First Sunday after Christmas: The Long Awaited Gift

Luke 2:22-40

One of the downsides of our liturgical calendar is everything seems to be squished together so we can complete the entirety of the celebration on time. These days, we start to celebrate Christmas before we have even finished with Advent, and as soon as the last present is opened on Christmas Day, the tree goes out on the curb, and the decorations are put away.

Most, if not all, our manger displays already have the Wise Men present, but biblical history tells us that Wise Men from the East visited Jesus more than two years after his birth. But we cannot wait for two years to sing “We Three Kings,” so we condense the story all down into one single night.

On this First Sunday after Christmas, we are only on the 3rd day of the festal celebration of the Birth of Jesus, but the story jumps ahead to forty days after his birth.  Mary and Joseph have returned home to Nazareth, and they have begun the task of raising their son.

The Jewish Ritual Law required that parents present their children in the Temple forty days after their birth and make an offering to God for them. The law required the parents to offer an unblemished lamb, but if they could not afford that, they could offer two turtledoves or two young pigeons instead.  This day will be celebrated around February 2nd as the Feast of Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple.

So, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple as the law required. He did not need to be purified, but they needed to fulfill the law. Mary and Joseph were not wealthy; in fact, they were probably relatively poor, so they offered their sacrifice of two turtle doves or two pigeons, Scripture is unclear. But Mary and Joseph also offered the unblemished lamb as a sacrifice; they presented Jesus, the Lamb of God, as their sacrifice.

Those of you who pray the daily office of evening prayer will be familiar with the next part of this Gospel passage for today. As the couple exits the Temple, they come upon a man called Simeon, who Scripture tells us is “Just and devout.” He has been waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” and Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the Christ.

But there is more to the story than an old man cradling a baby in his arms. As I often say, there is Scripture on the surface, and then there is the Scripture of the depths or the deep dive into what lies beneath the surface. Simeon represents all of humanity in his “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Simeon speaks for the entire world as the old law is passing away and giving way to the new covenant in Christ Jesus.

The holy couple next encounters the Prophetess Anna, who is of “great age” and had not left the Temple, but “served God with fasting and prayers night and day.” Again, we must go more in-depth with this passage for Anna, like Simeon represents more than just herself. This meeting of Jesus and Anna is a sign that both men and women equally share the proclamation of Christ’s redemption of the world.

I think it is vital for us to understand not just the sequence of events but the importance of why Jesus did what he did. Jesus was Human and Divine, and as a human had to fulfill the law but not as one that is tied to the law. By emptying himself and assuming his human nature, he was subjecting himself to human development and expression.

Let us be like Simeon and Anna, who greeted the Child Jesus with great excitement and work diligently to proclaim to all the world that God loves each of us and offers us comfort in the storm.


Christmas Eve Sermon: O Holy Night

Luke 2:1-20

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is based on a French poem written in 1843, O Holy Night. The poem was written in celebration of the completed renovations of the Church organ in the Poet’s hometown. He was not particularly religious, but the poem he wrote captures the essence of the feast we celebrate tonight.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.


Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.

Tonight, the fulfillment of a long wait is realized. Tonight, our hymns switch from “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” to Joy to the world. At the start of the Advent season, the world aches for a Messiah: now those who walked in darkness see a great light, for a child is born.

Christmas is not merely the anniversary celebration of the birth of Jesus; it is the active remembering of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and the promise of the coming completion of the reign of God. At Christmas, we proclaim not only the birth of Jesus but the birth of a new creation. Despite what the newspapers say, the way is made clear. The chasm between God and humanity is bridged because of the birth of Christ. And God’s reign of justice and peace has already begun.

Tonight, we hear the message of a world-transforming reign of righteousness and justice that is a radical prophetic claim. The main actors in this narrative are the shepherds, the unlikely messengers, but God does not always do things the way we think he is going to. God chose the shepherds to deliver his message; the lowly were to be the first to preach the good news that the Savior was born. God often chooses the least likely to deliver his message of hope and good news. God picked another lowly person in Mary Magdalene, who delivered the message of Christ’s Resurrection to the Apostles. Mary was the first evangelist!

God chose to take on humanity and be born of a woman, not in some palace but in a space borrowed from others with nothing but a manger and hay to lay his head upon. God chose to be born to a race of people in physical bondage in an economically depressed place to reverse the course of history; he has exalted the lowly and removed the powerful from their thrones.

