Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmastide & Epiphany: answering more questions

[From Pastor Ed… 12/30 and 1/6]

I tried to establish before that the season leading up to December 25 is Advent (not "the Christmas Season" or the "happy holidays"); Does that mean that Christmas only gets a day of celebration? This is actually one of the questions that cause people to balk against the historic, liturgical approach to Advent and Christmas: they (rightly) think that the Incarnation of Christ deserves more than a single day, and they (wrongly) assume that it only gets one if the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day isn't devoted to it.

Thus, I want to try to answer more questions about the time following Advent: Christmastide and Epiphany, and the season that follows Epiphany.

When do we get to celebrate Christmas? Are we only giving it one day's attention?

Of course we all know that Christmas Day is December 25 — this is the day that was assigned to the calendar to mark and recognize the birth of Jesus the Christ to Mary, a virgin. What we may not know is that December 25 is the first day of a season which the church calls Christmastide; it is also sometimes called Yuletide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a season that lasts 12 days (just as the song — and occasional name for the season — suggests), from Christmas Day on December 25 to January 5, which has traditionally been called Twelfth Night.

What are the themes and ideas that we focus on during Christmastide?

One obvious theme of Christmastide is the incarnation of Christ as Jesus, along with the miracle of the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit. Other themes that are also vital to Christmastide are the visitation of the shepherds, the visiting and gifts of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings, and the naming and circumcision of Jesus. Also prominent are themes of giving and sacrifice, and many feasts in celebration of Christ and His work.

Why do we celebrate this way? Why not just do like everyone else does?

If 21st century American culture is our barometer and guide, none of this is apparent: there is no Advent, and Christmas decorations go up by Thanksgiving weekend or earlier. Shopping, food, and travel mark the time surrounding Christmas Day, and many (if not most) people take time off from work for the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day (notice the demarcation determined by a different calendar altogether, with the beginning of a new year). But usually by December 26 or 27, people have grown tired of the festive decorations — they've been around for a month! — and the Christmas tree has died anyway, so they all come down long before Twelfth Night; that is, when there is time to remove them, between all of the "after Christmas" sales that start early on December 26!

It's not that this is "wrong" in any way; it simply doesn't focus on Christmas as a Christian holy day, or Christmastide as a Christian season. Thus, it misses key elements: the acknowledgement of brokenness and sin; the anticipation of (held in tension with the "waiting for") Christ's return; the build-up to a genuine need for redemption. All of this leaves Christmas empty and toothless — part of the reason why we must constantly remind folks to "keep Christ in Christmas" and that "Jesus is the reason for the season" is because we have stripped it of Advent, and therefore stripped it also of a true Christmas. We also lose an appropriate pace: instead of the thoughtful, reflective, and even quiet spirit of a fasting season such as Advent, this sort of "holiday season" is frantic, stressful, and exhausting.

Christmas is meant to be a joyful celebration of a Savior's incarnation and birth, and of the promise of His return. In order for it to be either, we must have a great awareness of our need for such things! Celebrating Christmas "like everyone else" (meaning, just like the mall Santas, store clerks, and celebrity holiday TV specials) offers no sense of need — only of self-gratification, even if it is a sort of self-gratification veiled in good feelings about oneself because of nice things done for others.

How does Christmastide "fit" into the observance and celebration of the Christian calendar?

There is a logical flow of thought throughout the Christian calendar: the year begins with Advent, a four-week time of waiting and anticipation of Christ's coming in light of our fallenness; Christmastide follows immediately, proclaiming the truth of Christ's incarnation and the hope of His accomplished work being applied to all creation. This leads to a recognition of His true humanity and life, and also a focus on His earthly ministry. Following that time is Lent, when we consider our sin corporately and individually, and our need for a Savior particularly and permanently; Lent is followed by Eastertide, wherein we celebrate and meditate upon Christ's finished redemptive work and its significance for us. The last "feast days" are those emphasizing the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, and the truth and work of the Trinity.

What about Epiphany? What is that?

Epiphany, which means revelation or revealing, is a celebration of the day when the magi, or wise men, or kings, visited Jesus in his infancy, led by the star of Bethlehem; we celebrate this because it was revealed to them that He was the Christ, the King of kings, and they traveled from the far east to bring Him gifts. Thus, sometimes the day of Epiphany, January 6, is called "Three Kings Day".

