Feast of St. Nicholas today! More on the holiday here, and a lectionary blog here.
And for fun, verses 2 and 3 of Jolly Old St. Nicholas
When the clock is striking twelve, when I'm fast asleep, Down the chimney broad and black, with your pack you'll creep All the stockings you will find, hanging in a row Mine will be the shortest one, you'll be sure to know-
Johnny wants a pair of skates, Suzy wants a sled, Nellie wants a story book, yellow, blue and red, Now I think I leave to you, what to give the rest, Choose for me dear Santa Claus, you know what's the best!
What I love about this is how completely quaint it sounds to our ears. What kid asks for a sled or a story book for Christmas anymore? (My children, I think, still enjoy getting books, but even my electronics-deprived kids never ask for books from Santa.)
There are a few songs out there that deal with the real Saint Nicholas -- the bishop, patron of children and sailors. There's a lovely collection at the St. NIcholas Center, including one from poet Luci Shaw.
So, whatever you do for St. Nicholas Day, may it be simple in spirit, attentive to children and the poor. And while you're at it, utter a prayer for "those in peril on the sea."
Today's second verse you may actually know by heart:
Joy to the earth! The savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ!
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy!
Like the Issac Watts hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past, this one is also a psalm paraphrase. Psalm 96 is often assigned in the season of Advent, which is why this popular Christmas hymn was once classified as an Advent hymn. The psalm speaks of God's advent in jubilant words; judgment is viewed as a context for rejoicing instead of fear.
The psalmist imagines all creation joining in the rejoicing when God comes:
11 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. 12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. 13 Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.
I love the image of the trees shouting for joy at God's arrival. Lord knows they have had much to weep over during the reign of humankind. In biblical times, the chief cause of deforestation would have been war (think fire and battering rams). In our time, human sin is no less a cause, but it's more likely to be the deleterious effects of an economy that values short-term gains over long-term benefits of the forest.
What would the trees and hills say to us? I have no doubt they would be glad for God's judgment on human ways. But Watts knows that the final word of God's arrival is not cause for fear. We can join in with fields and floods and trees . . .because we know that Christ comes to reconcile even our relationship with the earth. May you hear them singing along this Advent, and may your life anticipate the things they will say.
Love, the Rose is on the way (photo by k.landerholm, from flickr creative commons)
The story behind Eleanor Farjeon’s text, People Look East is a writer’s dream: she was asked by the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols (1928) to write a carol. They used the text, set to a jaunty French folk tune, and then it became a classic. Not bad for a commission!
Then again, Farjeon had a good track record as a poet and musician. She’s also the author of “Morning has Broken.” Who knows how many not-so-great pieces she had to write in order to arrive at those two classics?
What she does brilliantly is give the sense of joy in the midst of awaiting. Love is a guest, a rose, a star, and a bird, all “on the way” even in the midst of signs of barrenness and winter.
Christ is several times compared to a rose in carols as a sign of unlikely beauty. The biblical reference is actually to a “crocus” mentioned in Isaiah 35:1, a blossom that springs up in the desert, a sign of God’s abundance poured out upon the earth. Presumably the Europeans, whose flora are a bit different from Palestine’s, preferred the more familiar term for a flower that symbolizes love.
Zion hears the watchmen singing, and in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes she rises from her gloom; for her Lord comes down all glorious, the strong in grace, in truth victorious. Her star is ris'n her light is come. Oh, come, you Blessed One, Lord Jesus, God's own Son. Sing hosanna! We go until the halls we view where you have bid us dine with you. (Phillip Nicolai, tr. Catherine Winkworth)
Having just spent a rather wakeful night with a sick boy, I'm not feeling very appreciative of the wakefulness metaphor today. But Nicolai's image of the watchmen singing is a lovely one. If you're waiting for the sounds of alarm, imagine being awakened by the sound of singing. If you're up (hypothetically) listening to labored breathing, waiting and watching for signs that things are getting worse, imagine how lovely to hear instead the sounds of rejoicing.
In a culture that mostly warns us to be wakeful because of fear -- fear of falling behind, fear of intruders, fear of someone betraying our trust -- what a lovely reversal to imagine that we are awakened by the coming of God, bidding us come to dinner!
God’s people, see him coming: your own eternal king!
Palm branches strew before him! Spread garments! Shout and sing!
God’s promise will not fail you!
No more shall doubt assail you.
Hosanna to the Lord, for he fulfills God’s word!
(Prepare the royal highway,
By Frans Mikael Franzen, 1772-1847
This Advent hymn comes to us from a Swedish bishop who also served Lapland. Its text is a reminder that this season has not always started out with Gospel texts about thieves in the night. Not that long ago, the first Sunday in Advent featured the story of Palm Sunday. The “advent of the King” was not an abstract reference to the incarnation; it was the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed – however briefly – by his own as King David’s royal heir.
