, and Sending

Now offer each other a sign of Christmas joy, and go in peace!

If God Can Find A Corner Small: A Carol for Christmas



If God can find a corner small,

a town constricted as a tomb,

to house the sweeping Life of all,

we too can find a little room.


If God requires but little space,

an unassuming mother’s womb,

to birth God’s spacious Gift of grace,

we too can be a little room.


If little room is room to spare,

a stable’s manger plain and rough,

to cradle everlasting Care,

we too have room, and room enough.


And even if we still mistake

a mansion’s pomp for God’s embrace,

whatever room we sinners make,

Good Love will gladly fill the place.


You can sing this carol to the tune, ANDREW, Hymn 467, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth’ in The New Century Hymnal. [You will need to repeat last line of each stanza of the carol in order to fit the tune’s meter]

A really lovely LM tune, NORWICH, was composed for that same text (“Mothering God”) by Carolyn Jennings. It is at # 735 in the Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. And a wonderful choral setting of this same tune is by Zebuloma Highben, and can be found at Augsburg Fortress. I like this tune very much for this carol.

For a more meditative mood, you might use CONDITOR ALME, alternating verses between a soloist and the congregation, or choir and congregation.

A Voice in Ramah

This is an excerpt from an older sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents…


Matthew 2:13-23

Did you hear it? That voice? Not Herod’s voice or Joseph’s, for neither of them speaks in this passage. Not the angel’s voice either, although Gabriel speaks twice, first ordering Joseph to take the family to safety in Egypt and then ordering him home again when Herod dies. No, it’s a voice Matthew reaches far back into the Hebrew scriptures to retrieve and play back for us. It belongs to a woman who at the time Matthew wrote this story had been dead for a thousand years. The voice of Rachael, the great matriarch who died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, whom she intended to name ‘son of sorrow.’ Rachael, the personification  of maternal grief.

Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus via the prophet Jeremiah, who remembered her as he wrote about the calamity that had befallen God’s people when they were overrun and driven into exile. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it was there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages ‘for her children…and she will not be comforted, because they are no more.’

She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses to diminish the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering by the attempts of the well-meaning to assuage or explain it, to make sense of it or sublimate it. Rachael is a witness to things in human life that are so awful they cannot be soothed or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, and comfortlessly mourned.

Rachael’s weeping is the voice of all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, bigotry, or crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. Her anguish will not be pacified.

These days we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices. By knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity. By cool voices that prettify what violence actually does and paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. By the pandering voices of politicians.  The smug voices of the self-made. The dismissive voices of the privileged. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the church and the self-involved bromides of the world.

On the cusp of a new year, one that will almost certainly see some new atrocity unleashed upon this gasping planet, the liturgy does not give us assurances that hope is rational or that better days are ahead. What we hear instead is the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children. Rachael’s tears telling us to resist comfort. To refuse explaining, justifying voices and listen instead to hers over every bland dismissal of the real needs of real children, over every empty proclamation of concern uncoupled from policy and deed, over every thought or prayer offered for their brutal, preventable deaths. Rachael weeping: listen for that voice, and refuse to be comforted.

Listen for her weeping. And join her. Rip apart with lamentation the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie: that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with no supplies in Syria, by famine in Sudan, in school buses in Tel Aviv, in shot-up elementary schools in quiet American towns, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

Rachael makes only a brief appearance on the Christmas stage, but when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a Virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded that what our feeble words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the Word we experience in Jesus, can. The Babe who escaped this time; the Child who one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then; this  Word is God’s decisive Word to our world.

It is also, perhaps, a Word of comfort all the world’s Rachaels might finally be willing to accept, because it is a Word of justice. A Word profound enough, courageous enough, persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present. Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, when we pick up its resonance, welcome its light, echo its truth, and live on its dangerous edge.

A Communal Reading for Christmas

A Communal Reading for Christmas

NOTE:  This Communal Reading stands in for the gospel reading from Luke, as a paraphrase. The actual text of the reading from Luke could be printed in the bulletin, if so desired. The “script” below should be prepared as an insert for congregation and readers. Shepherd reads from center chancel. Child reads from his or her place in the congregation (standing on a pew if need be, with a cordless microphone, or a very big ‘outdoor voice’). The Choir should be prepared to burst immediately into the refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” from Angels we have heard on high at the indicated places. The Shepherd should be a skilled adult reader who can really tell a story. The Child should be willing to raise her hand and jump up and down a bit, like an eager student. In general, everyone should take their time, and ham it up. No rehearsal should be needed if all the ‘characters’ practice their lines beforehand on their own.

bassano_jacopo_the_annunciation_to_the_shepherds–Jacopo Bassano

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke

[Luke 2:8-20]

Shepherd: I remember that night. How could I forget it? We were tending sheep in the fields when all of a sudden, the dark sky began to shine, and shine, and shine!