What do we focus on during Epiphany and the ordinary time after it?
Epiphany — and the time that follows it until Lent (commonly called "ordinary time") — are a time for focusing on the life of Christ as a fully-human man and fully God incarnate. Christmastide, by the way, is also focused on this. Thus, sometimes things like the events of Jesus' childhood, the baptism of Christ, his earthly ministry, and events in his life such as the transfiguration are helpful themes or topics to focus on. These serve to prepare us well for the season of fasting and preparation that Lent represents, as a time of repentance, as well as for the Cross and the empty tomb!

John Witvliet, who is one of our contemporary experts on Reformed worship, commented that, "in recent decades many churches have recognized that jumping from Christmas to Lent and Easter without attending to the key events in Jesus' life can impoverish our understanding of Jesus' identity and mission."

May it be for us that these coming days and seasons will be a great reminder and encouragement of Jesus' identity and mission on our behalf, and in a new and rich way.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"When will we start singing Christmas carols?" and other questions about Advent

[From Pastor Ed… 12/16 and 12/23]

Advent is inevitably one of those times when questions and even confusion arise in a congregation. If a church is acknowledging Advent in any form, it may be worth considering some of these questions as a help to understanding why we do what we do (and why we DON'T do certain things) during this season.

What Is "Advent?"

"Advent" is a derivative of a latin word that means "coming" or "arrival" — and in the context of the church, it means a focus on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. There is a dual nature to this sort of focus: we focus on the coming of Jesus as the incarnate God who was born to a virgin over 2000 years ago; we also focus on the coming of Jesus who has promised to return forever to reign, and to bring redemption to the whole of creation.

How Is Advent Related To Christmas?

Advent is the preparation time for Christmas. During Advent, Christians have considered our need, both corporately and individually, for the redemption that comes through Christ — both for our own salvation and for the redeeming of all of creation. When we consider this need, it is natural and proper for it to stir a sense of longing in us; this is good for us spiritually, and should be a part of our expression throughout Advent. This is why the themes of Advent are those of waiting and anticipation: with the apostle John, we cry out, "Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus."

Why Can't We Just Focus On The Christmas Season?

We can — and we will! But in the Christian calendar, the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25; it begins then; the season of Christmastide lasts until January 5 — 12 days of Christmas (sound familiar?). Advent comes before Christmas for a reason: as one writer commented, "there is no real need for Christmas if there isn't first an Advent." In other words, without a sense of the need for redemption and a longing for Messiah, there isn't much purpose in celebrating the incarnation of God in Christ!

Our culture, eager to ignore the helplessness and need that Advent demands, would rather turn Christmas into a consumer holiday that is all about shopping and decorations. This is why the world wants to jump ahead to playing Christmas music shortly after Hallowe'en is past! But the decorations and gift-giving have a purpose — the celebration of the generosity of Emmanuel, God with us — and Christians should resist the worldliness that ignores our need for Emmanuel.

What About Christmas Traditions?

The Christian Church is full of traditions (yes, even protestant churches!). Whether a congregation is a few years old or centuries old, traditions in the church will be an important part of heritage and practice. One thing that Christians need to keep in mind — and there is much benefit in frequently reminding ourselves of this — is that we are part of a Church with history, heritage, and tradition that goes back centuries and millennia. Often our sense of tradition is based mainly on what the older members of our congregation can remember, but Christian traditions and practices go back for 2000 years, not just for 50 or 75. And traditionally, the church has acknowledged Advent as the preliminary preparation for Christmas; it has only been in the last century or so that the Church has had so much cultural influence about these practices.

So, When Are We Going To Sing Christmas Carols?

It would seem a little out of place if we were to sing "Christ The Lord Is Risen Today" on the Sunday after Christmas, wouldn't it? That's because we know this is an Easter hymn, but it's not Easter! And the phrase, "risen today" suggests a timing that almost underscores that it is out of place in seasons other than Easter.

Isn't it the same with Christmas carols? When we sing "yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning" (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) or "Christ was born today" (Good Christian Men, Rejoice) before Christmas day, it should feel a little out of place. Meanwhile, there are good Advent-themed hymns that we will sing in anticipation of Christmas, like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Of The Father's Love Begotten," "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending," "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," and "Joy To The World!" (yes, that one is an Advent hymn — especially when you include the fourth verse, which all of the radio and department store versions want to leave out!).

