A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Songs of Christmas, Part 1

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.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:31-32a).”

In Advent we long for our Savior to come to us, to be born anew and challenge us during this season of hope.  But who is this Savior, precisely, and what is the shape and nature of this Savior’s character and integrity?

I am often surprised at how many Christmas carols explore the various names that apply to the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of our heart.  Take O Come, O Come Emmanuel, for instance, which calls Jesus by the name given by the prophet Isaiah, “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”

Depending on the version of the song, it provides a litany of other names for Jesus too: Dayspring, Wisdom, Lord of Might, Rod of Jesse, Key of David, and Desire of Nations.  There is something in each title that reveals Jesus’ character and purpose.

The hymn, penned as a medieval liturgy in the 12th-century, is one of many antiphons that are sung at the beginning of a psalm reading or following the reading of the Magnificat.  Antiphons are known for drawing attention to the titles of Christ and inspiring deeper reflection on who He is as both personal Savior and cosmic Redeemer.

The names for Christ that we sing about in O Come, O Come Emmanuel echo prophecy from Old Testament scripture and affirm that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah, the one whom God sent to “ransom captive Israel.”

According to Magrey DeVega in Songs for the Waiting, the hymn does more than merely name Jesus, it challenges us to name our experience of Jesus.  Who is Jesus to us?  What is the nature of our captivity, and how does Jesus, deeply rooted in all of scripture (and is, according to John 1, the very “Word of God”), bring release and liberation to us?

Another carol that focuses on the names of Christ is Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.  Like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, the song affirms that Jesus is David’s offspring, the “root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), and the fulfillment of God’s promise to secure David’s throne forever (2 Samuel 7).  This messiah is a king, but also God’s gift to us: a “rose” that saves us and “lightens every load.”

Jesus is the “rose”, specifically the “rose of Sharon” spoken about in Song of Solomon 2:1.  Although Song of Solomon is a love letter between two partners, Christians have incorporated the poetry as a way to experience Christ’s intimacy with them.

Jesus as a “rose” is our beloved, and the fragrance of his life–his birth, mighty works, ministry, death and resurrection–fills all creation with the sweet aroma of God’s redemption.  As lovers give roses to each other on special occasions, Jesus is God’s rose to us–a symbol of the covenant that God made with us, and “new covenant” that includes the rosy-red blood that Jesus shed on the cross for our sins.

Names mean something: they tell us of a person’s character; they ground us in stability during hardship and tragedy; they name our experience and posit hope in an uncertain world.  The carols and hymns that name Jesus are, for us, a way to remind us who it is that visits us every Christmas.  As the prophet Isaiah puts it:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
Authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…
For the throne of David and his kingdom; he will establish and uphold it forever” (9:6,7).

During this Advent and Christmas season, as you sing of the hope and longing we have in God, who is this Jesus to you, and by what name do you call him?

 

 

Advertisements

6 Bedtime routines for Christians

bedtime-prayerA recent Yahoo News article highlights the bedtime routines of influential leaders.  From President Obama’s late-night security briefings to Stephen King’s obsessive habit of turning the pillows a certain way, it seems that everyone “in the know” has a routine that nurtures success.

What about Christians?  We are called to be disciplined, so what routines help us prepare for God’s new day ahead?  Here are a few recommendations.

1. Prayer.  Although many people pray at the end of the day because they forget to pray during the day, prayer is still a worthy endeavor in thanking God for the blessings along the way.

The solitude and quiet of bedtime prayers also gives the Holy Spirit room to work, and it is not uncommon for a rush of insights to come when we’ve finally given our brain permission to rest.

When you get a barrage of insights, write them down in a notepad, lest you forget.   Then, once recorded, turn them over to the Lord.

2. An Examin.  Prayer alone can be quite helpful, but one of our spiritual ancestors, St. Ignatius of Loyola, turned bedtime prayer into a practice similar to that of day-dreaming.  This practice, called the Examin, has a five-fold process that many Christians, Jesuits especially, still practice today.

First, when one goes to God in prayer, there is a time of gratitude.  Next, the person imagines standing before God and asks the Spirit to speak into his or her heart.

Third, as the imagery unfolds, insights are revealed.  Fourth, there is a recollection of the day’s deeds and confession.  Last, there is a short prayer of intercession.

The emphasis of an Examin actually rests on confession for the day’s events.  There is a proactive, spiritual cleansing that sets the heart right with God and lets the new day come with a clean slate.

3. Journaling.  Useful in recording the day’s events, journaling is simply another way of praying to and worshiping God.

We write, and the physical movements of our hand and pen inspire us to sacrifice our daily living unto the glory of God.

4.  The physical act of getting ready for next day.  Successful people have shown great discipline in this task.  Sometimes, it includes drawing up a “to-do” list, as well as prioritizing time management for the next day’s schedule.

It can also help us put God back in the center of our lives by remembering what we’ve neglected or overlooked, and need to focus on.

Sometimes I do this while ironing a shirt I will wear the next day.  Another person I know does this while removing her make-up for the day.  The physical actions accompany a spiritual commitment to get a fresh start with God and with others.

5.  Letter writing.  There is something precious about receiving a hand-written letter in the mail.  Letters communicate a level of care and concern that exceeds most things we have in our life today.

Letters keep us in touch with family, long-lost friends, and acquaintances.  It re-connects us to the outside world, re-orients our minds to the needs of others, and re-imagines our lives as interdependent in God’s larger community.  It is cathartic to write, and it is cathartic for the recipient to read.

6.  Spiritual Reading.   One of Bill Gates’ routines is to read at least an hour before bed.  Presidents Obama and Theodore Roosevelt are infamous for reading hundreds of pages into the night.

Spiritual reading is invaluable for Christians who need the slower, methodical rhythm that such encouragement offers.  It is, as all of the routines imply, another way to worship and honor God with our time.

As you go about your day, remember that routines are the life-blood of the human soul.  They help us align ourselves to God’s Spirit and put into practice those things that matter most in our life.