Choir: Was it the moon breaking through the clouds?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t the moon!

Congregation: A shooting star flashing across the sky?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t a shooting star!

A Child: I know! I know! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining!

Shepherd: Yes! That’s right! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining! And that angel of the Lord scared us half to death! We fell flat on our faces with fright!

Choir: What happened next?

Shepherd: The angel of the Lord spoke to us!

Congregation: Spoke to you? What did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know! The angel said: “Do not be afraid! I have great news for you and the whole wide world! Today, in Bethlehem, the City of David, a savior is born!”

Shepherd: That’s right! A savior was born!

Choir: What else did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: Hey! You know everything!

A Child: Yes, I do! I pay attention in Sunday School! Anyway, the angel said to go to Bethlehem to find the savior. To look in a manger, not a palace. To look for a baby, not a king. Wrapped in strips of cloth, not in a velvet robe!

Shepherd: That’s right! That’s what the angel told us! And then, oh my goodness! Then, the whole sky was filled with angels! A million of them!

Congregation: A million?

Shepherd: Well, maybe half a million. And they all began to sing!

Choir: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherd: And then they disappeared!  Just like that. They were gone. And everything was the way it was before – dark and cold, and very, very, very, very quiet.  And we looked at each other, our eyes as wide as saucers, and we said, “Should we go, then, and see for ourselves?”

Choir:  And so you went, didn’t you?

Shepherd: Yes, we did. We went to Bethlehem. We saw Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger. We saw everything the angel said we would see. We saw it all, and it made us glad. And so we told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people – and now you know the story too.

Congregation: It’s a wonderful story! Who could have imagined it?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: There [he/she] goes again! All right, tell us. Who imagined it?

A Child: God imagined it!  And God brought made it happen! God did it for us!

Shepherd: For us, yes. Because God loves us, God did it for us. And for everybody, and for always, and forever and ever. Amen.

Everyone: For everybody! And for always! And forever and ever! Amen!

Choir [and everyone joining in]:  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Odds and Ends of Advent/Christmas Liturgy


I. Words to Introduce A Carol

Leader: Advent is waiting and preparing.

It is desire and hope.

It is also a question.

A question Mary asks.

A question you have asked.

A question everyone asks, sooner or later.

How can this be? What does it mean?

Scripture tells us that for Mary,

Advent was a long pondering.

She spent the time

between angel and manger

turning things over in her heart.

Advent is a wondering,

perhaps a contradiction,

certainly a mystery.

How can this be? What does it mean?

Advent is also a morning.

It begins to dawn on us,

which is why we light candles.

In Advent there is light, increasing light,

such beautiful light;

but that doesn’t mean anything is clear.

Carol [solo or choir] I Wonder As I Wander


4320471_f248–Tricia Mason

II. Words to Introduce A Carol

Leader: Some babies are born into bleak midwinters

when water is stone.

Others are born in spring

with soft blankets under their chins.

Some children are born to own their lives.

They are never dressed in hand-me-downs.

Others draw their first breath in a borrowed crib

and their last in a borrowed tomb.

This is way things are. What can you do?

What can you do?

Carol  In The Bleak Midwinter



–Candles in the Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem, photo Christopher Chen

III. A Candle-Lighting Liturgy for Advent 3 Gaudete

Reading  Isaiah 35:1-10

Reader 1: A reading from the prophet Isaiah.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Reader 2: Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Reader 1: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Reader 2: A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

Reader 1: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Candle Lighting

Leader:  In silence and shadow, we wait.

In mystery, we live.

In unknowing, we look for wisdom,

for a ray of darkness.

At night, our hearts are awake:

Love is not far away.

And in the fullness of time,

when everything is still,

the One we wait for comes.

[Light Candle(s) here]

Leader:  Let us pray.

All:  Joy of every longing heart,

you draw the sound of singing

from speechless fear and unrelenting pain;

from the gulf of estrangement

come laughter and song.

By the light of this candle, show us again

the glory of your mercy full and free—

death routed and in flight,

a cradle rocking newborn Life,

all creation dancing home,

ringed  ‘round by herald angels

playing music in the air.