Meanwhile, as our anticipation and longing grows throughout Advent, we will start to sing more and more of the carols that are so beloved and associated with the Christmas season. Even then, though, the way that we sing them should perhaps be slightly different: not sung with Christmas morning joy, but with Christmas Eve expectation.

What Can/Should We Do For Advent?

Our congregation celebrates Advent in subtle, but important ways. For one, as I've already mentioned, we are enjoying the hymns and carols appropriate to Advent, as well as beginning to sing with anticipation carols that evoke thoughts of Christmas. We also include a lighting of candles on an Advent Wreath — a tradition that Christians have celebrated for centuries, reminding us of the tension between the hope of anticipation and the patience of waiting. You may have also noticed that Advent themes are present in other elements of our order of worship, including the Call to Worship, the corporate Prayer of Confession, and the Benediction.

Maybe you want to employ some practices in your home that will be an expression of Advent. How can individuals and families do for Advent? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Advent Wreaths: you can make or buy the supplies for Advent wreaths and light your own! Many families have a tradition of lighting Advent wreaths together during family devotionals.
  • Jesse Tree: another tradition that many families use is the Advent Jesse Tree, which is a daily explanation of how much of the content of the Old Testament points to Christ and His coming.
  • Decorations: some families might decide to "delay" putting their decorations for Christmas up until later — maybe even until Christmas Eve! (Remember that part of Dickens' A Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits his nephew's home on Christmas Eve, and they are having a party while decorating the tree?) Also, by the way, you might consider keeping the decorations up through the whole Christmastide season, until January 5.
  • Online resources: there are a lot of interesting ideas online for how to celebrate Advent; one of the more interesting ones I've seen is an Advent coloring book, where children can color a different page each day to teach/remind them of the truths of Advent. (I linked to a number of them in a post from a few years ago.)

I hope that you will embrace and celebrate in the season of Advent this year — and that it will enrich your Christmas celebration!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tears are the lenses through which Christians see brokenness clearly

As I walked around the grocery store this afternoon, my mind swimming and my heart a bit numb from the stark news of another mass shooting — this time at an elementary school, killing both children and adults — the sounds hitting my ears seemed discordant and out of place:
♫"For we need a little music, need a little laughter, need a little singing — ringing through the rafter, and we need a little snappy "Happy ever after," need a little Christmas now."♪

Though (in this case) unintended, this glib, untimely joy struck me as the very definition of how Christmas has been emptied of its significance; of how Advent is both so desperately needed and also so earnestly avoided. The reason is simple: we don't see brokenness clearly.

The world is rocked by atrocities such as occurred today. Presidents weep. News reporters fight for objectivity. Parents hug their children. Facebook and Twitter light up with words of sorrow, anger, sympathy, mourning. All of us scratch our heads and search for words to say, only to realize there is nothing to say.

Christians and non-Christians alike wonder silently and aloud: how does this happen? What world do we live in where anyone can think it is okay to enter a school and shoot children? Is there any justice? Is there any hope for us?

Tim Keller has said that the answer to these questions is only a half-answer: however deep and painful the sin and brokenness around us, the comfort that is offered to us is that our Savior entered into it in order to ultimately and finally redeem us from it.

So says Isaiah the prophet: "He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…" (Isaiah 53:3a). This man of sorrows, who knew and shared our grief, came in the first Advent to bring relief from the brokenness, and comfort to we who feel its sting. Isaiah continues in his description of the Redeemer:
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified."
(Isaiah 61:1-3)

In the inauguration of his earthly ministry, Jesus read from this very passage. Upon finishing, Luke records, "he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:20-21).

Fulfilled — yet not completed. Not in the final and consummate way that it will be. And so we are left with… what?

We're left with affliction that continues. Yes, but also the comfort in that affliction. We're left with the grief of our sufferings and our sin. Yes, but also with a grief that isn't hopeless. We're left with tears. Yes, but they are not tears of despair; they are tears of sorrow mixed with protest: this is NOT the way things are supposed to be.

