Advent Meditation for Christmas Eve: Singing the Messiah

sing-along“Sing-along Messiah” events are Christmas traditions in many communities. They involve community members bringing their copy of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah and joining the choir to sing the choruses in the performance. It is traditional to do the “Christmas portions” of the massive oratorio composed in 1741, Part 1 plus the “Hallelujah” chorus from Part 2. (Note: Part 2 of the Messiah is the “Passion” section, sometimes performed at Easter, Part 3 is sometimes seen as the Pauline section, singing of the resurrection of the dead.) It has been my privilege and joy to participate in Messiah Sing-Alongs at least ten times by playing in the orchestra. I love it. The community orchestras I have played in used these events as fundraisers. Instead of paying the performers, they pay you! What a deal!

Singing and Christmas have a tight relationship in our annual celebration. How do you think a Christmas eve service would be received if no Christmas carols were sung? All the public spaces are filled with a repetitive list of Christmas music. My personal opinion is it might be good to expand this repertoire a bit. I’m not sure I need to hear Dean Martin sing “Let It Snow” more than five or six times a year.

Some claim the greatest music ever written is Christmas music. Beyond the Messiah, we think of Bach’s Magnificat or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Especially beloved is the Adophe Adam music written for Placide Cappeau’s poem “Minuit, chrétiens,” first performed in 1848 as Cantique de Noel. In America, a minister named John Sullivan Dwight offered an English version in 1855, and we still sing it: O Holy Night!

But why music and Christmas? Why a night that is more holy than others?

The Christmas story is full of paradoxes and there is none greater than the appearance of the angels to the Bethlehem shepherds. It was a visit of the most powerful created beings in the universe to some of the lowliest with the precious message of Christmas: the Savior of Mankind had been born! This could only be a message from the Lord God himself, great glad tidings, the good news of the Gospel for human redemption!

angels-and-shepherdsThe announcement by this lead angel was followed by something more astounding: the revelation to the shepherds of more angels, “a multitude of the heavenly host” (πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου), literally, “an army in the sky.” A singing army of angels, and this is what they sang:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

The KJV has the angels “saying” this refrain, but that misunderstands the variety of meanings of the Greek word lego (λέγω), which can refer to singing words as well as speaking.

These humble but obedient shepherds go to the place in Bethlehem village where the new Messiah has been born. Were they humming the angel’s tune? Were they singing it? Did they teach it to the new friends they made in the Jesus stable? Did the ox and ass keep time?

We live today in a world full of music. It is hard to escape it, our media saturation society drips music. How great it is to have at least some of that music focused on our Lord Jesus Christ! So in these last days of Advent, may we join the angels and sing.

Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax

Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 4: Giving for and Receiving from the Messiah

four-candles-litWhen we were boys, my two brothers and I always got up early on Christmas to open presents. We expected toys! Grandma Bessie didn’t understand this: underwear! One year a belt! Never toys or anything cool. She just didn’t get it, I thought. Christmas was mainly about the presents I was getting.

Things changed when I was a junior in high school, age 16: my family had a very rough Christmas. My father was very ill with Hepatitis and was in the hospital. My dad was a doctor and while we were not rich, we always were comfortable. But doctors don’t get paid if they don’t work, and he was in the hospital a long time. From something my mother said, I realized that money was very tight. And I realized I was the only one who had a job, a little part-time gig in the down drugstore, so I took the money I had saved, about $150, and made a determined effort to buy nice gifts for my family: mother, father, older brother in college, and younger brother in grade school. I even realized we did not have a Christmas tree, so on the day before Christmas I stopped by a lot and bought one. At age 16 it was one of the best Christmases I have ever had.

I had moved from the joy of getting, to a much greater joy: giving. Perhaps I understood a tiny bit of being godlike, the joy that God felt when he gave us his Son. Perhaps I had begun to know that no one was rejoicing more on the first Christmas than God the Father.

