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Hello, everyone!

Christmas is nearly here, and I have a few items to share of both a secular and a religious nature.

O Antiphon for Christmas Eve

First, the final O Antiphon, the one for Christmas Eve, is Matthew 1:18-23, detailed in the following two posts:

Christmas Eve — Matthew 1:18-25 (with commentary from Albert Barnes)

The Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

The Christmas 1968 Bible reading from space

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. Listen to the astronauts on board read from Genesis:

The Christmas message from Outer Space

‘Twas the Night before Christmas’ — a delightful reading

Children might need a distraction while grown-ups are preparing for Christmas.

What better than listening to a reading of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’?

Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has done a cracking job of reading the story in his remarkable baritone:

Those who listened to it loved it. This is just one of the many compliments on his voice:

Christmas traditions — religious or not?

The trend over recent years, possibly a reactionary one, is that certain Christmas traditions that have evolved since the 19th century are either too secular or too pagan.

That said, some of these traditions can be said to have religious overtones.

The history of the candy cane is an intriguing one and one that could be used in Sunday School for its symbolism about Jesus:

Candy canes: useful for a Nativity lesson in Sunday School

There is a religious reason why we give each other gifts at this time of year. We recall John the Baptist’s ministry in preparing the way for our Lord:

John the Baptist, charity and Advent

He advocated giving as one way of preparing. Luke’s Gospel records John the Baptist’s words about charity (Luke 3:10-11):

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

This is how seasonal giving developed over time:

Christmas gifts — a history

As far as greenery is concerned, St Boniface transformed the fir tree into a Christian symbol in Germany during the early 8th century:

The Christmas tree — a history

Christmas cards were highly secular and of a facetious nature. They did not become religious until much later:

Bizarre Christmas cards from the 19th century

Louis Prang, a Prussian who emigrated to the United States, made Christmas cards popular there, beginning in 1873. Hallmark did not come along until 1910:

Louis Prang — father of the American Christmas card

I hope these give everyone a few spiritual talking points along with some fun during the countdown to Christmas!

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauReadings follow for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22. 2019.

The third purple candle on the Advent wreath is lit at this time.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading

This reading from Isaiah is a bit involved. King Ahaz engaged in idolatry, and God passed judgement on him through Syria and Israel, which joined forces in an attempt to attack Jerusalem. The Lord sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to worry, as both forces would crumble, which they did two years later (verse 16). Isaiah, speaking the Lord’s words, tells Ahaz that Immanuel — Jesus — will come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Whilst that did not happen for another 500 years, it was a sign that God would forgive and forget.

Matthew Henry says that two different children are referred to in the last two verses. Verse 15 refers to Immanuel. Verse 16 refers to Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, whom the Lord instructed the prophet to take with him to his meeting with Ahaz. Shear-jashub means ‘the remnant shall return’.

Henry also says that Ahaz displays false piety in verse 12. He knows his idolatry was wrong but is too stubborn to humble himself before God.

It’s worth reading Henry’s commentary as well as Isaiah 7 in full.

Isaiah 7:10-16

7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,

7:11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

7:12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

7:13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

7:15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

7:16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Psalm

Matthew Henry’s commentary states that this Psalm refers to the Messiah, particularly verses 17 and 18.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Epistle

This is Paul’s exquisite greeting to the Christians in Rome.

Romans 1:1-7

1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,

1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,

1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

1:7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Gospel

Joseph was embarrassed and ashamed that Mary was with child, until an angel of the Lord explained to him in a dream that she would bring the Messiah — Jesus — into the world.

Matthew 1:18-25

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but verse 25 should clear up any disagreements on Mary’s virginity and her marital relations with Joseph. To say that Mary was perpetually a virgin is scripturally inaccurate.

It was a relief to see the return of regular scheduling on BBC Parliament.

Thursday, December 19, 2019 was the first real day of debate in the new parliamentary session which followed the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech, which laid out the new majority Conservative government’s plans.

The Conservative and DUP (Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland) were the most conciliatory towards their opponents. I wonder if that is because both parties seem to embody the greatest expression of faith.