The world feels this part the most. Perhaps the one Christian doctrine that is universally acknowledged is that things are broken, that all of this which we face is unnatural: tragedy and atrocity, war and violence, irreconciliation of all stripes, the immediate pain of our sins against one another and the communally-shared pain of senseless violence somewhere else.

The difference for the Christian — for me, as I feel the need to be alone and write in processing my thoughts; for my wife as she seeks an opportunity to talk to our son about what has happened; for those believers in Connecticut who, tonight, are wrestling with the inevitable tension between their faith and the realities of today's events — is that we serve and know the God of all comfort. Even more, that we are known and loved by Him, and He has bound us to Himself and to His body for the sake of our comfort.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort."
(2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

And so we weep, because through our tears of mourning and of protest we see the realities of brokenness more clearly. We see it as the terrible and gut-wrenching pain of sin that it is. We see it for the hurt and trauma that will befall our fellow man and woman for years to come, and we hurt for them as our neighbors, friends, or family. We see the effects of our own fallenness and are frightened at the capacity for sin in us. We see the futility and meaninglessness of it and share in the doubt of any purpose or use of it.

And, by His grace, we also see more clearly the sure promise of a coming end to all of the brokenness. Through our tears — perhaps only through our tears — we see and believe the future Advent reality revealed to us by the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with our grief:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'"
(Revelation 21:1-4)

We believe; Lord, help us in our unbelief.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Leavened or Unleavened?

[From Pastor Ed… 12/2 and 12/9]

Maybe you've been wondering that already. Over the last several months you've surely noticed that we've been serving unleavened matzoh crackers instead of regular (leavened) bread. Several people have asked me, which is the "right" kind of bread to use for Communion?

This is an issue that has been a matter of debate for years — centuries even. It also tends to be a very personal issue, one that many feel strongly about. I don't claim to have the final answer to the question, nor do I believe it should be a question that should cause division among brothers and sisters in Christ. But I do have some thoughts, and the Session has asked me to articulate my thoughts about this issue, hopefully for the edification of our congregation.

There's no doubt that, at the institution of the Lord's Supper (see Luke 22), Christ used unleavened bread; this was at the end of the season of Passover, when the leavening for bread would have been purged from all Jewish homes in Israel weeks earlier. It was also an observance and celebration, of sorts, of the Passover feast originally described in Exodus 12. Because Christ used unleavened bread in the institution of Communion, many contemporary believers have concluded that Christians must likewise use only unleavened bread for a proper observance of the Supper.

Is this so? Or is there freedom to use leavened bread also or instead? To consider this, let's first consider what the purpose of the unleavened bread was.

Leavening itself is a rising agent made from fermented dough, which spreads throughout rest of fresh dough over time, and causes the bread to "rise" — in other words, the fermentation spreads gases throughout the bread which are released during baking, but which make air pockets in the loaves and give it the springy, spongelike texture that we associate with leavened bread. Because unleavened bread lacks these air pockets, it is more solid and hardened in texture, sometimes being more crumbly (almost like a cookie) and in other recipes being cracker-like.

The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was intended to remind the Israelites that they were brought out of Egypt quickly — that they could not wait for their bread to rise, and so made unleavened bread instead (see Exodus 12:39). Thus unleavened bread became regularly associated with acts of worship for Israel. Leavening was prohibited in some of the sacrifices and offerings — those offered wholly to God — but was allowed for those that people would consume some or all of (such as the Peace Offerings).

The nature of leavening makes it a great metaphorical illustration of spiritual things. Jesus warned against the hypocritical "leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1) but also described the Kingdom of God as spreading like leavening. Paul used the unleavened bread of Passover as a metaphor for how we have been cleansed through Christ, our Passover Lamb who was sacrificed: "Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:8).

We cannot therefore conclude that leavening is bad in itself, for leavened bread was permissible in some of the sacrifices, and Christ described the Kingdom of God as being like leavening! But certain things that are like leavening, in terms of how they spread quickly and thoroughly — things like hypocrisy, malice, and evil — should be cast out in the same way that the leavening was put out during the Passover season.