Now I have over 60 Christmases under my belt. I enjoy getting gifts from friends and loved ones. I enjoy giving gifts to friends and loved ones. But there is another stage. The families of guys like me will usually say, “He is hard to buy for! I never know what to get him!” For years when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas, I would say something like, “I just want your love.” But that missed the point. I was denying others the joy of giving. I had not learned how to receive.

The angels who greeted the shepherds gave glory to God. And God received their praise. Not because God’s ego needed a boost, but because God knew they needed to give and they needed him to received their gift.

And perhaps that is something about Christmas we miss. We are very human when our concern is getting gifts for ourselves. We are most human when we are disappointed in our gifts. But when we give and when we gratefully receive from others, we are more like God.

Remember Mary, when confronted with the news that she would become pregnant although a virgin took a minute to process. But then she said:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

She received the greatest gift of all, a gift that blessed us today, with humility and grace. No wonder we love her so much.

Advent Week 3: Journeying for the Messiah

week-3-adventI once spoke for a Christian Indian-American gathering and had a great time fellowshipping with my brothers and sisters from the great sub-continent of Asia. I enjoyed the curry-rich food with hints of many other spices I could not name.

While eating with my new friends, I was reflecting on why a person born in India would want to come to the USA. My assumptions were: better economic prospects, easier assimilation than some immigrant populations because they already speak good English, and family already in the United States.  These were all somewhat true, but none were the primary reason. Repeatedly, I was told that America was the place where they could live as Christians without fear of persecution or discrimination. India is a large, diverse country, but the Hindu majority sees conversion to the Christian faith as both heretical and, to some degree, unpatriotic. I struck me: they journeyed to America to serve Jesus more openly.

A delightful part of the Christmas story is the part played by the magi, popularly known as “wise men.” Only mentioned by Matthew, the magi story is sparse on details. Sometimes we call them “kings.” It is possible they had royal status, otherwise their quick access to King Herod is hard to understand. We like to think there were three wise men, although Matthew does not say. This comes from Matthew’s mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assuming the “one gift per magi rule”). We often say they were from Persia, but Matthew simply says they were from the “east.” Persia is east of Jerusalem, and given the historical circumstances at the time, it is as likely as anyplace for their origin. If true, this would mean they came from outside the Roman empire into the Roman world, and I think that is what Matthew wants us to understand.

The occasion for their coming to Jerusalem was the appearance of a new phenomenon in the sky, what Matthew calls a “star” (ἀστέρα). This indicates the magi studied the stars and has led us to conclude they were astrologers, people who believed the movement and alignment of astral phenomena signaled or even controlled future events. This has led many to conclude they were not Jews, but this is not a necessary conclusion. Later Jewish sources indicate a place for astrology in practice. This includes the Talmud and the much later Jewish phenomenon known as the Kabballah. I think it is both possible and even probable that these men were Jews. We must imagine the details, but I think the background of the magi was something like this:

star-of-bethlehemThere was a guild of Jewish men who studied both the Torah and other Jewish writings as well as the stars and planets. A new, unusually bright star-like light appeared in their night sky and they concluded it was a sign from the Lord that the long-promised Messiah of their Scriptures had been born. They determined that there were no further answers for them where they lived in Mesopotamia and decided to travel to the most Jewish city of all, Jerusalem, to get answers. Once there, they went to the head man, King Herod, perhaps not realizing he was not really a Jew. They unintentionally created a crisis for Herod, who feared any legitimate claimant to his throne. Herod had quick access to the best Scripture scholars of his city, and they determined that the scroll of the prophet Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. This made sense to everyone, for Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the prototype of the Messiah. Therefore, the magi hurried to Bethlehem, just a few miles south, promising to come back and report to Herod what they find (probably the next day). As they set out, they find guidance from a truly miraculous “star,” perhaps a visionary experience that only they could see. They find the young Jesus with his mother and father in a Bethlehem house where they worship (bow down) to him and give him three lavish gifts.