Long ago, in the beginning, we read the story of humanity’s creation and how God walked with humanity in paradise. At some point, humanity disobeyed its creator, and that relationship was cut off, and humanity was cast out. After that, God continued to send messengers of hope seeking reconciliation with his creation, but we turned a deaf ear. But when Christ was born, that chasm was removed, and once again, God walked with his creation. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God became human that we might become like God. This idea, this incarnation, amazes me that God would humble himself and take on our existence not to punish us but as an expression of the love that he has for each one of us. God no longer sent prophets to tell us how much he loves us; God came in the flesh of Jesus Christ to show us just how much he loves us.

Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) In other words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God!

The message of tonight, the message of the Gospel, is that God loves each of us just the way we are. The birth of Christ ushered in a new way, a new of thinking, a new way of acting, and a new way of believing, and a radical form of love. Through the centuries, the Church has not always been good at proclaiming the good news, but we are getting better at it. The good news is that God loves each of us and forgives us unconditionally.

We have lit one candle on our advent wreath during the four preceding weeks, and tonight we light the center candle, the one we call the Christ candle. Light is a powerful force in the darkness, and tonight we are called to be that light. We are to take not only the light but the warmth that the small flame gives off; that warmth is the love of God for each and every one of us. We cannot simply take that light with us; we have to take it with us and share it with others so that the light spreads and the warmth of God’s love spreads to everyone.

Sermon: Because a Young Girl Said Yes

Luke 1:46-55

Hanging on the wall, downstairs in my study, are two hand-painted Icons that I brought back with me from a trip to Romania many years ago. They have made every move with me and are usually the first things I hang on the wall when I move to a new church. They are Icons of Jesus and his Mother Mary. It might sound strange that a minister of a Reformed/Protestant theological tradition would have icons hanging on the wall of his study, but for me, they are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a believer in the Reformed theological understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his mother’s role in all of that. However, I am also critical of Mary’s seeming removal from the theological understanding of the story of Christmas. Mary is not just a player in the story. She is the beginning of the story and, if we take her out or reduce her to some meek and mild participant, we lose a large part, if not the central part of the story.

I say a central part because if this young girl, from a backwater part of the Roman Empire, had not said yes to the Angel when he visited her, we would not have the rest of the story. This may shock you, but Mary had to say yes, she had to give her consent to God for the rest of the story to unfold, and by doing so, she repaired a breach in the relationship between God and humanity that goes back to the time of Adam and Eve. God gave us free will at creation, and it is that free will that allows us, and Mary to say no.

I know we like the sweet story of two people, naked and afraid, in the Garden of Eden looking for something to eat. God comes along and tells them that they can eat from any tree or plant they want, except this one, so naturally, that is precisely what they do. Now I know we also like to blame Eve for what happens next, but Adam, like Mary, was a willing participant. Eve did not hold him down and force-feed him whatever it was they ate.  I don’t think food had anything to do with the story; it came down to the arrogance that humanity knew better than God. A sin, if you will, society is still guilty of.

Along comes Mary, and she says yes and changes it all.

What about Mary, and why should we care about her or this passage that has been described as boring? For starters, Mary is the Mother of God.

Since the third century, Mary has been called the Theotokos, the Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 decreed that Mary is the Theotokos because her Son Jesus is both God and man: one divine person with two natures (divine and human) intimately and hypostatically united. That is theological speak that means because of our Trinitarian theological understanding of the nature of God, Jesus is God, and therefore Mary gave birth to God in human flesh. As it says in the opening verses of the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

So, we honor Mary because she is the mother of Jesus, but we also admire her for what she did in saying yes to God.

Mary bursts on the scene in the opening passage of the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s Gospel is the only one that contains the story of the Angel coming to Mary. Tradition tells us that Mary, since she was the only one present, told the story herself to the writer of the Gospel. We do not get much of a glimpse into her life other than what tradition tells us. Mary was the only child of Joachim and Anna, an older couple who prayed to God for a child. We are told that she was raised in the temple and at a certain age was set to be married as young girls would have been. She was not more than a teenager of 13 or 14 years when the Angel came to her.

Mary was from Galilee, which has been described as the armpit of the Roman Empire. As a female, she would have been considered property, first of her father and then her husband. She had no say in what happened to her or whom she would marry. She could own no property and had no money of her own. She was utterly dependent on others for her care and wellbeing, and this is what makes this story so extraordinary.