When the swearing in went on earlier in the week, all of the Conservative MPs, past and present, knew which Bible on which they wanted to be sworn in. A friend told me that Savid Javid, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, took a different oath, but Home Secretary Priti Patel took the traditional one.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader (for now), took a neutral oath that omitted ‘so help me God’. Another Labour MP, Liz Kendall, announced that she is ‘godless’ but ‘not a pagan’:

The DUP’s Jim Shannon, representing Strangford, thanked ‘the Lord my Saviour’ for the election results, including his own re-election.

Just before Shannon spoke, a new SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) MP from Northern Ireland, Colum Eastwood, gave his eloquent (even if I disagree with it) maiden speech in the House of Commons. He did not stammer or falter. The SDLP are diametrically opposed to the DUP. The SDLP represent the Republic of Ireland’s interests, and the DUP represent Ulster Unionists.

Colum Eastwood spoke of the lingering bitterness from the Troubles which continues to reach the courts:

This Conservative Government is obsessed with the idea of granting amnesty to soldiers who committed grievous wrongs and heinous crimes in Northern Ireland. Not only is it an affront to victims and survivors who lost loved ones at the hands of British Army personnel, any attempt to change the law will grant effective immunity to members of paramilitary organisations who murdered and maimed people in our communities.

There is nothing vexatious about seeking truth, justice and accountability for those who lost loved ones. The threshold for criminal prosecution is itself a check on the exercise of legal powers. Those brought before the courts do not face charges on a whim, it’s the result of gathered evidence and a determination by the independent PPS that a prosecution is in the public interest. I am sick of the myth that former soldiers are being pursued for nothing – these are serious crimes with a substantial body of evidence.

[A] Uniform should offer no shield to accountability before the law. The sensitive balance of legacy investigations and institutions should not be offset by headline grabbing promises from a militaristic government.

The SDLP successfully derailed similar proposals from Peter Hain, backed by Sinn Féin. The legacy of our past must be dealt with comprehensively and ethically. We will oppose any proposals aimed at erasing the ability of victims and survivors to access truth, justice and accountability.

Jim Shannon responded by saying that he had served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. That was between 1973 and 1977, at a very heated time of the Troubles, which neither side wants to see repeated.

Shannon told the MPs and Deputy Speaker of the House that he had spoken to Colum Eastwood earlier, explaining that, although they are on opposite sides of the political and cultural spectrum, there will be issues on which they will agree. Shannon said that he would find a way to work together with Eastwood on these issues to achieve common cause. I am sure that Jim Shannon will make every effort.

In another speech, returning Conservative MP Victoria Prentis, representing Banbury, said that Christmas should be a time of self-reflection and self-improvement. She suggested that MPs should use the time well to improve their discourse before Parliament reconvenes in the New Year. It was a wise sentiment, especially with the previous tensions from October 2019 concerning Brexit.

The Conservative and DUP MPs remembered that the run up to Christmas is a time of goodwill — to all. Victoria Prentis spoke perfectly when she said that we should continue any personal improvements gleaned from Christmas into the New Year.

Let’s start as we mean to go on. Christmas should be a time of deep reflection and ongoing renewal.

We are now in the octave before Christmas.

Centuries ago, special Bible verses — antiphons — were read on each of the days from December 17 through to the Christmas Eve devotions on December 24.

These were known as O Antiphons, as each of them began with the letter ‘O’. Each corresponds to a certain divine aspect of our Lord.

The O Antiphons are best encapsulated in the Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

The O Antiphons spell out SARCORE. These are an aide memoire, because, reversed, they spell out in Latin ero cras, which means

I shall be [with you] tomorrow.