Like my Indian friends, they had journeyed far to worship the Lord Jesus. It was a hard journey, a journey of faith. It was rewarded with joy and fulfillment.

As we come to the Lord Jesus in this season of Advent, may we, too, come in faith. May we brush aside the unbelievers like Herod who would exploit us or discourage us. May we realize the purpose of our journey, to serve and worship Jesus the Messiah.

O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 2: Aligning for the Messaih

advent-second-weekWhere does an idea begin? What starts a practice that becomes entrenched and commonplace in society? There are many things that depend on a single individual coming up with a new idea, something that had never been done before, and setting a trend that continued. For example, why is our counting system 10-base (decimal) and our time system 60-base (sexagesimal)? Why do men shave the hair off their faces? Why do we drive on the right side of the road in America, but the British dive on the left? Who first thought of these things?

A second thought: how do things get aligned? If we are talking about the front wheels of a car, the answer is, sometimes, “Very expensively.” But remember your old geometry lessons. Two points are always aligned:

two-points

Three points are a little trickier:

thee-points

But if we rotate our view of these three points by 90°, we would find they are on the same plane and appear to be aligned:

three-points-rotated

If we get beyond three points, alignment becomes an increasing challenge. This is why stools were traditionally three-legged rather than four. Three leg ends will always touch the ground equally, four legs will tend to be wobbly. Five legs are nearly impossible to keep in alignment.

Put these two things together: Initial idea and alignment.

One of the most marvelous aspects of studying the Bible is to see prophecy in the Old Testament aligning with fulfillment in the New Testament. This is heightened when we contemplate the Christmas story as revealed in Scripture. We usually understand the idea of a Messiah beginning in God’s promises to Adam, Eve, and the serpent shortly before expulsion from the Garden. The tempting serpent is given is cursed to crawl on his belly (i.e., snake) and, therefore, to eat dust. The Lord also give the serpent this dire promise:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
(Genesis 3:15)

The idea: God promises to send a Savior, the offspring of Eve, who would deliver mankind by defeating the serpent (Satan) and all the evil he causes. In a nutshell: Mankind needs a Savior and God will provide. Christians believe this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Two point alignment.

But this is not the only prophecy about a Messiah. Consider three others related to Christmas:

  1. The Messiah would be from the royal tribe, Judah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
(Genesis 49:10)

  1. The Messiah’s conception would be miraculous, his mother a virgin.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

  1. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David, as his rightful heir.

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

This is not the place to expand on these three prophecies, but when we count these items, we get this:

Genesis 3 + Genesis 49 + Isaiah 7 + Micah 5 + Jesus Christ = 5

This is not alignment of merely two, or three things. It is alignment of five things over a period of 1,500+ years, and this is just a small sample of the prophecies and fulfillments realized in Jesus Christ. The marvelous alignment of God, his plan for our salvation patiently implemented, never forgotten! Evermore and Evermore!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 1: Waiting for the Messiah

advent-first-candleN.T. (Tom) Wright has blessed the Christian community with his prodigious speaking schedule and his voluminous library of writings. (See this summary of his teachings.) His reputation and credibility are enhanced by having a career marked by ministry assignments beyond the walls of academia. Most prominently, Wright served as the Anglican Bishop of Durham, 2003-2010. The diocese of Durham is not an enclave of wealth or privilege, but a gritty industrial area with a host of social problems. Wright plunged into this post with energy and hope, always seeking to minister in the name of Christ.

Wright is primarily a Pauline scholar, but has more than bridged the gap between those who study Paul and those who study the Gospels. Paul points to Jesus for Wright, not the other way around as in much of Evangelical theology. We should note, however, that Wright is also a keen student of history and of cultural context for the writings of the Bible.