We know the story, the Angel comes to Mary and tells her that God has favored her and that God has chosen her to bring his Son, the Savior of humanity, into the world. At first, she is confused, as I am sure any of us would be, and she asks how this is possible. How is it that she is going to give birth since she “knows not a man?” The Angel proceeds to tell her that it is the Holy Spirit’s power, which I am sure, does not make the situation any more comfortable. For the sake of space, the story is condensed and seems only like a few moments in time, but I imagine that this was not a quick or easy decision for Mary.

Mary knew the consequences of what she was contemplating. Mary knew the fate of a woman who found herself “in the family way” and did not have a husband. The Jewish law of her day would have seen her stoned in the center of the city while her parents watched or maybe even participated. This was a death sentence for Mary, and she knew full well what would happen to her. Scripture tells us that when she told Joseph he was “going to send her away quietly” to spare her life but also spare him any embracement. Everyone knew they were engaged, and everyone knew that he would have been the father. Of course, he would not meet the same fate as Mary; only the woman was killed for adultery.

However, after wrestling with the question, Mary says to the Angel, be it done according to your will, a sentence her Son would utter the night before his crucifixion. Mary agrees, gives the Angel the go-ahead, and trusting in God, an unbelievable amount of trust; she is entrusting her very life to God. God has, in one sense, asked her to sacrifice her very life, and Mary, this young girl, said yes.

Besides the brief mention of what happens next, the only other thing we know is that the same Angel came and visited Joseph and told him all would be well.  He is asked to risk a lot by taking her as his wife and raising this child. But not as much as Mary.

Then we come to today’s beautiful Song from the Gospel of Luke. This is a song of praise, it is a song of defiance, and it is a call to action. This is the statement of a young girl, with no voice in her society, that a moral, social, and economic, as well as a spiritual revolution is about to begin, and the world will never be the same. The voice of a young, Palestinian woman is calling for a new way to live.

Mary, now “great with child,” goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the soon to be the mother of John the Baptist. Scripture tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, her baby leaped in her womb with joy. She encounters Elizabeth and recites the passage of Scripture we listened to this morning.

She beings with praise:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior.”

Mary does not complain about any of it; her first words are to praise God for the gift that has been bestowed upon her. She is joyous that God has chosen her, and she wants to tell the world about it.

“for he was looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant.”

As I have already said, Mary was from the back of beyond. Forget for a moment, her gender and all that came with that she was the poor of the poor. God did not choose the daughter of the King or even the daughter of some middle-class person; he chose the poorest of the poor. He came to Mary, just as she was and found favor with her. God has come to the worst place and found his servant. The message for us is God loves us just as we are.

She then tells Elizabeth that “surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.” Not because of anything that she has done, other than saying yes, but because of what God has done to her and through her, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and Holy is his name.” It has never been about Mary; it is always about Jesus. In the icon I mentioned earlier, Mary is not depicted on her own; in fact, Mary is never depicted on her own because it is not about her, and it is always about her Son. In the icon, Jesus is sitting on her lap. Mary is pointing to him, just as a prophet points the way, Mary, who in some ways is a prophet, is pointing toward Jesus. We honor Mary not for what she has done but because she pointed the way to Jesus.

She goes on to say why this is happening, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” A better word would be awe but let’s stick with fear for now. Then the revolutionary statement begins.

“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

I already mentioned the link between Eve and Mary, who is also called the Second Eve. The sin of Adam and Eve was arrogance and pride. Arrogance and pride are the roots of all sinful behavior and what Mary is saying is that it has been reversed. If we set our lives besides that of Christ, our last vestige of pride will be taken away. Christ enables us to see ourselves, and that is a deathblow to pride. Through these words, Mary is announcing that the moral revolution has begun.

“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”

Christianity has, or at least it is supposed to have, put an end to the world’s labels and prestige. The problem is we do not honestly believe this. Some have taken Christianity and held it so tight they refuse to let others in. The message of Christmas and Mary’s Song is that Jesus was born for all of humanity, not just a particular sector of it.  Remember, Jesus was born in the worst place on earth, he was born with no roof over his head, he had to flee persecution to another country, and he was unjustly convicted of a crime and killed for political reasons. Mary is announcing that a social revolution is beginning.

“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

In the world of the first century, Palestine was not unlike our society today. The message our world sends is it all about the stuff we have, the big car, the big house, etc. The very way we have chosen, as a society, to celebrate the birth of Jesus is by giving gifts and going into a massive amount of debt to show our loved ones how much we love them. Mary has come to tell us that a change is coming, an economic revolution is upon us when all will have what they need; some of us are still waiting for that revolution to begin.

