As I am recycling at the moment (eg Nora the Noisy Angel) I thought I would recycle a ‘thought for the week’ I sent to the Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association this week.
I had a clever mailing from a well-known Swedish furniture store come through my letter box last week. On the front it said, “Christmas is all about the present.” I groaned inwardly and decided not to open it because it was so far from what Christmas is all about. I was about to recycle it but curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. The text inside reads, “It’s the present (not the presents) that counts. And those moments with loved ones are the best of all…”
“That’s clever,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can include that in a Christmas message?” And then I started to reflect on whether it really is all about the present:
Advent is a season of time-travel. We travel back in time to the period before BC became AD and anticipate Jesus’ arrival. We empathise with the longing of his people for God to act. We hope and pray for a better future. We lament. We ache. We wait.
Christmas Carol Services and Nativity Plays are wonderfully nostalgic (which is why they are attended by the regular ‘once a year at Christmas’ part of our church family). They are a familiar touching place with the Unchangeable Story (which we soon discover if we dare to change things too radically). Of course they can also be incredibly poignant and painful for those who are reminded of past loss. In these moments the past is triggering our emotional response to the present.
And yet, in the midst of it, is the small voice of a child crying in a cattle feeding trough reminding us that this is the season of God, the eternal One, with us – Immanuel . In the present.
Christmas really is all about the present, God present with us.
Be blessed, be a blessing
(This bloggage was sent around the EBA Ministers as a ‘Thought for the week’ last week.)
This is the time of year when we sing the Advent carol ‘O come, O come Immanuel’. The words are lovely, helping us capture a sense of the mind-set of those who were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for the Messiah. The words also help us anticipate what the Messiah will do. Each verse picks up and aspect of who the Messiah will be from scripture while the mournful tune adds to that sense of sadness that nothing seemed to have happened yet for those anticipating the Messiah.
1 O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
2 O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.
3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.
6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.
The carol was originally sung in Latin based on an 8th century poem, and was sung antiphonally rather than in verses. The music comes from a 15th century French Requiem Mass. It was translated in the middle of the 19th century by John Mason Neale. There is so much that is rich and deep in the carol. And I enjoy singing it. (Although there are occasions when, usually if it is played too slowly, the carol sounds miserable; the ‘rejoice’ refrain sounds despondent; and it seems never ending. At those moments I really struggle with the concept that such amazing concepts about the Messiah we anticipate could be made to sound so glum and dour.)
Consider for a moment the names given to the Messiah expressed in the carol:
Immanuel – God with us (Isaiah 7:14)
Wisdom from on high (1 Corinthians 1:30)
Great Lord of might (Adonai – Exodus 19:16)
Branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)
Key of David (Isaiah 22:22)
Bright morning star (Luke 1:78-79)
King of nations (Revelation 19:16)
Roll them around in your mind and savour them. Spend some time with them.
They are astonishing names that reveal the identity, lineage, nature and destiny of the Messiah. Sometimes the way we sing the carol makes them sound like a mournful eulogy rather than a joyous declaration (compare the way the last verse is sung with the Hallelujah chorus, for example – both have the same theme!). But there is something significant about the gentle, haunting melody of this carol that reminds us of the waiting, longing, anticipation for such an amazing One. And that is a theme that many find helpful, especially those for whom the Advent / Christmas season is difficult as it reminds them of loss, unfulfilled hopes and dreams and past pain. It is worth bearing this in mind in the tinsel twinkling carols-by-candlelight ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ descant moments of this season. This carol reminds me that Christmas is a season for all, but only if we make space for all.
One of the names we use for Jesus, especially at the time of Advent, is ‘Immanuel’. It is a Hebrew word that means ‘God with us’. There are two parts to the name: ‘Immanu’ from which we get ‘immanent’ and ‘El’ which is ‘God’.
Let me illustrate.
A number of years ago we went as a family to a pantomime along with a number of colleagues from Baptist House, where I was working. The panto was Jack and the Beanstalk. I ended up sitting on the end of a row (this is significant later, don’t forget that detail).
We were enjoying and participating in the panto. The actors on the stage were performing wonderfully, engaging us, involving us in the “He’s behind you!” and “Oh no he isn’t!” shouts that form a traditional part of any pantomime plot (if you are not in the UK you will have to come and experience it for yourself). But even though we were enjoying it we were an audience and they were the actors.
At one point in the pantomime there was a scene in which Dame Trott (a lady of traditional build played by a man (it’s a British tradition) was being chased. A long stream of actors hared around the stage after her and then she headed down the steps and down the aisles among the audience.
For some reason, during the chase, Dame Trott decided to throw herself onto me (remember I was on the end of the row). It was quite a shock!
I was no longer in the audience while Dame Trott was on stage. She had come down among us and I was now involved.
It was Immanu-Dame Trott.
I am not wishing to belittle or diminish the Incarnation, but perhaps the above story helps you understand the name Immanuel a bit more. For those who met Jesus in the First Century AD it was as real as Dame Trott’s arrival was for me.
Be blessed, be a blessing