Category Archives: Christmas

A Voice in Ramah

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

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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

Messina

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

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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

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–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

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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”)

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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

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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.”

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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:

The Donkey Was Reliable [Matthew 2:13-15]

While Joseph locked the house and pocketed the key,

looking over his shoulder, alert for boots and steel,

your mother grabbed a dog-eared Goodnight Moon,

and two soft toys, strapped you in the car-seat

on the back of the beast, looped the bag over her arm,

and climbed on. The donkey was reliable

all the way to Egypt.

And now, O Jesus, risen from the dead,

we look to you to carry.

Whenever hearts too hard pursued need hiding

in some far safe place, we pack up fears and treasures

and climb on you.