The point of this is to remind us that the Christmas story is not only about the birth of a tiny baby that would change the world, but it is also the story of a defiant young girl standing in the public square and shaking her fist and saying, “no more.” This person who was considered no more than property has just announced to a world that would be happy to see her stoned to death for adultery that the world as they know it is about to change.

The story of Christmas begins with a young girl saying yes. The story of Christmas continues with that same young girl announcing to the world that change is coming, and we better be ready for it. The story of Christmas is about a baby being born so poorly that he has no place to lay his head other than a place where animals get their food, which indicates that he will feed us spiritually with his very life. So, the story of Christmas ends with the reassurance that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, Christ was born for you, just as you are.

Oh, and yes, Mary did know.


Solstice Prayer

Bright Mystery, at this solstice time, where we leave a space to look back and look forward, your mercy covers more than the white frosty sparkle on the leafless trees. Your love burnishes more than the scarlet sheen of hips and berries. Your Spirit of life rejoices more than the confidence of green needles and leaves. Be with all who wish to leave behind their years with the dying things. Cover with your mercy, burnish with your love, and rejoice with new life, as we lay down the year we cannot change, and offer our hopes and fears for the next.

The Celtic Wheel of the Year, Celtic and Christian Seasonal Prayers
Less Ward

O Adonai

O Lord and Giver of the Law on Sinai, the Leader of your chosen people Israel, appearing in the burning bush, revealed to Moses face to face, O Come, stretch out your mighty arms to set us free.

Great Antiphon of Advent

This Antiphon harkens back to Moses on Sinai receiving the Law from God. But God did not only give Moses the law God revealed his name, “I am.” God is the God of covenant and the Leader of the people. We use the same names for Jesus strong in the belief that Christ has always been divine and has been with God since the Beginning.

In the writing of the Prophet Isaiah we read, “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Isaiah 11:4-5) Like yesterday’s Antiphon todays reminds us that God will judge people by what is in their hearts.

God sent his Son to us out of a radical sense of love for creation. Jesus, in turn left us an example a way of love for all of humanity.

“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22) Our God is a God of Incarnation and as he revealed himself as lawgiver to Moses on Sinai in the Burning Bush, Christ comes to reveal himself as a God of love.

O Come, stretch out your mighty arms to set us free.

O Sapientia

O Wisdom, O holy Word of God’s mouth, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come, and teach us all the ways that lead to life.

Great Antiphon of Advent

The first of the Antiphons is a reminder of the Wisdom being spoken of is the Word of God and that the Word of God, as St. John tells us in his Gospel is Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is a reminder that at the start of creation Jesus, the Word of God was present with the Creator of all things and that Jesus is the ruler of all of creation.

John uses the term “was” when speaking of the Word of God. This indicates that the Word, the Logos of God exists without a starting point and emphasizes that the Word has an eternal existence without Beginning.

Isaiah’s prophecy says “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:2-3

At Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan by John, the Holy Spirit shall rest upon him. The Messiah will judge people by what is in their hearts and his teachings shall strike the earth and make all things new.

O Come Lord Jesus and teach us all the ways that lead to life.

The O Antiphons

One of the things I miss the most from my days in the Monastery is the house’s liturgical rhythm. Each morning, we would rise for the first prayers at 6:30 am. The monks would gather in the chapel, the sun still not up yet, and we would greet the day with prayer. Throughout the rest of the day, there would be other times of prayer and work.

As the seasons changed outside of the Monastery, so did the liturgical seasons inside of the Monastery. As the light faded, the Advent season would begin with its promise of hope, peace, love, and Joy. But within the season of Advent, another shift takes place seven days before the start of the Christmas Season.

These last seven days do not have a name of their own, and for most people, there is no change at all. But starting with Vespers on December 17th, the antiphons used to introduce the Magnificat shift. Each day brings further anticipation of the feast and the revelation of the names or titles of Jesus Christ.

They are called the “O” antiphons because they begin with the vocative particle “O.” Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture. They are:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
23 December: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

The exact origin of these antiphons is not known but some trace them as far back as the 4th or 5th century and by the 8th century they are being used as part of liturgical celebrations in Rome.

It would also appear that the arrangement of these antiphons is no mistake.  Fr. William Saunders, writing in the Arlington Catholic Herald follows up on this idea that the arrangement of the antiphons was prophetic.

“According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come“. Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, Tomorrow, I will come. So, the O Antiphons not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation but bring it to a joyful conclusion.”

