A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Songs of Christmas, Part 2

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

So the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:16-18).

Christmas is a magical time of year.  Many people decorate with lights and greenery.  Ugly seasonal sweaters are common and unashamedly adorned, and the smell of hot chocolate and peppermint fill the air.  There is something communal about the season, and even Black Friday–which stands a week before Advent–has a charm to it as people begin their gift collecting.

Yet, the hustle and bustle of Christmas can be overwhelming and distracting.  Just as Christmas gifts collect under Christmas trees, crowding the porcelain nativity and keeping it from view, so too our shopping and cooking rituals–and all the Christmas parties!–can get in our way of remembering the reason for the season.  It does not take store clerks and coffee cups to remind us to put “Christ” back in Christmas–we need to do it for ourselves: Don’t worry about putting Christ back in “Christmas”; we should be focused on putting Christ back in “Christian.”

Lessons and carols that we hear and sing during this time draw our attention back to Jesus.  In fact, very many of the most beloved hymns of the church are those that we sing at Christmas time.  For some of us, that means rushing to church on Christmas Eve–(for others, its the only time to go to church–a travesty, by the way!)–to sing our favorite carols such as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Silent Night, Holy Night.

Even then, the more we sing these songs over the years, the more they seem to lose their meaning.  (Some songs have words that lost their meaning ages ago: Take The First Nowell, for instance — we have no idea what a “nowell” is!)

We need to take a second look at these hymns too.  A deeper look reveals the rich theological tradition that accompanies Christmas, the many reasons why we should be at church and put Christ back in focus.  This theology is more than the stuff of a greeting to the grocer or a pithy poem on a Hallmark card, it makes up the difference between a life short-lived and an eternal life well-lived in which God embraces us in the person of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of my personal favorites.  It is a perfect song to sing in the solemn shadows of a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, an expression that peace comes with the coming Prince of Peace to a world that toils with fragile haste.

This song has everything you might expect in a Christmas carol: Angels singing, heavenly music, peace on earth, ancient splendors, and glad and golden hours.  Its invitation to “rest beside the weary road” challenges us to put aside the hot chocolate and the latest fads we purchase for our children, and reflect on Jesus, our Lord.

What makes this hymn so unique, aside from its content, is that it is uniquely American.  Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister penned the poem in 1849, with an emphasis on the work that Christmas inspires–not a work that is toilsome, but one that promotes “peace on earth and goodwill toward” others.  This, in opposition to the pain and suffering in a world that is lowly, crushing, and painful.

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.  Your new moons and appointed festivals, my soul hates…Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:13C-14a; 17).

Oddly enough, Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the hymn.  For me, this reminds me of nativities under our trees that are crowded out and hidden by the hullabaloo of Christmas.  The angels sing just as we sing, but we need to look carefully and find Christ behind the veil of our seasonal traditions.  Christ may not be in the hymn as an explicit Savior, but the hymn affirms that the Savior is present if we slow down and experience the stillness that we only find in that lowly manger.  Then, and only then, will our darkness and midnight of the soul become ever “clear.”

All this talk of stillness, silence, and midnight reminds me of another favorite hymn appropriate for Christmas day: Silent Night, Holy Night.  Among the most popular of Christmas carols, this hymn comes to us from the darkest pinnacles of the Alps, the very geography from whence our traditions of evergreens and Christmas trees arose.

It was there that two clergymen, Joseph Mohr and Francis Gruber, wrote and scored the hymn in 1818.  Silent Night, Holy Night actually came about by accident.  Before service, they found the organ broken, and Father Mohr went for a walk to clear his head.  On the journey, he enjoyed the silence of the evening and wrote the poem that very night.  The next day, Francis Gruber wrote the score with his guitar, and the two men saw it as a gift to the community and the “perfect Christian hymn” for Christmas Mass (Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 222).

When the repairman came to repair the pipe organ, he took copies of the music and spread it across Austria in his travels.  An English translation came two years later at the gifted hands of Episcopal priest John Young (Bishop of Florida), and it became an instant Christmas classic.

