Monday, December 14, 2015

Hanging the greens or the "greening" of the Church

As we have already noted, through the centuries, Christians have observed a time of waiting and
expectation before celebrating the birth of the Savior at Christmas. The Advent season is a time for reflection and preparation; its mood is more joyful than repentant. Our Advent celebrations have been enriched by various traditions (like the ubiquitous advent wreath) to reflect its distinctive Christian meaning. These traditions all seek to proclaim the revelation of God's love as expressed in Christ's birth in a humble stable, His sacrificial death on the cross, and His victorious resurrection! They point to the hope of Christ's coming again as the King of kings and Lord of Lords. In a sense, Advent makes innkeepers out of all of us, asking each of us to make room for the arrival of the Christ Child.

Perhaps the most striking and the most universal feature of Christmas is the use of evergreens in churches and homes. Among ancient Romans evergreens were an emblem of peace, joy, and victory. Early Christians placed them in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home. Holly and ivy, along with pine, and fir are called evergreens because they never change color. They are ever-green, ever-alive, even in the midst of winter. Thus they can well symbolize the unchanging nature of our God, remind us of the everlasting life that is ours through Christ Jesus.

In Christian thought and sentiment, holly became widely used in church celebrations. Holly was seen to represent the burning bush from which Moses heard the voice of God, or a symbol of Mary whose being glows with the Holy Spirit. The red berries have represented the blood drops from the cruel thorns in the crown of Jesus. This latter representation is heard throughout many Advent and Christmas carols.

And so it is that once our attention focuses on the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas (liturgically marked on December 17, he first day for the great “O Antiphons”), we “green” our worship spaces, anticipating and “making room” for the coming of Christ on Christmas.

This year, our greening occurs exactly on the 17th, a great fortune of coincidence! The antiphon assigned for Evening Prayer (Vespers) on that day begin: “O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, who orders all things mightily . . .” You might recognize this as one of the verses from the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Hymnal, No. 56) and right you would be. In fact, this much beloved Advent hymn is a compilation of all seven of the “O” antiphons – one each evening from December 17th until our Christmas celebration! 

Even more than the beautiful greens in our church, the Christmas tree has become the center of many of our festivities. Often glittering with lights and ornaments, it is a part of the beauty and meaning of Christmas. There are several legends and stories about the Christmas tree.

The first use of the Christmas tree was in the medieval German Paradise Plays, held outdoors and portraying the creation of humankind. The Tree of Life was a fir tree decorated with apples. Later other ornaments were hung upon them, such as paper flowers and gilded nuts. In England branches or whole trees were forced into bloom indoors for Christmas. From these beginnings the use of a tree at Christmas was established.

The story is told that on one Christmas Eve Martin Luther wandered outdoors and was struck with the beauty of the starry sky. Its brilliance and loveliness led him to reflect on the glory of the first Christmas Eve as seen in Bethlehem's radiant skies. Wishing to share with his family the enchantment he felt, he cut from the forest an evergreen, glistening with snow, and took it home. He placed upon it candles to represent the glorious heavens he had seen. 

The use of a candle-lighted tree soon spread to all Europe and came to be regarded it as one of the central ornaments of Christmas.

So the next time you see the splendor of a Christmas tree, remember that it is a continuing witness to everlasting life as offered to us in Christ Jesus - and that far from a commercial enterprise, it speaks a deeply spiritual message . . . "O Christmas tree, O Christmas Tree, thy leaves are so unchanging" -- Just like God's love.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Welcome to Advent!

Everyone loves to celebrate Christmas, but Advent often gets short shrift – even in the Church. When Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus (sometime in the 500s A.D.), it seemed logical for them to prepare for it with great care. What resulted was a season of preparation that lasted about four weeks before Christmas (December 25th). Early Christians thought of Christ’s coming not only in terms of the past (as a child in Bethlehem) but also in terms of the present and the future. For them, Christ came to earth in the past but comes to us now in Word and Sacrament and human need, and he will come again at the end of the world. Because the Second Coming will be in the future, the prayers, readings and hymns of the Church through the early part of Advent (before December 17th) focus on the final judgment and the end of the world as we know it.
It can seem a little strange that the themes of the early days of Advent seem a little dark – especially as we prepare for the happy days of the Christmas season. For most of us, the fun of Christmas time cannot start soon enough. It becomes very easy to overlook the more solemn significance of Advent. A real concentration on Advent makes it a little harder to sell Christmas presents at the stores, so if we take Advent seriously, we may feel a little out of step with our families and friends, and especially the wider commercial culture.
For centuries, the Church has divided its thoughts about the end of world into “four last things” – death, judgment, hell, and heaven. These certainly are solemn themes, but this solemnity is filled with a certain quiet joy as we realize that our Creator has ordered all things toward a good end, and that a new heaven and a new earth are part of that plan. So solemnity does not equal sad! There can be as much joy in preparing for a celebration as in the celebrating itself. In fact, it is the excitement of anticipation for Christmas that gives us insight into the kind of excitement that we might feel concerning our anticipation of these “last things.”  
Use the time of Advent to prepare. Allow yourself the time you need to ponder and to wonder about the mysteries of God as we prepare. Allow our preparations for Christmas to become a model for how we prepare ourselves for our personal experience of “the last things.” Let the beauty and quiet solemnity of this season enrich our understanding and draw us closer to the mystery at the center of our faith:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Christina Rossetti