In our congregation we are in fact “spreading garments” as we enter the season, collecting sweaters for Lutheran Social Services (which, I must admit, makes a lot more sense than collecting coats in April, as is sometimes done for Palm Sunday).
More importantly, this text, like Reign of Christ Sunday before it, forces us to ponder again what all this royal language in the season is doing. We can sing “king of kings” mindlessly, or we can squirm because we prefer democracy -- or we can ponder the ways in which Jesus turns that image on its head. Jesus is king because he fulfills God’s word: a word of promise that God’s reign will mean peace and forgiveness.
My Advent project this year is to work on those second (and third and fourth) verses. How often do you go caroling, and all anyone knows is the first verse of everything? And who wants to sit in a candlelit church and struggle to read the 2nd and 3rd verses from the bulletin or the ever-tinier print in the ELW? (You'd never know the church is aging, to look at our font sizes).
So my project: one great tune a day, looking at one of those "other" verses -- which in many cases are the most interesting ones, if not always the most poetic.
I'm 350 words away from finishing my novel. (Well, I'm 350 words away from a document of 50,000 words -- I won't claim it's a novel yet).
So, on to Advent!
I was annoyed with our local classical station for beginning their "holiday" music on November 29. That's 28 days of Christmas music, folks, 24 hours a day. But I'll bet somebody a mocha that starting on December 26 it will be hard to find Christmas tunes anymore.
I would be more annoyed with MPR, but their selections are quite lovely, and I know some of the DJ's to be good Lutherans who will mix in some Advent tunes (thank you, Steve Staruch), and when else can you hear that much sacred music on a public station almost all the time? So, out with the Scrooge and in with the season.
O God our Help in Ages Past, by Isaac Watts
A thousand ages in your sight
Are like an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
This hymn by Isaac Watts is really just a straight-up rewrite of Psalm 90, which is an appointed Psalm for this week. If you know the hymn, you basically know the psalm. Placed in the "hope" section of the hymnal, it's more about time itself than about the seasons.
Historical trivia: Watts is considered the father of English hymnody in no small part because he rejected the Calvinist notion that congregations should only chant psalm texts, and nothing more. Some people to this day think the move to more creative lyric-writing for the church just opened the floodgates to a lot of theologically questionable "self-expression". In their minds, it's one slippery slope from Watts to "I'm so glad you're in my life. . ." But it's hard to make that argument based on this hymn, anyway.
Like an evening gone. Who hasn't, as a parent, felt like you just blink, and your child is a year older? Who hasn't come around to a Christmas and thought, "Boy, that year went by quickly." The psalmist, and Watts, affirm that God's time is not our time, which is a good thing, since my internal chronometer has a genius for making hard times last forever and good times go by in a heartbeat.
The color for Advent is deep blue -- that color you get when you can still see the stars, but the light is coming. Dawn is just around the corner. The night will not last forever. We can count on God's coming sure as the rising sun.
This from Robert Smith of blessed memory. His old Augsburg Commentary on Matthew still resonates:
“Matthew reflects on the generations and declares that history is not just a tissue of broken promises, a record traced in spilt blood, a cry of agony lost in the howling hurricane. Matthew hears the promise of God and sees the finger of God leading events to the birth of Jesus; the whole long history of Israel’s hoping and struggling will reach surprising fulfillment.”
I think I'm going to "leave Matthew 24 behind" this Sunday and take a look at that opening genealogy.
The Christmas sermon is done, more or less. Now it's just a question of whether anyone will make it through the snow to hear it tomorrow night.
If you do or if you don't, here's something that didn't fit in the sermon, but still gives me pause: he was laid in a manger. Usually, thanks to Luther, we ponder this mainly as a sign of how lowly his coming among us was. His first bed, like his very existence, was rough around the edges in a way that doesn't match with our image of deity.
But the fact that this was a feeding trough is one I regularly overlook, in spite of the fact that the Gospel of Luke is almost always about food. This savior who is always eating with the wrong people and being known in the breaking of the bread appears first in the place where the beasts feed. The temples and palaces all have their place in Luke, but the real action happens whenever basic creaturely needs are being met.
May you have space and time and sufficient wonder in the days ahead to ponder this mystery, and to be fed yourself by the Savior.
To all those buried under snow in Baltimore and Washington, I say, NO FAIR!
I mean, really, all you need to shut down your cities are a couple inches. You don't NEED 20 inches to have a snow day. We, on the other hand, have to be cumped on good and hard before we get the benefit of staying home from work.