Over the next seven days I will offer some brief commentary on each of the antiphons. I hope they aid in your preparation for the coming of the great feast of Christmas.

Sermon: Third Sunday of Advent: Love

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Today we take a break. We take a break from the usual penance and reconciliation that is usually associated with Advent, and we pause for a brief moment and change things up a bit. On this Third Sunday of Advent, this Gaudete Sunday, we pause, we light the rose-colored candle, and we think of love. The love which passes all understanding.

We are sort of any way at the halfway point in our preparation for Christmas. By now, most, if not all of you have your decorations unpacked and up around your homes. Nicky and I finished if one ever really finishes decorating this past week. Each decoration and each ornament on the tree or a shelf remind me of love. Most of the ornaments on our tree have come from places Nicky, and I have visited together since we have been married. Each of those ornaments brings back happy memories of days gone by but not forgotten. We also hung up Oonagh’s first Christmas ornament, so the tradition of building memories continues. Although she does not understand what is going on, although she does really like the lights, we await the day when she is filled with wonder and awe.

Advent’s theme is expressed in three different ways concerning Jesus; his first, his present, and his final Advent. We prepare for his birth, his first Advent, or his first incarnation. We ponder on the ways Christ is at work in the world. No, not fixing elections or sending storms to smite people, by the way, through us his professed followers, how we show love to others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. And, as we have heard already, we ponder his return. But the common thread that is woven through all of this is love. God so loved the world that he sent his son. We are to show the love of Christ is all that we do. When Christ returns, there will be great celebrations.

The theologian Henri Nouwen, writing about love and joy, makes a distinction between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” And so, joy can be present even in the midst of sadness. Even though our celebrations are not what they should be or what we have planned, we can still seek out joy in them.

Today’s scripture lesson comes from the Prophet Zephaniah. A concise work in the Hebrew Scriptures that you will miss if you do not look closely. My study bible has little tabs for each of the books, but there is no tab for Zephaniah because the book is so small. The book may be short, but it is filled with words that we need to hear every year, but I think, especially this year.

Rejoice and exult with all your heart. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. The Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. Do not fear. He will renew you with his love. I will save the lame. Gather the outcast. Change their shame into praise—all of these happy moments filled with love.

The prophets are essential in our spiritual life. The prophets say what no one wants to hear, what no one wants to believe. Prophets pint in directions no one wants to look. Prophets hear the voice of God when no one else is listening. They see God where no one else, even dreams that God could be present. The feel God. Prophets feel the compassion that God has for all of us. Today’s message from Zephaniah is one of love, but it is also a message of lament and repentance. It is a message of God’s love and a message of hope.

We hear from the prophets during the season of Advent because they bring an essential message: “Do not fear… The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” The prophets teach us a fundamental phrase in the language of God, and it is a pastoral word, spoken into the heart of the human experience. “Do not fear.” This is not a plea but a declarative sentence.

In the Gospel of Luke, we hear similar language. When the Angel appears to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, he says to him, “Do not be afraid.” When this same Angel comes before Mary, he says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” Later in the story, this same Angel will appear before Shepherds in the field, and he says to them, “Do not be afraid… I am bringing you good news of great joy!” After the Resurrection, when Jesus appears to those he loved, he says to them, “Peace, do not be afraid.” And today, God, once again through the Prophet, is telling us, “Do not be afraid!”

Many of us live with a sense of fear, especially these days. Am I going to lose my job? Will there be enough food and other things I need? What about my health? Should I get the vaccine? Will there be a civil war over the political nonsense raging in the country? What will happen tomorrow? Am I loved? For many of us, the world looks bleak and uninviting. For many of us, it isn’t easy to get into the spirit of the season. But along comes Zephaniah’s pastoral words to the people of God that acknowledges these fears and dispels them with a promise of a transforming joy and no threat of judgment.

The words that we heard this morning from the Prophet illustrate the practice of lighting the rose-colored candle on this Advent morning. In the lighting of that candle, we have a visual reminder of the joy and love that is coming. The purple candles remind us of the penitential nature of Advent and its close association with Lent. But on this third Sunday, we break from that, and we light that rose-colored one. In the days of the fast, it was lifted on this day because today is a day when we rejoice!

On this day, we are reminded of the love that God has for each of us. We are reminded not to fear, just as the Angel said to Zachariah, Mary, and the Shepherds. God loves each of us unconditionally, and that is the real message and meaning of Christmas. Amen.

First Sunday of Advent: Hope

“Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” Mark 13:33

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a podcast about the United States’ political situation. It was just a few days before the presidential election, and tensions were running relatively high. The host of the program asked if I was nervous about unrest following the results regardless of who won. I admitted I was a little apprehensive, but I did not think things would be all that bad since I live in Massachusetts. As the interview continued, I could sense that the host was unsure of where I was going with the answers to his questions. I finally said, “as a person of faith, I have to have hope.”

The First Sunday of Advent’s theme is hope, hope for things to come, and hope for the long-expected Messiah.

The Gospel for this first Sunday comes from Mark 13:24-37, and at first glance, one might not find much hope in the words Mark had written. Mark writes of what is know of the “end times,” the time when Jesus will come as King and ruler of the world. I don’t spend much time thinking about those days because Mark tells us we don’t know when it will happen; only God knows. But we have hope anyway.

My hope is not for the day when Jesus returns and wipes certain people off the face of the earth. Hope does not lie in his “flaming chariot of smoke” or any other apocalyptic language that Mark uses and that some fixate on. My hope rests on the assurance that “God so loved the world.”

The last seven or eight months have been difficult for all of us. Not only have we had to deal with the pandemic, but race relations are at an all-time low here in America. Riots and protests have broken out in most major cities across our country. The political situation has not helped either. As a society, we have become divided along so many different lines; it is hard to keep them all straight, and at times, it is difficult to hold on to this idea of hope. But hold on, we must.

Advent is a time of waiting, of expectation, of preparation, and hope. In the Gospel, Mark tells us to watch for the signs, and he uses the fig tree as an example. When the tender shoots of the fig tree begin to grow, and the first of its fruit begins to show, we know that summer is close at hand. Mark is telling us not to worry about figuring out when things will happen but to be watchful and ready when it does.

This Advent season gives us a time like no other. The pace of our lives has slowed down a little from what we usually go through this time of year. We will not be attending the parties we usually attend nor many of the events. For the most part, our shopping will be online or very limited in person, so we have more time to sit and prepare spiritually for the coming of the Christ Child, which is “the reason for the season.”

As Christians, we have hope because, as the Prophet, Isiah told us, “darkness shall cover the earth, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:2) We light the first candle of Advent today, hoping that the light will overcome the darkness in the world. And we have hope that it will.

The Advent Wreath

I was asked recently about the meaning of the Advent wreath. I had to search my seminary memory banks to answer that question. In essence, the Advent Wreath is about bringing light into a dark world, but the meaning is deeper than that. I was also surprised to learn that the Advent Wreath tradition only dates to the 17th century.

According to research conducted by Mary Jane Haemig, Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary of St. Paul, Minnesota, the modern-day Advent Wreath was started by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant Pastor and missionary to the urban poor. In 1839, Pastor Wichern created a large wooden ring from a cartwheel and placed twenty red and four small white candles around the circle. Each weekday, and Saturday a red candle would be lit, and on Sundays, a white one. The popularity of this ring grew into the smaller version that we are familiar with today. During the 1920s, Roman Catholics in German began to adopt the wreath’s use during the Advent season, and its popularity spread to North America in the 1930s.

So, what is the symbolism of the Advent Wreath?

Advent wreaths a circular indicating the endless love of God for all of creation. Most Advent Wreaths are made from evergreen leaves or branches representing the eternal life brought by Jesus Christ. As previously mentioned, the candles on the Advent Wreath represent the light of Christ coming into the world, although each candle has a meaning of its own.

Each candle of the Advent Wreath represents one of the Christian concepts of hope, peace, joy, and love. Many Advent Wreath will also have a larger white candle in the center that lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to symbolize the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ. The candle is white because this is the Liturgical color for the celebration of feast days.

Three of the four candles on the Advent Wreath are purple. Purple is the traditional color for the Advent Season, which represents the original penitential nature of Advent. The fourth candle is pink or rose and is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice ye.” The theme of the third Sunday is joy, so the penitential nature of the season is paused as we recall the joy of the Christ Child’s coming.

I encourage all of you to begin or continue the tradition of lighting the Advent Wreath in your homes. The wreath does not have to be fancy or even store-bought. It can be made from simple items from around your home and yard. Whatever you chose to use, a blessing of the wreath is appropriate. Here is one I like to use.

Lord our God, we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ: he is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples, he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us, he is the Savior of every nation. Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath. May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation. May he come quickly and not delay. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The blessing may conclude with a verse from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:

O come, desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind; bid ev’ry sad division cease and be thyself our Prince of peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

—From Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers

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