But if some leavened bread is permissible, is it permissible in Communion? Consider this: one of the occasions when leavened bread was required was during the Peace Offering; this was a time when some of an animal was sacrificed by fire to the Lord, while the rest was consumed by the priests and the ones bringing the offering. The meaning of the Peace Offering was to celebrate the communion with God and with one another before God. Leviticus says of the Peace Offering: "with the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with loaves of leavened bread. And from it he shall offer one loaf from each offering, as a gift to the LORD" (Leviticus 7:13-14).

Does this sound familiar? It should: our sacrament of the Lord's Supper is generally considered to be a continuation of the Peace Offerings, as we talked about in a recent sermon. (The Passover itself is also thought to be a particular kind of Peace Offering, though obviously one with unleavened bread.) The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a celebration of our reconciliation to God and our communion with Him — and, because of Him, our communion with one another also — and a foretaste of the ultimate and eternal fellowship with Him that we will have in glory. Given that the Peace Offering includes the permission for, and at times even the requirement of, leavened bread, we might conclude therefore that leavened bread is permissible for Communion.

Here's another consideration: it is pretty clear that the New Testament-era church celebrated Communion often; if Acts 2:42 is an indicator of their ongoing and common practices, it seems that the took Communion together every time they met for worship! When we look at that verse we see that the definite article ("the") is used with the concepts of "breaking of bread" and "prayers" — thus indicating that it wasn't just breaking bread together, as in sharing in meals and fellowship (though they DID do that too, daily — see Acts 2:46) but THE breaking of bread, which is a euphemistic reference to the way the Gospels also speak of the Lord's Supper.

Would they have used unleavened bread every week? Almost certainly not: while we can go to the grocery store whenever we want to buy unleavened matzoh crackers (or other kinds of unleavened bread, including pita, shortbread, and other crackers), first-century Christians would have had such easy access to unleavened bread. Probably they would have used whatever bread was available to them.

Thus we might also conclude that either leavened or unleavened bread is permissible for use in worship. But, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, not everything that is permissible is also beneficial. We CAN use leavened or unleavened bread; which SHOULD we use?

Here is what the Session has decided about this: we recognize that Passover was a fasting season, leading up to a feast — much like our own Christian calendars hold as a pattern. Therefore, we have decided that, during the fasting seasons of the church (Advent and Lent) we will use unleavened bread. Likewise, during the feasting seasons of the church — Christmastide, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity — we will certainly use leavened bread. During the other times (usually called "ordinary time") we will recognize freedom to use either leavened or unleavened bread.

It is our prayer that our congregation be blessed by this variation and freedom, and I hope that this explanation will be of some help to you in receiving such blessing!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Books for November 2012

The God Of The MundaneThe God Of The Mundane by Matt B. Redmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[Full disclosure: I work as the Publisher for Kalos Press, who published this title.]

As a pastor, I often meet with people who wrestle with questions about their worth before God. Do their lives matter to Him? Does their work have value? Do they need to be a pastor, or missionary, or go to seminary, in order to know God and be important to Him (in their vocation)?

Matt Redmond has written a book for these people — and also a book for pastors like me — who need to be reminded of the value and importance of daily life, even when that daily life is plain. Ordinary. Mundane, even. It’s a book for moms and wives, for husbands and fathers, for people single and married. It is for folks who work in a world that has an earthiness to it, not focused only on spiritual matters, but instead seeing the sacredness and spirituality to everyday things and tasks.

In spite of the fact that Matt is not in full-time vocational ministry any longer, Matt IS a pastor to all who read his book. He affirms, he strengthens, and he builds them up in the value and delight that God takes in their mundane lives. He challenges and debunks the notion that only the strictly ecclesiastical things matter; he pushes back against pastors and leaders who would tell us that if we are REALLY serious about our faith, we will do something, or be someone, different.

I highly recommend Matt’s book to all Christians; you will be renewed and refreshed by both his words and their content.

How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your SoulHow to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book — not exactly what I expected, as I was thinking more along the lines of a “philosophy of design” book, and this is a book about the business and practice of being a working designer.

The author demonstrates and obvious and clear knowledge of the field, having worked as a designer for many years. Those just starting, or who are setting out on their own, will find this book an invaluable resource.

There are some chapters about the philosophy of design, and I found the author’s reflections on the ethics of design especially useful. There are also a handful of interesting interviews at the back, almost as if an afterthought, but with a good bit of design philosophy within them.

View all my reviews