People who gather at candlelight services and get to sing Silent Night, Holy Night acapella have experienced first-hand the power of this famous carol.  It puts us in the Christmas story, sets us beside the Christ child, encourages us to feel shepherds quaking, and implores us to see that wondrous star that wise men beheld so many centuries ago.  Its repetition of the simple refrain, “Christ the Savior is born” is a truth that echoes through the ages and rings deep in our hearts.  It is a truth that is personal, yet grand, filling all of creation–if not the entire cosmos–with the beauty of Christ’s birth.

The song is not merely reflective; it also demands a response.  In its singing, we are to quake too.  We are to receive Christ’s light and love, to look upon his gleaming face and discover radiant beams of a personal relationship with him.

Our response can be spurned by questions: Will the dawn of God’s grace rise in your heart this season?  Will you finally push aside the busyness and consumerism that plagues your life that you may be filled with God’s love?  Will you come to the manger in silent repose, focusing on Christ, and humbly submitting your life to the Savior born unto us, God with us, Redeemer for us?

Our response can be inspired by shepherds.  In The Stories Behind the Magic, Luke and Trisha Gilkerson write:

The song describes the moment when the shepherds stood before the baby Jesus and all was silent.  They just stood in awe thinking about the angels and staring into the face of the baby Jesus…How could someone so important be so small, so helpless, so sweet? (p. 47)

So the shepherds don’t remain at the manger; rather, they go and tell others about Jesus.  Just as a traveling pipe-organ repairman took Silent Night, Holy Night to churches across Austria, so too does God challenge us to spread the gospel to a land in need.

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Seeing Miracles…Beyond Christmas!

By Joe LaGuardia

During our Pastor’s Bible Study last Sunday evening (November 27), someone mentioned that we tend to talk about miracles only around the Christmas season.  We speak of the miracles surrounding Christmas: angels displayed in heavenly praise, heavenly hosts communicating with shepherds and Joseph and Mary, visions for magi, and the greatest miracle of all: the virgin birth of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It is around this season that we also liken miracles to gifts–God’s gifts to us, from the gift of our Savior to that of God setting us apart to do His will–are miracles that we recognize and affirm.

Why do we not speak of miracles more often?  Do miracles only happen around the holidays–and only those that happened as recorded in the Bible?  Does God still perform miracles even today, even if today is mundane and ordinary?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles, and the God that I serve, love and worship still performs miracles in season and out.  We simply need to wake up and see them, to be thankful, to have God first on our mind (not an afterthought), and acknowledge that even the slightest, smallest gift a miracle of God can erupt!
When I worked with senior citizens as a chaplain in Atlanta, I learned that even the air we breathe is a miracle.  I often asked people in my visitations, “How are you today?” and they responded, “I am up and I am breathing, its a gift and God’s miracle for me!”

I think that if we do not experience God’s miracles that is not God’s problem, its our problem.  We take God for granted, we forget the sanctity of life, and we tend to ignore (or we totally fail to see) opportunities that the Holy Spirit has for us.On a recent morning, my son Hayden told of being awoken by a still, small voice in the middle of the night right before a thunderstorm came over our home.  The voice said, “Go to mommy!” and while he was walking sleepily to our bedroom to do just that, a loud thunderous boom crackled outside!

Hayden told us that he never heard a voice like that, so clear and commanding–he had to obey it!  I said that it was none other than the Holy Spirit keeping him safe.  Who else would’ve known that a lightning bolt was to strike right outside of the window?  That was a miracle, and my son’s openness to obey the Holy Spirit was a miracle too.

Jesus once told his disciples that when they approach God it is best to do so as children.  Children have that sense of awe we tend to lose as the years pass.  Children expect to be surprised and find joy in learning new things.  Our ability to experience and acknowledge miracles–not just around Christmas, but always!–really depends on our ability to come to God with this same innocent wonder and amazement as our children!

‘Tis the joy of the season and the joy of knowing the God of miracles!

Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?