How would Wright understand the situation in Palestine at the time leading up to the birth of Jesus the Messiah? His writings speak of this from different angles, but the most helpful for me is a set of five questions and answers. As we prepare for our celebration of the birth of our Lord, our Savior Jesus the Christ, let us review how the Jews of Jesus’ day viewed their situation at the time of his birth. How would a common Jew (such as Joseph or Mary) understand their position in the flow of history? Here are Wright’s Q & A’s:

  1. Who are we?

“We are Israel, the chosen people of the Creator God.”

  1. Where are we?

“We are in the Holy Land focused on the temple, but paradoxically we are in a sense still in exile, still outsiders in our own land.”

  1. What is wrong?

“We have the wrong rulers; pagans on the one hand (Romans), compromised or half-breed Jews (the Herodians) on the other. We are all involved in a less than perfect situation.”

  1. What is the solution?

“Our God must act to give us all the proper sort of rule again, God’s own rule through a priest or a king or both, and in the meanwhile Israel must be faithful to the covenant.”

  1. What time is it?

“It is the eve of the Day of the Lord, the dramatic deliverance of the God of Israel.”

That last one gives me chills whenever I read it. How often do we ask, “What time is it?” regarding our position in history? If we believe that God is the Lord of history, how is he moving and orchestrating right now?

The prophets of Israel had long held out the promise of the Day of the Lord for the people of God. Zephaniah thundered:

The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.

This was the much-anticipated future time when the people of Israel would be rescued from their foreign oppressors and restored to a preeminent position among the nations of the earth. It was a day when the wicked would no longer prosper and the righteous would no longer suffer. It was a day when the faithful would be rewarded for their generational waiting for the Lord to act on their behalf. It was the ultimate eschatological point in the future.

Do we consider the advent of the Messiah to be the Day of the Lord? No, it is not that simple. We live in a world that gives evidence to a great amount of unfinished business for God. Wickedness goes unpunished. The poor are forgotten or crushed. The people of God worry more about their prosperity than their service.

Yet then, as now, there is a great cause for hope. The advent of the Messiah was God’s bullhorn message, “I have not forgotten you! I keep my promises! I want you as my people! My Son is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” This message still rings today. Christmas is our yearly reminder of God’s love for us, God’s plan for us, and God’s reign over us.

Prayer: Lord, this week, may I pause frequently to remember your providence and plan for me as part of your people. Thank you for Christmas and what it means to your world. May we cut through Christmas clutter to remember you and honor you this week. In the Savior’s name we pray, AMEN.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Views expressed are those of the author, not his employer

Christmas Meditation: Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Birth of ChristIn the church’s engagement with Islam, a major point of contention is the idea that Christ is the Son of God. Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, rejected any sort of notion that there could be a “son” of God. In my study of Islam, this appears to be both because of his rejection of pagan myths that told of gods having sex with human women to produce god-man offspring, and because of his insistence on monotheism (belief in one God). Christians would agree with both of these points. There is no hint of Mary having a sexual encounter with a deity. And we are monotheists, too.

But Christians believe that God has revealed himself to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the mystery of trinitarian faith. It defies logic despite many learned treatises written to explain it. The core paradox may be expressed in what might be called trinitarian arithmetic:

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

But how can we understand this?

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius was a Spaniard, trained as a lawyer. He rose through the ranks of the empire as a judge and became one of the chief officials at the court of the Christian Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople. At age 57, in AD 405, at the pinnacle of his career as one of the most powerful men in the Empire, he retired from civic life to write religious poetry. At this time he wrote:

Now, then, at last, close on the very end of life,
May yet my sinful soul put off her foolishness;
And if by deeds it cannot,
yet, at least, by words give praise to God,

His greatest work was the Liber Cathermerion. It is a collection of 12 long poems, one for each hour of the day. The ninth of these has these words:

Corde natus ex parentis, ante mundi exordium

In 1854, the Englishman John Mason Neal translated this as “Of the Father Sole Begotten.” Neal used a beautiful medieval plainsong as the setting for his translation of Prudentius’s words, creating a Christmas song for his time. In 1861 this was revised by another Englishman, Henry Williams Baker, as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the world’s began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessed, When the Virgin full of grace,
By the Holy Spirit conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heav’n adore Him; Angel host, His praises sing,
Pow’rs dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ to Thee with God the Father, And O Holy Spirit to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, And unwearied praises be;
Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!