Hymn  My Soul Sings Out with Joyful Praise

[or another setting of the Magnificat]

Singing Christmas


Some congregations observe a sharp distinction between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In Advent, they sing Advent songs. And pretty much only Advent songs. Which means that they don’t even start singing Christmas carols until everyone else is sick of them.

I’m glad some churches save Christmas songs for Christmas. Not only is it more liturgically correct (so say the purists)—it’s also safer. I’ve found that if you sing carols often enough, you actually start paying attention to the lyrics, and when you do that, you have questions. Take carols that sing about “Mary, Mother mild.”  How many mothers do you know with crying infants at the breast who are ‘mild’? More like on the verge of a sleep-deprived nervous breakdown.

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Sing carols long enough and sooner or later someone will wreck them for you. That old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass,” comes to mind, but I am particularly fond of “While shepherds washed their socks…”

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,

All seated ‘round the tub,

The Angel of the Lord came down

And gave them all a scrub.

And If you were ever in elementary school, you know this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded.

It exploded. 

We two Kings…

That, by the way, is the American version. The Liverpool version is all about underwear sold in Hamilton Square for two pence a pair—So fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear. And not very safe to sing, either.

But I digress.

There’s a downside to saving carols for Christmas. You don’t have much time to sing them, because the Christmas season is a mere blip on the annual liturgical screen, barely 2 weeks long (if you don’t combine it with the 4-8 weeks of Epiphany). And there are so many to sing! Thousands just in English alone!

All liturgical niceties and regulations notwithstanding, the sheer volume of carols and hymns is probably a good reason for sneaking a few in ahead of time. Here are three to start with.

I. The Huron Carol (“’Twas in the moon of wintertime”)

 9367498_orig“The Huron Carol” was set to a 16th century French tune, but its words were composed in the Huron language by a Jesuit missionary to New France, or Eastern Canada, St. Jean de Brebeuf. De Brebeuf is among the most sympathetic of all the characters in the harrowing story of the 17th C. Jesuit mission to North America. He deeply loved the people he had been sent to evangelize, and like a good Jesuit, he made a serious effort to learn, document and preserve their language and the world of their imagination.

The carol he wrote quickly became part of Huron tradition. It was sung by Christian Hurons in Ontario until 1649, when the implacable Iroquois wiped out the Jesuit mission and drove most all the Hurons to Quebec. There the carol re-emerged and was eventually translated into English and French.

Originally called “Iesous Ahatonnia” (ee-sus a-ha-ton-nyah,  Jesus, he is born), the English interpretation we have here is the work of the early 20th century Canadian music critic and choir master, Jesse Edgar Middleton. Middleton added images he thought would sound Indian, like the lodge of broken bark and the beaver pelts. Today these inauthentic “aboriginal” terms come across as Walt Disney-ish, even condescending.  But the carol has nonetheless become something of a Canadian national treasure.

figure3interiorlgThe Huron dialect in which it was written is now extinct, but we have a reliable reconstruction of the original hymn. It’s a text that shows the respect de Brebeuf had for the Huron converts as human beings and Christians.  It also hints at the seriousness with which he must have wrestled with the perennial questions that arises in every encounter of civilizations—the possibilities and problems of learning to speak the language of the Stranger, in a way more profound than the mere mouthing of syntax and vocabulary.

It also makes me reflect on the ways in which God’s embrace of our human life, the Incarnation, is for us the emblem of all such border crossings. The living God in Jesus is the prototype of every encounter with the Other that inevitably changes us, them, and everything.

Here’s part of that literal translation:

Have courage, you who are humans;

Jesus, he is born.

Behold, the spirit who held us prisoners has fled.

Do not listen to it, it corrupts the spirits of our minds.

Jesus, he is born.

Sky people are coming with a message for us.

They are coming to say, “Be on top of life!”

Marie, she has just given birth.”

Jesus, he is born

Three elders have left to go there

Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon,

leads them there

Jesus, he is born.

They found him, the one who is for them,

and he says, “Come here!”

Jesus, he is born.

They made a name many times, saying,

“Hurray, he is a good man.”

They greased his scalp, saying “Hurray.”

Jesus, he is born.

Let us show reverence for him

as he comes to be compassionate to us.

How providential it is that you love us

and that you say, ‘I should adopt them.’”

Jesus, he is born.

Listen to the Huron Carol….as performed by Chanticleer.