The Bible verses behind SARCORE — ero cras — are as follows:

  1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi…” (O Wisdom from on high…)
  2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel…” (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel…)
  3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum…” (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people…)
  4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus…” (O Key of David and scepter of our home…)
  5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae…” (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light…)
  6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus…” (O longed-for King of the nations…)
  7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster…” (O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver…)

The verses for December 17 — the ‘S’ — are from Isaiah 11:2-3:

2And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
   the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the Spirit of counsel and might,
   the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

You can read more about that verse below in my 2013 post:

The O Antiphon for December 17

Another selection for this day is provided in the next post, from 2014:

The O Antiphon for December 17

More O Antiphons follow below for the days ahead, including relevant Bible commentary.

December 18

The O Antiphon for December 18 (2013)

December 18: a second O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 19

The O Antiphon for December 19 (2013)

December 19: a second O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 20

The O Antiphon for December 20

December 21

The O Antiphon for December 21

December 22

The O Antiphon for December 22

December 22: another O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 23

The O Antiphon for December 23

December 23: another O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 24

I will be closing the Octave with Lectionary readings for Christmas Eve.

The O Antiphons really put one in a good frame of mind spiritually for Christmas. With all of the last minute rushing around involved at this time, they provide needed refreshment for the soul, reminding us of the Reason for the Season.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauI remember how bewildered I was as a young Catholic teenager going to church one December morning during the early 1970s and seeing a wreath with candles on a stand near the altar.

My parents — along with most of the congregation — did not know what it was, either.

As Mass began, the priest explained that we were going to light the Advent wreath. That hardly solved the puzzle of what it was and WHY.

For years, I did not like them. My mother said they were a Vatican II innovation. She was not wrong. Neither my parents nor I were interested in Vatican II innovations. Most took us away from the mysterium tremendum my parents had grown up with, something that had been taken away from me forever.

I became an Episcopalian 12 years later. Early in December that year, my mother asked me if our church had an Advent wreath. I said, ‘No’. She said, ‘Good’.

These days, Advent wreaths are in churches of all denominations. My present Anglican church has one, too.

So, we must be resigned to Advent wreaths. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about them, but, by now, at least two generations have grown up with them.

Symbolism

Advent wreaths can be used in schools and private homes as well as at church.

The QTree has an excellent post about the Advent wreath along with several related photographs. The designations of the different candles came as news to me (emphases in the original):

The most common Advent candle tradition involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. The four candles traditionally represent hope, faith, joy, and peace. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival.

The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David.

The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too.

The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.

The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day.

We are a people of promise. For centuries, God prepared people for the coming of his Son, our only hope for life. At Christmas we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises God made—that he would give a way to draw near to him.

Advent is what we call the season leading up to Christmas. It begins four Sundays before December 25, sometimes in the last weekend of November, sometimes on the first Sunday in December.

My local Anglican church has red candles with a white candle in the middle for Christmas. This seems to be a more Protestant than Catholic colour scheme, even though our church follows the liturgical colour tradition of purple during this time.

The Revd William Saunders, writing for another Catholic website, Catholic Education Resource Center, has more in ‘The History of the Advent Wreath’. This has more information of which I was unaware (emphases mine):

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning which can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. Any pine cones, nuts, or seedpods used to decorate the wreath also symbolize life and resurrection. All together, the wreath of evergreens depicts the immortality of our soul and the new, everlasting life promised to us through Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death, and resurrection.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. A tradition is that each week represents one thousand years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the Birth of the Savior

The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead.

The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.

History

A Catholic website, TIA (Tradition in Action), has a good article: ‘What Is the Origin of the Advent Wreath?’. It appears that I am not alone in my ambivalence about it.

The article was prompted by a reader’s question (emphases mine):

Dear TIA,

Where did the Advent wreath originate?

In our church this year there is no Advent Wreath because the priest said it is pagan. Many true Catholics are upset over this. The wreath traditionally has been part of the Catholic Church for over 400 years so where would this idea come from? Please help!

It appears that wreaths in general, although pagan in origin, first appeared in churches during the Dark Ages — so, centuries before the Reformation:

Perhaps your priest was referring to the wreath itself as pagan, since some histories report that the evergreen wreath originated in the pagan times of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Evergreens were gathered into round piles with candles placed upon them, which represented the yearly cycle, and so on. Such data, however, are not trustworthy since they generally come from wicca sites, which habitually pretend that every Christmas custom or symbol is pagan, baptized and adapted by Catholics.