Prudentius’s works were appreciated by that great 20th Century scholar, C.S. Lewis. I, too, love the words of this song, one of the most profound of the Christmas collection. It give clear, simple answers to some of the dilemmas of trinitarian theology. Consider:

  • How was Christ conceived? By the Father’s love.
  • What is the proper response? Unwearied praises.
  • Where do we direct praise? To Christ with God the Father.
  • What is the end of all things? Eternal victory.
  • How long should we celebrate? Evermore and evermore!

Let no tongueCelebration of the birth of Christ should be done with great joy, but also with an appreciation of the mystery of the incarnation. But never forget the center of it all: the Father’s Love!

So merry, blessed Christmas to you, all my friends.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Week 4: Melancholy Christmas

gemini viiIt was fifty years ago, December 1965, when Gemini VII was finishing its record-breaking 14-day mission orbiting the earth. Astronauts James Frank Borman and James Lovell requested that mission control play a Christmas song for them, Bing Cosby’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light beams.
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams

The song falls into the category sometimes called “melancholy Christmas.” It speaks to the lost spirit of Christmas, claiming that Christmas happiness and joy is only an illusion, only a dream.

Christmas is not a happy time for everyone, even for many faithful Christians. Sometimes we are acutely aware of our losses, of those who are not here with us. 

Christina RossettiChristina Rossetti was a member of the famous Rossetti family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became a celebrated artist during this period, the late 19th century. Christina was born in London, but her family was Italian. Her father was a university professor, but died early and left the family in great financial distress. She thus grew up in a very educated and cultured but very poor family. In her poetry, it can be seen that she longed to marry and become a mother, but she spurned two men who apparently loved her deeply because of her very strict religious beliefs. She was a devout evangelical. She sacrificed love for faith. Her health declined for many years, eventually causing her to be housebound. She died from cancer in 1894, only 64 years old.

Her Christmas poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was written sometime before 1872, before the worst of her health problems, but was not published until after her death in 1904. In this striking poem, one can sense her loneliness and disappointment with life.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Life is hard and cold. Snow and winter is unending. The only way to describe it is “bleak.” Although Rossetti portrays this as “long ago,” one senses that it is a present reality for her, and for her readers. As Amy Grant once sang, “Life’s hard!”  It can seem like misfortune piles on top of misfortune. We moan for loneliness, for our melancholy.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Although Rossetti’s faith in the glorious nature of her God is strong, the reality of this world is harsh. There is a great contrast here between the two Advents of the Christ. His second Advent, the second coming, would be with power and renewal. But the first Advent was stark and humble. It was at a bleak time in a stable. Rossetti does not try to explain this, but allows the paradox to stand, “The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” Such is the mystery of the incarnation.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ birth is continued in these verses. Rossetti pictures the deserved worship and acclaim due to the Son of God, and given to him by unimaginable hoards of angels and archangels. Despite the invisible presence of these heavenly beings, it is quiet in the stable. The animals make their contented sounds. The only “worship” given the newborn king is the greatest thing in all the earth, the kiss of his mother.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

One can sense the lost motherhood of Rossetti at this point. She wants to give something to the precious babe. She cannot emulate the rich Wise Men, or even the humble shepherds. She is poor, and would never have even modest wealth to lavish on the Savior. She is left with but one gift that has any significance: her all, her very being, her heart.

Christmas will doubtlessly be both a sad and happy time for you. I have two dear friends I am praying for who will celebrate the first Christmas without their beloved mother. I know what that is like. But even if your Christmas is melancholy, please, please don’t turn away from the Christ. Give him your heart. Even in the bleakest times, we can find joy. The joy of the Gospel often comes through the darkness of the blues.

Give him your heart!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College