II.  The Friendly Beasts (“Jesus our brother, kind and good”)


In the Christmas pageants of my youth, this longish carol was the traveling music for Mary and Joseph. It was also always a bone of contention.  Its seven or eight verses got doled out to eleven and twelve-year old soloists. Invariably, the kid who got assigned the cow verse refused to sing it. Who wants to sing, “I,” said the cow…”?  And if it wasn’t the cow, it was the ass. So in the interest of spreading the humiliation around equitably, when you sing it in your church be sure to have the whole congregation sing all the verses of this great galumphing little tune.

There are many opinions about its origins, but it was probably part of the medieval Festival of the Ass celebrating the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and was a regular Christmas observance in parts of France in the 13th century. During the mass of this festival, it was common for a live donkey to be led or ridden into the church.

The original song gives thanks for the donkey on which Mary rode into safety in Egypt, and begins: Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus (‘From the East the ass has come’). Each verse ended with the chorus ‘Hail, Sir Ass, hail’ and was punctuated with a rousing oh-heh, which is Latin for hee-haw.

I probably should not have said that, because now you’ll want to do that hee-haw part in church….

Oh, all right, do it.

From the East the donkey came,

Stout and strong as twenty men;

Ears like wings and eyes like flame,

Striding into Bethlehem.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Faster than the deer he leapt,

With his burden on his back;

Though all other creatures slept,

Still the ass kept on his track.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Still he draws his heavy load,

Fed on barley and rough hay;

Pulling on along the road.

Donkey, pull our sins away!

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;

All rejoice who see him pass;

Mirth inhabit young and old

On this feast day of the ass.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

The carol as we have in our various hymbooks is an expanded and somewhat sentimentalized version of that original, and today it is regarded as a children’s song. But no matter how much fun was made around the figure of the donkey in the Middle Ages, the song was always meant as a serious tribute to a creature of God, without whom the work of our redemption would not have been possible. It speaks of the way God uses all the things God made to work God’s will and show God’s love.

IMG_1097What we might take from this carol, apart from the jolly spirits of the high Middle Ages, is a new sense that the salvation promised from of old encompasses not just the human creation, but all creation; that Christ was born into a real world that God really loves, and that everything in it, even some silly looking animals (like us!), is shot through with divine grandeur.  In an age in which the ancient ice shelf is melting into the Arctic sea and the polar bear is on the endangered species list, that’s a good and necessary thing to sing about.

Listen to it here…

III. Go Tell It on the Mountain


This familiar spiritual was born in the oral culture of enslaved Africans in the American south. As is the case with most spirituals, its music and lyrics cannot be attributed to any one person, but “Go Tell It on the Mountain” has a peculiar association with The Fisk School, now Fisk University in Nashville.

The Fisk School was established in 1866 to educate everyone, including freedmen, but quickly became known as a school for African Americans. To raise money for Fisk, a group called the Jubilee Singers was formed and began touring the nation.

At first ridiculed for their unimpressive looks, the group eventually won the public over, and in seven years they were able to erase the school’s $150,000 debt.  The songs they popularized were known as Jubilee Songs.

“Go Tell It on The Mountain” was one of two from their repertoire that have become household words (the other being “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”).

African America composer John Wesley Work, who taught classics and history at Fisk, included it in a songbook he published in 1907, and it has been a staple of the Christmas repertory ever since. Work himself used to lead singers around the campus before sunrise on Christmas morning singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” as a way of announcing the good tidings of the day.

In thinking about this spiritual, I recalled that James Baldwin borrowed it for the title of his first novel, published in 1953. That book is a searing portrayal of black life in America, of lives horribly damaged by racism, and of a society confronting inevitable change in the civil rights movement.

It struck me that “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is no tinsel-thin holiday song, but the strong and resilient song of a people for whom good news has always been in short supply. The song of a people who endured unspeakable inhumanity as enslaved women and men, but still found the courage to endure even more as they stood up to act, and to demand that others act to recognize and respect their humanity—the same humanity that God was irrevocably committed to in the newborn flesh of Jesus. The song of a people who understood, in Baldwin’s words, that “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” It’s not for nothing that in the 1960’s civil rights movement, “Go Tell IT..” was sung with the words, “Let my people go” substituting for “…that Jesus Christ is born.”


Whenever you sing this wonderful spiritual, pray that it will be a thick, strong song for you and your congregation too. And pray that when we go and tell the good news of Christmas on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, we will by that act commit ourselves courageously to the redeeming danger of the gospel as well as to its resounding joy.

One of my favorite renditions, by Mahalia Jackson: