Category Archives: Advent

Out of the Silence, the Voice Comes

image by Barbara Barnes
reflection by Terrell Glenn
Psalms 45 and 46
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Revelation 22: 12-17, 21
Luke 1: 67-80
 

bbarnes

 

Nine months earlier, Zechariah the priest had taken his turn to burn incense before the Lord in the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem. It was there that he had his encounter with Gabriel who announced the remarkable answer to Zechariah’s prayer for a child. Yet as Gabriel spoke, the old priest became incredulous over the possibility that the angel had proclaimed.  He questioned the ministering spirit from God, “How shall I know this?” Notice that his response is so different from that of Mary who received even more extraordinary news. When Gabriel informed her that she, who had known no man, would conceive a child, she had replied, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Hers was an acceptance of Gabriel’s words and a declaration of how incomprehensible it was to her. But Zechariah wanted a sign. The word from God’s own throne was not enough for him. He wanted more. So he was made mute (and apparently deaf, according to Luke 1:62) for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  There would be a season of silence for the priest who had offered the fragrant smoke-swirled symbol of the prayers of God’s covenant people.

It was out of this silence that Zechariah burst forth in exultant praise accompanied by his own prophetic utterance in what Church tradition has called The Benedictus. It was a season of silence in which he was able to contemplate his own lack of faith and the promise that demanded it that led to a prophetic witness to God’s greatness. It would serve as a precursor to the greater work of his son, John. He would end a silence that the Lord had imposed on Israel so that she could have a season to consider both her own lack of faith and the powerful promises of the Lord God Almighty. This season would not be for a mere nine months. It ended only after 460 years had passed since the prophetic ministry of Malachi. Out of the silence, the voice came.

Sometimes God gives us silence. Not because He is done with us. Far from it. He allows us time so that all of the competing voices might fade and we would yearn for His voice again. So often we hear His voice best when it comes out of silence. The voice of faithless reason competed with Gabriel’s marvelous announcement of the very thing that God promised to do- -the thing that only God could do. Doubt shouted so loudly in Zechariah’s soul that he was incapable of considering Who it was that sent Gabriel with this message in the first place. So God gave silence.

He gives it still. He gives it so that we might return to a place where we can begin again. He gives it so that we might recognize a pattern that has existed from the very beginning.

It was out of the silence, the deep silence of the darkness and void, that the voice of the Eternal Father said, “Let there be light.”

And it was out of the silence of the warm, dark womb of the Virgin that the Son of the Father gave voice to the newborn’s cry of life’s arrival.

 

Out of the silence, the Voice came. And He comes still.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent

image by Henry Ossawa Tanner

reflection by Thomas Kortus

Micah 5: 2-5a
Psalm 80
Hebrews 10: 5-10
Luke 1: 39-55

 

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.
 

advent art tanner annunciation

Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. Tanner painted many biblical scenes and these paintings tend to humanize the holy. He brings the Bible down to earth. In The Annunciation, Mary looks more wistful than awestruck in the presence of the Holy Spirit, represented as an incandescent cloud.

I have been thinking a lot this week about how Christ came all those years ago and how he comes into our lives today. He comes humbly, profoundly, subtly at times, unexpectedly, and powerfully–all at the same time. He comes in very holy and spiritual ways and also in incredibly regular, everyday, earthbound ways. I love this painting of the Angel coming to Mary because it illustrates how God reveals himself to us in our ordinary, dingy, disorganized rooms, schedules, thoughts, lives.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

I encourage you to meditate on Mary’s Song from the readings this morning. I also want to share a song that I have been listening to a lot this Advent season. Listen to Let it be Born in Me by Wilder Adkins by clicking here.

Lyrics:

Let it be born in me

Hallelujah

Oh, this peace of which you speak

Let it be born in me

In Bethlehem city

Oh, the blessed mystery

Hallelujah

Let it be born in me.

 

Oh, I want to be 

something new, something new

Oh my heart, it leaps

only for you, only for you.

 

Let it be born in me

Hallelujah

Oh, the child Divinity

Let it be born in me

the blessed girl Mary

riding on the old donkey

Hallelujah

Let it be born in me.