From what we could verify, wreaths of evergreens were used in the 7th century in Catholic baptismal ceremonies. In early medieval Europe it was also used in weddings, the bride and bridegroom being crowned with wreaths to symbolize their victory over the temptations of the flesh. By the late Middle Ages, garlands and wreaths were being used as Christmas décor in much of Catholic Europe.

For Catholics the evergreen is symbolic of life because its needles are green and alive even as the world grows dark and plants die back. The circle wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God. The wreath is a good Catholic symbol, and, in our opinion, should not be rejected because of a possible previous pagan usage.

The article acknowledges that the Advent wreath is a Protestant creation, more about which below.

As for the Catholic Vatican II connection:

The Advent Wreath was used strictly in homes and schools among Catholics, never in Catholic churches because there were no official liturgical prayers or ceremonies in the Rituale Romanum, the Church’s official book of prayers and blessings.

With the innovations of Vatican II, a blessing of the wreath for the first Sunday of Advent to be said before Mass was included in the Book of Blessings for those countries that requested its inclusion. The wreath is to be lit before Mass at the first Sunday of Advent, and no prayers are said on the last three Sundays.

The Church of England also has a short prayer of blessing for the first candle.

The Advent wreath appears to be a northern European tradition:

Many American Catholics are surprised to learn that this custom is relatively unknown in Latin American countries, and even in Italy and Spain.

TIA advises:

In our opinion, it seems that the custom of the Advent Wreath may be adopted by those who feel an attraction to it. But its use should be restricted to their homes. It is not a liturgical practice of the Catholic Church that should be included in official ceremonies.

I tend to agree.

Protestant origins

Wikipedia has a delightful story about a Lutheran pastor who devised the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. That said, an older version was already in use in Lutheran churches soon after the Reformation:

The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century.[7] However, it was not until three centuries later that the modern Advent wreath took shape.[8]

Research by Prof. Haemig of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, points to Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century.[9] During Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America.[10] Professor Haemig’s research also indicates that the custom did not reach the United States until the 1930s, even among German Lutheran immigrants.

In Medieval times Advent was a period of fasting during which people’s thoughts were directed to the expected second coming of Christ; but in modern times many have forgotten this meaning and it has instead been primarily seen as the lead up to Christmas, and in that context Advent Wreath serves as a reminder of the approach of the feast.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

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I learned a lot researching the symbolism and history behind the Advent wreath. I hope that you did, too.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauOn the First Sunday of Advent a fortnight ago, our vicar (Anglican) urged us to use the four Sundays of Advent wisely.

This is the first time I have personally heard a Protestant clergyman exhort his congregation to examine their consciences before Christmas.

The Gospel reading was Matthew 24:36-44, wherein Jesus described His Second Coming (emphases mine):

24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Our vicar advised us to consider the state of our souls with regard to death. We do not know when we will depart this mortal coil, therefore, we should take every care to make sure we are spiritually prepared.

He said that we put so much time and effort into preparing materially for Christmas — sending cards, wrapping presents and preparing meals — that we forget the deeper meaning of the season.

Just as John the Baptist called upon his followers to repent of their sins in preparation for Christ’s ministry, we, too, would do well to consider if our souls are in an appropriate state.

I wrote about this in 2012: ‘Advent: John the Baptist’s message of Good News — and repentance‘. I cited a sermon from a Reformed clergyman, the Revd Scott E Hoezee, ‘When Advent Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas’ (Reformed Worship, September 1997). In that article, he says of these weeks prior to Christmas:

… if you are to meet and greet this Messiah correctly, you must admit that you need him in the first place. If you don’t, then you’ll have no use for Jesus once he’s born

Only those willing to turn their lives over to God are ready for the Christ. The rest, John says, are fuel for the fire. None of that is very Christmaslike. Or is it?

His sermon cites Luke 3. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading was from Matthew 3, which was a similar account about John the Baptist’s ministry, also mentioning ‘chaff’ and ‘fire’.

By all means, let’s enjoy the festive season within reason, but let us also remember Whose season it is — and why.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauReadings follow for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019.

These are for Year A in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading

Isaiah prophesies the Messiah and the Church. Matthew Henry’s commentary on these verses is illuminating. Note the mention of Judah in the first verse; Jesus’s earthly parents came from that tribe. Verses 2 and 3 alludes to Gentiles — ‘all the nations’, ‘many peoples’ — being brought into the faith. ‘House of Jacob’ in verse 5 refers to Israel both in a physical and a spiritual sense. Matthew Henry says that verse 4 refers to a) the historically peaceful time into which Jesus entered our world and b) to the peaceful period that will come again one day.

Isaiah 2:1-5

2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Psalm

It was during David’s reign that Jerusalem became the holy city. God’s people met in Jerusalem for three great religious feasts, and David intended this Psalm to be sung during those times.

Psalm 122

122:1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”

122:2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

122:3 Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.

122:4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.

122:5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.

122:6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.

122:7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

122:8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”

122:9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Epistle

Paul exhorted the Romans not to waste valuable time. They were to perfect themselves as Christians by turning away from sin and embracing holiness.

Romans 13:11-14

13:11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;

13:12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;

13:13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.

13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Gospel

Jesus spoke of His second coming in judgement. He calls upon us to be ready at all times.

Matthew 24:36-44

24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Someone said to me last week that he remembered Advent being a gloomy time.

Yes, it is a gloomy time, as we are called to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christ’s ministry among mankind.

We should think of it as it happened historically, with John the Baptist preparing Jew and Gentile for his cousin Jesus’s ministry. John called upon everyone he met to repent (turn away from sin), give to others in charity and be baptised. Even our Lord Jesus was baptised by John, although He had no need to repent.

As children attending Catholic school many years ago, my classmates and I were told by our teachers to use Advent as a time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. We attempted to do away with bad habits or do something a bit extra for others (rather than ourselves). It is not a bad idea at all.

When I became a Protestant, I discovered that this was not a tradition in their churches. Yet, it seems worthwhile to follow John the Baptist’s teaching as his father Zacharias prophesied it. Zacharias’s prophecy was in one of last week’s readings for Reign of Christ Sunday (Luke 1). Zacharias spoke first of Jesus (in Mary’s womb at the time), then his newborn son John, as follows:

1:68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us

1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,

1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

At the very least, it is useful to contemplate the themes of the Sunday readings for the next few weeks of this new Church year. It will make Christmas Day a much more profound experience.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Fourth Sunday of Advent is on December 23.

Readings for Year C in the three-year Lectionary follow.

I am not sure how these are meant to be read, e.g. if Micah goes with the first reading from Luke and if the following three go together, so will just reproduce them as they are on the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. Emphases mine below.

The Old Testament readings prophesy Jesus.

The reading from Hebrews describes Jesus as the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for our sins.

The readings from Luke — Mary’s words — are known traditionally as the Magnificat, which used to be sung in the old Anglican (including Episcopal) liturgies. The longer version is at the end. Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was expecting John the Baptist at the time.

Micah 5:2-5a

5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Psalm 80:1-7

80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Hebrews 10:5-10

10:5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;

10:6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

10:7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

10:8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law),

10:9 then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.

10:10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,

1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I cannot imagine the jubilation that these two women shared at the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise not only to His chosen — but to the world.

The content of Advent sermons can be difficult for today’s pewsitter to accept — provided the clergyman (or woman) giving the sermon is true to the Bible.

For example, this year — Year C — the First Sunday of Advent gives us Luke’s account of Jesus’s words on His Second Coming. I was really looking forward to going to Sunday worship to hear about that.

But, no. Instead, we heard about the Creation Story in Genesis juxtaposed with John 1, the arrival of the Light of the World — the usual Christmas Day reading. The young ordained Anglican priest told us — a group of oldsters — that God really loves humanity, and we have nothing to worry about from Him. As we are all long in the tooth, we remember fire and brimstone sermons.

My takeaways from the old days were, ‘God loves humanity — His creation, made in His image — but He hates sin’. The Bible is all about this message, from cover to cover.

Advent readings follow a sequence for a reason. The sermons are supposed to match each Sunday’s theme, intended to get us to repent — ‘turn around’ — from our worldly ways before Christmas.

Therefore, it was a relief to read two reflections for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Week of Advent, from fellow Anglicans: an Episcopalian and an Anglican priest.

My reader undergroundpewster, the author of Not Another Episcopal Church Blog, wrote his reflections of John the Baptist’s message to his numerous and diverse followers (Luke 3:7-18). Although Gaudete Sunday is one of joy, John the Baptist called his followers ‘you brood of vipers’, warning them of ‘the wrath to come’ if they did not repent. And, he said of Jesus:

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Undergroundpewster wrote (emphasis in the original):

Good news like, “but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm…

With good news like that, who needs bad news?

Then he directed us to an excellent sermon at Crossway by Pastor Paul David Tripp, which explains why Jesus is the Good News (an excerpt follows, emphases mine).

It is all about humanity’s sins (bad news) for which Jesus sacrificed Himself in a once and perfect oblation on the Cross (Good News). Emphases mine below:

Sure, you can run from a bad relationship, you can quit a bad job, you can move from a dangerous neighborhood, and you can leave a dysfunctional church, but you have no ability whatsoever to escape yourself. You and I simply have no ability to rescue ourselves from the greatest danger in our lives. This means that without the birth of Jesus, we are doomed to be destroyed by the danger that lurks inside us from the moment of our first breath.

You don’t need to look far in the Bible to know what this danger is. Its stain is on every page of Scripture. Romans 3:23 exposes this danger with a few simple words: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Sin is the bad news of the Christmas story. Jesus didn’t come to earth to do a preaching tour or to hang out with us for a while; he came on a radical mission of moral rescue

He came to rescue us because he knew that we couldn’t rescue ourselves. He knew that sin separates us from God and leaves us guilty before him. He knew that sin makes us active enemies against God, and what he says is good, right, and true. He knew that sin blinds us to the gravity of our condition and our dire need for help. He knew that sin causes us to replace worship of God with an unending catalog of created things that capture the deepest allegiances of our hearts. He knew that sin renders all of us unable to live as we were designed to live. And he knew that sin was the final terminal disease that, without help, would kill us all.

The Revd Paul David Tripp holds a DMin from the well regarded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Sermons from Reformed — Calvinist — pastors are always useful in reminding us why we need to repent: so that we might share eternal life with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

So, going back to the sermon at my church, yes, God loves humanity, but God really hates the sins that humans commit because of Original Sin. We cannot help ourselves, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, it is misleading for a young cleric to say, ‘God loves humans — nothing to worry about, folks’.

The second helpful sermon comes from an Anglican vicar in England, The Revd Vic Van Den Bergh, author of Vic the Vicar! Vic also had a post on the meaning of Luke 3:7-18, which puts repentance into perspective. Vic addresses his thoughts to present-day Christians, who are, after all, supposed to walking in Christ’s ways.

Excerpts follow:

Are we producing fruit ‘in keeping with our repentance’? Does the gratitude for our salvation have any substance in the way we live or do we think that attending church, wearing a cross (fish), and dropping money in the offering makes us fit for heaven?

Do you think the crowds were asking themselves how much bad stuff they were laying up alongside, or instead of, the treasures they should have been storing up in heaven?  Yet this is what John was calling them to focus on. John was calling them (and us) to look at the ways they (we) can raise their game and live differently

He didn’t tell anyone that God wanted them to be happy doing what they saw as fit and right to do (regardless of what the Bible might teach). He didn’t tell them to give more money – because God doesn’t want your money, He wants your hearts and lives filled with love and generosity in things, actions, and in spirit.

He told the people before him to live a godly and righteous life in the things and the places they were returning to after the show – and that is exactly what the prophecy of Malachi some four hundred years before called the people to do. And they didn’t and so, with the arrival about to be made public, John is trying to get the people to get their lives in order so they look at least a little bit presentable. This is not a harsh rebuttal but an act of generosity for it’s giving those hearing his words the chance to turn around (that’s a clever use of ‘repent’ innit?) – and this is what we are also doing when we encourage people to change their lives before it’s too late.

Living our lives well, looking and sounding and acting like Jesus, in the world is one of the most important witnesses we can make to our being people of faith. You don’t need a dog collar or a title or a medal – you need to exhibit the generous heart of God and that needs a cross – and gratitude, rejoicing in the freedom from sin and reconciliation with the godhead that that brings. Here we find the fruits of gladness become made real in our generous and right living. It’s so simple really, isn’t it?

He explains why even such a harsh message should bring us joy on Gaudete Sunday (December 16):

rejoicing is the natural response to the fact that God has taken away the punishment of his people and has ‘turned back’ their enemy. The reality in the words of Zephaniah given some time around 620 BC is the same reality that Jesus’ death on the cross brings for the Christian too. Jesus’ death brings defeat for our enemy (satan) and he (Jesus) bears in His body the punishment for us. He takes our place. What love. What generosity to pay a bill that wasn’t His to be paying! Jesus is the mighty warrior who saves; them one who no longer rebukes but rejoices over us with songs of deliverance.

And the Apostle Paul gets into the act with his letter to the church in Phillipi, a communication which I think affirms all we have here, for when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice,” he is nodding towards the fact that to rejoice is a choice of attitude. It is the expression of our gratitude for all God has given and done for us

Let us bear this message in mind as we celebrate Christmas with friends and family.

Regardless of desirable gifts and sumptuous feasts coming up on Tuesday, one thing should stay in our minds as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib: Jesus is our eternal Lord and Saviour, who paid the bill ‘that wasn’t His to be paying!’ Rejoice!

Starting on December 17, for centuries the Church had what were called O Antiphons with corresponding Bible readings which ran through Christmas Eve, spanning eight days.

My longtime readers will recognise these, as I have been running them since 2013. Each day has a different O Antiphon for our consideration and meditation.

The Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel has verses which relate to the O Antiphons, as you will see below.

The O Antiphons spell out SARCORE. These are an aide memoire, because, reversed, they spell out in Latin ero cras, which means:

I shall be [with you] tomorrow.

The Bible verses behind SARCORE — ero cras — are as follows (emphases mine):

  1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi…” (O Wisdom from on high…)
  2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel…” (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel…)
  3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum…” (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people…)
  4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus…” (O Key of David and scepter of our home…)
  5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae…” (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light…)
  6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus…” (O longed-for King of the nations…)
  7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster…” (O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver…)

What follows are the O Antiphon readings for the next eight days.

December 17

The O Antiphon for December 17 (2013)

The O Antiphon for December 17 (2014)

December 18

The O Antiphon for December 18 (2013)

December 18: a second O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 19

The O Antiphon for December 19 (2013)

December 19: a second O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 20

The O Antiphon for December 20

December 21

The theme for this day, Winter Solstice, is light:

The O Antiphon for December 21

Some traditionalists omit December 21 because it is St Thomas’s feast day:

Doubting Thomas — John 20:19-31

Doubting Thomas: When seeing is believing

There is no reason one cannot combine the two!

December 22

The O Antiphon for December 22 (2013)

December 22: another O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 23

The O Antiphon for December 23 (2013)

December 23: another O Antiphon for this day (2014)

December 24

Christmas Eve affords us time to examine the Nativity story, either through Jesus’s lineage (Matthew) or through His birth (Luke):

Christmas Eve — Matthew 1:18-25 (with commentary from Albert Barnes)

The Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

The Christmas story according to St Luke

The Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel (hermeneutics)

I have found that these readings enhance the anticipation of Christmas Day and the significance of our Saviour humbling Himself to be among us.

I hope that you find comfort and inspiration from these as well.

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