 

Oh, I want to lay

at your feet, heaven child

Oh, I want to live

truly free, running wild.

 

Let it be born in me

Hallelujah

hope for eternity

Let it be born in me

the weight of humanity

hingeing on his majesty

Hallelujah

Let it be born in me.

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Baby Space

image “Mountain” by Anna Sircar
reflection by Daniele Berman
Psalms 55, 138, and 139: 1-23
Isaiah 10: 20-27
Jude 17-25
Luke 3: 1-9
 

Image Mountain ASircar

How can a baby take up so much space?

I spent last Friday and into the weekend like many people did, simultaneously watching the news for every development and reviling the media for capitalizing on suffering; listening intently to the precious, heartbreaking stories the children told and wishing they never had to tell them; reading news articles and blogposts and Facebook rants, head nodding and tears welling and head shaking. I read advice about how to talk to children, and I wondered whether my son had heard somehow and whether I needed to explain. He knows something of grief himself, of children that aren’t supposed to die, so I wondered how he’d understand if I did. I read comments from celebrities–why do we always look to our celebrities at times like these? I always wonder–that were uplifting and shaming and thought-provoking. I shuddered to read that the gunman may have suffered from a personality disorder, and I grieved to learn more and more again about the plight of the mentally ill. And perhaps most of all, I imagined those parents, the ones who rushed to answer the summons to the firehouse where their children were supposed to be safely and desperately awaiting their arrival. What of those mamas and dadas whose children weren’t? I wept with those mamas, like so many of us did, and I thought that I could somehow feel just the edge of the incomprehensible that they felt in that moment. Rachel weeping for her children, indeed.

Also last week, my baby (may I please still call her that, as she hurtles toward two years old?) was sick. Fever, cough, congestion–‘tis the season, indeed. Unlike her big brother,  who has for his whole life been generally a hands-off sick kid; and unlike her big sister, who always slept being held, healthy or not, but almost never in bed; my littlest is a snuggler. The always-and-only answer is mama’s bed. This is new to me, and every time she’s sick it takes me longer than it should to figure out the answer: rocking, humidifier, pain reliever, milk–it’s all good, but nothing leads to sleep except mama’s bed.

Which is actually a very simple answer, as it turns out, and a sweet one. I have plenty of room in my bed, and she’s my littlest baby yet. Plenty of room for a snuggler who just needs her mama to sleep. But here’s where every parent who has ever had a child sleep in his or her bed knows the story: no matter how tiny, a baby takes up a remarkable amount of space. It’s uncanny, really, that tiny fingers and stubby legs and sweet snores can crowd the vast expanse of a king-size bed. But crowd they do, and in persistent and smothering and deafening ways that math cannot explain. It’s remarkable.

So last week, as my littlest tossed and turned feverishly, at once using my pillow, her pillow, and my stomach to rest her sweaty head (there’s no doing the math), when her chubby, fever-warm fingers sleepily made their way from rubbing the edge of her blankie to stroking/squeezing/poking my face, I couldn’t help but simultaneously laugh (as quietly as possible) and weep for the parents whose children’s fingers aren’t warm anymore. I daresay having held the cold fingers of death, the once warm fingers that would no longer be, I can somehow feel just the edge of the incomprehensible those parents are feeling these incomprehensible nights–all of it in the warm, chubby fingers probing my damp eyes and smiling chin.

A baby takes up so much space.

Mary, did you know? I had never heard the song until the women’s carol sing this year. Mary, did you know how the warm, chubby fingers of your Baby would feel when they grew cold? She didn’t, couldn’t possibly have. Who could? “Mary did you know the sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great I Am?” That Baby, Mary’s Baby, once He had finished taking up all the space in her body, then took up all the space in her heart as every mama’s baby does, all the space and then some. That Baby’s feverish nights and first steps and funny mispronunciations and big successes seized every bit of focus and joy and pride that young mother could muster, I’m sure. But the Great I Am? That Baby is to take up all the space for all of us. And at times like these, in Advents like this one (“AdventS” plural? can there be others?), there’s plenty of space to take up, I think.

Would that we would heed the invitation to fill all of our space with that Baby. The space left by unanswered questions and things impossible to understand and the vast crevasse of griefs–of those families, of that town, of this nation, and of our own–would that the Baby could fill it all, again and again, full past filled with comfort and warmth and promise. Can we allow it? Can we allow our protests and rants and fears and weeping and uncertainties to be filled with and surrounded by hope and promise? Can we simultaneously grieve and rejoice–babies killed, and Baby born–and trust that it all fits somehow, that weeping and laughing can coexist, that the very fingers of the God-Baby squeezed His mother’s tear-stained cheeks and took up all the space that any of us has?

Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

(Luke 3: 4b-6)

It’s almost Christmas. Come, Lord Jesus–again and again we say it–come and take up all the space that a baby can. A Baby can. May we open our hearts to be filled, even our broken, weary hearts, and invite Him to fill all the space to bursting.

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Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled

image by Barbara Barnes

reflection by Pat May

Psalms 40, 54, and 51
Isaiah 10: 5-19
2 Peter 2: 17-22
Matthew 11: 2-15
 

ocome

On December 21, the Church remembers St. Thomas, the apostle famously known as “Doubting Thomas” for his refusal to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he had placed his fingers in the nail marks and felt the mark of the wound made by the spear. St. Thomas’s feast day is situated in the week of the “O” Antiphons. These seven prayers have been sung or recited since the seventh century during the final days of Advent in evening prayer.

Each antiphonal prayer begins with “O” and then includes a biblical name and ends with a call to come:

O Wisdom, O holy word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way to salvation.

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; rulers stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

O Key of David, O royal power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people into freedom.

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Ruler of all nations, the only joy of every human heart, O keystone of the mighty arch of humankind: Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

O Emmanuel, ruler and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people: Come and set us free, Lord our God.

These prayers remind us of the greatness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his glorious power. They serve to encourage us in moments of doubt, much like Thomas experienced, and they aid us in stoking the fire within for a longing that the Lord would return. With tragedies such as Newtown, Aurora, Ft. Hood, Blacksburg, Columbine, and sadly, many more, it seems almost natural to doubt the greatness and goodness of God, but Jesus would remind us:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14: 1-3)

During these last days of Advent, and especially in the shadow of Newtown, I am encouraged by the words of our Savior. My prayer is that we will accept the promise that Jesus has prepared a place for us to be with him, and we will therefore open our hearts and be ready to receive him afresh. Allow the “O” antiphons to serve you in your prayers these next few days and sense the peace that will come as we celebrate the birth of our Lord—the One who gives peace that the world cannot give. Maybe our doubts can be eroded by faith and like Thomas we can declare, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28)

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This Little Babe

reflection by Beth Linnartz

Psalms 50 and 33
Isaiah 9: 18-10: 4
2 Peter 2: 10b-16
Matthew 3: 1-12

 

My favorite Christmas poem tells about God’s wisdom appearing foolish, and his strength appearing weak

(click here to listen: This Little Babe):

This little babe so few days old,

is come to rifle Satan’s fold;

All hell doth at his presence quake,

though he himself for cold do shake;

For in this week unarmed wise

the gates of hell he will surprise.

 

With tears he fights and wins the field,

his naked breast stands for a shield.

His battering shot are babish cries,

his arrows looks of weeping eyes.

His martial ensigns Cold and Need,

and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

 

His camp is pitched in a stall,

his bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,

of shepherds he his muster makes.

And thus as sure his foe to wound,

the angels’ trumps alarum sound

 

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;

stick to the tents that he hath *pight.

Within his crib is surest ward;

this little Babe will be thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,

then flit not from this heavenly boy!

 

by Robert Southwell

(*pitched)

 

You can hear this poem in Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of This Little Babe in Ceremony of Carols.  Written in the 16th century by an English Jesuit, this poem benefits from some modern paraphrase.

This is the baby who has come to fight Satan.  Hell is afraid of him, even though he needs swaddling.  He comes naked to this battlefield with tears and cries and cold and need, in pitiful human flesh.  He starts this fight in a farmyard with shepherds for soldiers.  The angel music signals the beginning of the battle.

My soul, join his army!  Stay in his humble headquarters.  Let this baby guard you!  If you would disarm your foes by joy, don’t leave God’s Son, no matter how weak and foolish it all seems.  For “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (I Cor. 1:27)

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Lament for a Father

reflection and image by Thomas Kortus

Psalms 119: 49-72, 49, 53
Isaiah 9: 8-17
2 Peter 2: 1-10a
Mark 1: 1-8
 
joel

My dad in the hospital holding a comfort cross days before his death

Six months ago today I held my dad’s hand as he breathed his last.  We had become so accustomed to the unnaturally loud inhale and exhale of his breathing that when he stopped the stillness was deafening. I held his large and warm hand, laid my head upon his chest, and smelled him until he became cold and his color changed. For a while nobody spoke until we broke the silence in prayer.

The last six months have been a journey for me. I have been numb, busy, angry, distracted, apathetic, emotional, tired, lonely, hurt, but also deeply thankful for my dad and for how God has been and is present.  I have spent a lot of time remembering my childhood with greater intentionality; thinking about my relationship with my father; replaying certain interactions and memories with him over and over in my mind;  and discovering more about him and his life by talking to my mom, other relatives, and friends.

I find myself giving thanks to God for such a faithful, loving, and supportive dad, but I also find myself confronted by regret. I had a good relationship with my dad, but it was wasn’t all that I had hoped for.  So I find myself in this season full of thanksgiving for my earthly father of 32 years, but also confronted with regret. As I sat with dad the last three weeks of his life and interacted with his close friends, acquaintances, and co-workers at his bedside and at the memorial service, my esteem for my father grew, and I began to see him in a new light. I got to know him again from a multiplicity of perspectives and people. This has been a beautiful but also painful experience. I had written my dad off in ways that were unfair and judged him in ways that were not loving; and my pride and arrogance blinded me to who he really was and constrained my relationship with him. I find myself ever more thankful to call him my earthly father but left with regret when it comes to our relationship.

One woman called me the day he died to tell me that my dad was the reason her husband was a Christian. She told me she had been praying for years that her husband would come to Jesus and that my dad had befriended him, shared his faith with him, and bought him his first bible. She said my dad showed her husband that he could still be a man and follow Jesus.  I hung up the phone in tears. I had underestimated my dad’s life in Christ. I underestimated my dad in many ways in my youthful arrogance. I have regrets.

Why didn’t I call him more? Why weren’t we closer? Why was I not more honest with him? Why did I hide my need for him and his wisdom and experience only to seem stronger and more capable than I was?  Why did I assume his faith was not strong? Why didn’t I open up myself to him and pursue the relationship I always wanted with my earthly father? I guess I thought I had more time. We were making some real movement this past year, but things were far from where I hoped we would be. So I am left with regret along with thanksgiving for my father.

I had been stuck in this place for a few months when last week I was reading Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff and came across this passage:

I believe that God forgives me. I do not doubt that. The matter between God and me is closed. But what about the matter between Eric and me? For my regrets remain. What do I do with my God forgiven regrets? Maybe some of what I regret doesn’t even need forgiving: maybe sometimes I did as well as I could. Full love isn’t always possible in this fallen world of ours. Still I regret. I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds. But I will not endlessly gaze at them.

I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that great day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, “I’m sorry.”

The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.

 

This Advent season I find my longing for Jesus’ return stronger than ever. I long for all that is wrong with this messed up world to be made right. I long to be reunited with my dad. I long for us to see each other face to face, both made perfect by the presence of God. I long for us to stand before one another and embrace and talk in ways we were not able to in this life as a result of our pride, brokenness, and generations upon generations of sin and rebellion. I long for Jesus to come again to make all things new, especially my father’s disease-destroyed body and our relationship as father and son. My prayer is that my regret will indeed inspire and fuel a greater intentionality in my earthly relationships as well as strengthen and intensify my longing for Christ’s return and the reunion with all the saints that have gone before me–especially my dad.

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The Promises of Christ

image “Advent Hands” by Barbara Barnes
reflection by Sarah Hudspeth
Psalm 45, 47, and 48
Isaiah 9: 1-7
2 Peter 1: 12-21
Luke 22: 54-69

 

adventhands

 

Recently, the relationship between “promise” and “faith” hit me in a new way while reading a scene in the Lord of the Rings series. The scene is between Faramir and Frodo (in the secret caves of Henneth Annun close to the land of Mordor). Frodo has just vouched for Gollum, and Faramir has refused the ring and grants Frodo and Sam safe passage through the land on their way to Mordor. Faramir learns that Gollum is leading Sam and Frodo to a dangerous place called Cirith Ungol and counsels them to not go there. But Frodo responds, “‘I have promised many times to take [Gollum] under my protection and to go where he led. You would not ask me to break faith with him?’  ‘No,’ says Faramir. ‘But my heart would. For it seems less evil to counsel another man to break troth than to do so oneself.’”

Faith. Promises. Something clicked for me connecting the two. The reason we have faith is because God makes us promises. And it goes the other way, too: because of the promises God makes, we attain faith. Frodo does not break faith with Gollum because of his promise. Just as God does not break faith with us by failing to follow through on His promises.

And look at what God has promised us in the scripture readings for today. In Isaiah, we are promised relief from anguish! “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish,” writes the prophet Isaiah. Even when we are in the land of sacrifice and struggle  (possible translations of Zebulun and Naphtali), we are promised a Prince of Peace who will establish righteousness and justice and be the wonderful counselor:

“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” continues Isaiah.

In the Psalms we have delightful pictures of victory and celebration.
“God has anointed you with the oil of gladness; …From ivory palaces
stringed instruments make you glad…In place of your fathers shall be
your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth…I will cause
your name to be remembered in all generations” writes a Psalmist in
Psalm 45.

Even in Luke we have a situation where Jesus has said that Peter will
deny his lord three times, and behold, Peter breaks faith with Jesus
before the rooster crows. But that’s not the end. In 2 Peter 1, we
see Peter writing emphatically  “of very great and precious promises”
God has made us. He writes, “We did not follow cleverly invented
stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus
Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor
and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the
Majestic Glory…We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven
when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of
the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention
to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and
the morning star rises in your hearts.”  And so while Peter broke faith,
God did not. God marked Peter as His own and used him. Promises. Faith. We need promises to have faith. We need faith to trust in God’s promises.

And Christmas is the day to celebrate His promises. On Christmas, God
follows through on his greatest promise to us, His Son, the Wonderful
counselor promised in Isaiah 9. It is at Christmas that we see a bit of the
glory and the majesty of the celebrations talked about in Psalms 45,
47,and 48. The church rolls out the red carpet and clothes itself in
colorful robes and anoints all who come within its doors with the oil
of gladness and goodwill.  It is but a glimpse of the glory and the
majesty that God has for us in His holy city. Peace, love, goodwill
towards men–those mantras of the holiday season– are promises found in
the Bible; while commercialized and monetized in our current culture,
they are tied to holy truth nonetheless.  Even the decorations, the wreaths, the evergreens, and the magic of “Santa Claus” tangible in the air point to greater feasting, greater joys, and greater celebrations promised for those who love and believe in Christ. And though we break faith like Peter, God’s promises hold. The repentant are welcomed with the promise of forgiveness and a place in the festivities.

So today meditate on what God has promised you in the deep recesses of
your heart. What light is God shining in the dark for the you? What
anguish or struggle does He wish to release you from? With what joy
does he want to anoint you? Meditate on what He has promised His
church and the world. And pray for peace between warring nations,
comfort and counsel for those in the midst of doubt or sorrow or
trouble, and the hope of a city with Christ as King.  Jesus promises
to bring us out of darkness and into marvelous light. He promises an
inheritance with Him as a son or daughter of God! Cling to these
promises of God this holiday season. And celebrate them!

May God remind you how He does not break faith on His promises this
Christmas. May He fill your heart with the glory of a Hallelujah
chorus, the peace of a right ruler, the beauty of evergreens
decorating the mantelpiece, the joy of a child being born, and the
strength and humility of Jesus to die for the sins of the world. Amen.

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