Tag Archives: Christmas

Great things can come from little ones (Advent Week 2)

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

Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. It was first occupied by the Canaanites for farming as early as 1350-1300 BC, the earliest known written reference. Overshadowed by Jerusalem only 10 km away, this small, out of the way village – often known for nothing more than its anonymous farmers and shepherds – would play a major part in Jewish history.

Rachel, the favored wife of the patriarch Jacob (also known as Israel) and mother of Joseph, died there. Joseph would be sold into slavery by his eleven jealous brothers while herding sheep on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Guided by God, Joseph would end up saving Egypt and his family from starvation during a time of famine. His ability to interpret dreams would convince the Pharaoh to store grain for the dark days ahead. After subsequent enslavement in Egypt and forty years of desert wondering sustained by manna, the brothers’ descendants would return as one people, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Later, Naomi and her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth, would return to Bethlehem after the death of Naomi’s husband and sons. It was Naomi’s ancestral home and former village. If nothing else, they hoped to survive by gleaning, collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields as allowed by Mosaic Law to show mercy toward the poor. Ruth will meet Boaz amidst the grain fields and a relationship will be forged one night on the threshing room floor. Where there had seemed no hope, love and new life would come.

Their descendants would include a simple shepherd boy, David, who would become a great king. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Bethlehem would eventually become the birthplace of Jesus, descendant of David, Son of God, the Bread of Life.

Bread was the basic food for all Israelites, rich or poor. Thus, it came to be a common metaphor for life and abundance. In the Temple, bread would be used as part of a symbolic offering to God. It wasn’t meant to be a food to God, but it was there as a sign of thanksgiving for the provision of the people with their daily bread. In homes, breaking bread became a sign of hospitality. Bread is not really extraordinary. It’s the ordinary stuff of daily life, and yet it proves also the stuff of miracles. For God is active in the ordinary, blessing us right down to the provision of our homes, clothing and food.

Much as bread and grain woven throughout the Bible, so was Bethlehem. Unremarkable in and of itself, Bethlehem and its ordinary people would become part of an extraordinary story. It’s the story of salvation which ultimately came to a climax through the life of a small and seemingly ordinary baby.

Our congregation might be small. Our lives might prove ordinary. Yet God is here – active amidst the ordinary, making us sacred, opening a way forward to new life. Here, we share in the joys and struggles of life together. Here, hopelessness is transformed into hope. Here, we are being made part of God’s story, one God is still telling. A happy, miraculous ending lies before us.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent, Uncategorized

What do you expect? (Advent, Week 1)

advent 1.expectation

As we enter this busy season of Advent, we seek to dig deeper into scripture, practice spiritual disciplines, and prepare in many practical ways for Christmas to come, but do we really hear the promises of God amidst our hurry?

As human beings, we find ourselves too often really human doers. The scriptural mandate to “be still and know that I am God” probably is far from our reality. With the stress we face and time crunching around us, we probably aren’t so keen on listening to or looking for God. Life can wear us down, and instead of joy, we tend to find it difficult to believe that the ancient promises of God can leap off dusty pages of the Bible and into our busy, modern lives. We tend to expect too little from this season and from our God who loves us.

“Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed.” “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” “Expect the worst and hope for the best.” If you look up this week’s Advent theme, expectation, on the internet, that’s the kind of worldly wise statements that you’ll find. Yet as Christians, expectation really proves the breeding ground for miracles.

For long ago, a prophet foretold that a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son. He would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Prophesy also promised that the babe would be born in Bethlehem, although it was a small and dusty town on the outskirts of civilized Jewish society. He would be a descendant of a remarkably surprising collection of people: Jews and gentiles, kings and paupers, untrustworthy shepherds and even a prostitute. He came to share our life and lose his for our sake. He would prove to be God with Us, Emmanuel.

Although this all was promised, few could say anyone really expected it to happen as it did. In fact when it finally came to pass, the story starts quite simply, “[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” What a child he would prove to be!

Much like those who first heard the message of the angels and encountered Jesus in the manger, please slow down. Redirect your attention to what God is doing in our world and your life. Ponder the great purpose of Christ’s coming. Don’t let this season pass without its good news touching your life. Advent invites us to expect the impossible. Jesus, who came as a baby, God in the flesh, came for you and for me. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly.

Trusting in Jesus, seek first to know what he expects from you and your life. Expect nothing less than a future full of hope and life without end. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent

The Christmas rush isn’t all bad

race_of_the_santas_breckenridge_1

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” so the song goes. Unfortunately, our Advent and Christmas can seem anything but calm. As I write this, it is mid-November, and yet, our congregation’s planning teams have already been working on our Christmas together for weeks. Christmas music has started to play in stores and in some cases on the radio. One of my neighbors has already set up their Christmas tree even though Advent doesn’t begin for almost two weeks!

Our society seems impatient to experience Christmas joy and peace. Perhaps this is because there is too little joy and peace in our world. At this time of year, it gets busier at our congregation and busier in our homes. Light dims and darkness grows. Unexpected bills happen. Sickness and death comes. After Paris, Beirut, Kenya, and on and on, terrorism and war frighten us. We hope for an ideal Christmas because our lives in a fallen world are always less than perfect. Too little is calm, and our future may seem dark to us. We often hunger for a reprieve from our pain and busy, unpredictable life.

Jesus came into a time of trouble not so unlike our own. People were lucky to reach their teens. Thirty was considered old. Israel was an occupied country with isolated rebels and thieves (especially in Judea) seeking to defeat the Roman Empire and perhaps get a little economic advantage and power for themselves at the same time. For their part, the Romans wished to assert their power at all costs. Their vassal king, Herod the Great, was known to be tyrannical if not a bit mentally unstable. It would be he who ordered all babies and toddlers in Bethlehem murdered over fear that the recently born Jesus would usurp his throne. Life was hard and often unfair.

Despite these threats, Jesus came as a most vulnerable babe. He was a child of scandal, for his neighbors had heard of Mary’s pregnancy prior to her marriage with Joseph. Many in that day were poor like Jesus’ own family, and they often lived and died by the discretion and generosity of others with higher stature. Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid our pain. Instead, he embraced and crushed it forever. As one liturgical communion prayer reminds us, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”

Most certainly, we can be encouraged that Jesus shared in our weakness and sorrows in order to share with us his victory over sin, suffering, death and the Devil. Against all odds, peace forcefully broke into our world to live among us and die among us through Jesus. For a moment, all was calm and all was bright because God was finally with us in the flesh. It was time for all creation to pause, worship and give thanks.

A mere 33 years later, all too soon, Jesus died, rose and ascended into heaven. We were warned life would not be easy in his absence, but it wouldn’t remain hard for ever. Similar to our wait for Christmas morning, creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” It might prove a bumpy, fearful ride at times until then, but there can be joy on our journey. For Christmas day has come, and Easter is on its way. And all the while, we’re not alone. We are the church together: enlivened by God’s Spirit, sharing both our pain and joys with one another; offering pardon to those still in darkness. We are rushing not toward our death but toward a certain future filled with hope.

With all the saints before us, we can pray with confidence as we face any darkness, “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.” We don’t know the time, but we can trust Christ is already on his way. And when he comes, all will be calm and bright forevermore. For this time, Christ will be here to stay, and despite whatever might go on around us until then, I for one can’t wait. If that’s our future, let time fly.

 

Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2015 – January 2016).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Liturgical Year, Pastoral Letter

Candlemas for the young family (And the young at heart)

presentation

What a wonderful opportunity to rejoice in the light of Christ once again – Candlemas!

Candlemas is actually the Christian “Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.” The Holy family had come to the Temple to fulfill the Law of Moses. Forty days after the birth of the male child, Mary’s ritual purification and the redemption of the firstborn son were due to be performed. Being a poor family, only a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons needed to be offered to God.

Yet while they prepared to do so, two elderly, faithful people, Simeon and Anna, saw something else going on beyond the sacrifice. God was doing something much greater and offering something much dearer. God was doing something new. The Spirit revealed to them that God’s light had broken through the darkness. The infant, Jesus, was the long awaited Messiah and nothing would be the same ever again. Jesus, our joy and salvation, had come into the world!

This feast day comes forty days after Christmas and historically closed out the season. The remaining Christmas greens would be taken down. The days were still short and nights long. Spring was, well, yet to be sprung. And so this day came to serve as reminder that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

In time, it became a practice to bless the candles to be used in church during the coming year. Later, families would bring their own candles to church for a blessing. Hence, we now have the alternative name for the feast day, Candlemas.

candlemas at home

Using resources from Evangelical Lutheran Worship and the Revised Common Lectionary, your family can easily mark this day and your own baptismal call. The following is a short ritual I offered my congregation for home use:

As the family gathers for a meal, before bed or at another convenient time, light your candle.

All: Alleluia. My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. Alleluia.

Leader reads: Luke 2:22-40

A short reflection may be shared, or discussion time, or even a brief moment of silence to reflect in the light of the candle. When finished…

Leader: Let us pray together…
All: Almighty and ever-living God, your only-begotten Son was presented this day in the temple. May we be presented to you with clean and pure hearts by the same Jesus Christ, our great high priest, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Leader: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.

Optional –

Close the gathering with a hymn or song dealing with light, perhaps “This little light of mine.”

This might also be a wonderful time to take out any saved baptismal candles and reflect upon the meaning of our individual baptism and talk about events of that day.

As better candles are made of beeswax, perhaps make a beehive cake to help your family celebrate.

A quote from John Chrysostom comes to my mind, “The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others.”

As we look upon our candles this Candlemas, let us urge our children (and all the children of God) to not waste time just being “busy bees” chasing things of this world. Let us instead love God and neighbor. Then, our lives will be used to build the Kingdom of God with Jesus. His light will come to shine through us.

Happy Candlemas, everyone!

early behive

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Church History, Community Life, Lectionary, worship

Be born in me, again and again

Angels appearing before the shepherds, by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Angels appearing before the shepherds,                                     by Henry Ossawa Tanner

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”(Luke 2:13-14)

What a powerful, enduring image – an angelic multitude proclaiming the birth of Jesus to poor shepherds in a field! In great works of art or on more humble Christmas cards or creches, even in our favorite carols, we imagine them in song with the shepherds below basking in the glory and love of our God. How much more should we let our lives sing a song of gladness? For Jesus came not to remain in that stable, but instead plans to come to us where we are. He desires to reside in our hearts.

Mary (1914), by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Mary (1914), by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Yes, through our faith and baptism, we share a more similar experience to Mary’s own. She was a poor, relatively uneducated young lady; likely 13 to 15 years old. She had lots of questions, doubts and fears to wrestle with, yet when the angel announced she would become the mother of the one true God, she submitted. Her magnificat (a song of praise captured in Luke 1) declares with certainty, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary was God’s favored one, and we share in that favor. Truly, Jesus waits to be born in each of us and reborn each day. No matter how we perceive ourselves with our varied gifts and struggles, God has come to us declaring each of us beloved child. Prophets in the Jewish scriptures predicted a time when the Temple would be no more, for our bodies would become the place where the yet unknown Christ resides. The Angels in the field proclaimed that Jesus came for all of us who are poor, imperfect and in need of love.

In Jewish theology, our heart represents more than an organ or emotional passion, it reflects our utmost being – the depths and totality of who we are. That’s where Jesus wishes to reside. So, Jesus prayed that we be one as he and the Trinity are one. It is Jesus who chose and called each of us to follow him. It is he who wants to live inside us and through us so intimately in every moment that he names us as his body. This good fortune is offered as a certain gift to all who dare trust in his promises.

Surely, Christ’s presence will upset our lives. It might even make us the objects of scorn or worse. Yet, “Do not be afraid!” God’s favor will never disappoint. Walk on so that your life becomes his song. Walk on trusting that Christ walks with you and that many more miracles shall surely come. His presence will bless us beyond our expectations.

The Christian singer Francessca Battistelli in a recent song imagines these words coming from the heart of Mary and her own, “I am not brave. I’ll never be. The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy. I’m just a girl. Nothing more. But I am willing, I am Yours. Be born in me.”

Do not doubt any longer, but believe. Open your heart and welcome Christ at each new sunrise or whenever darkness falls. The promises of God are fulfilled in your hearing. Blessed are you! Holy are you! Sing to the glory of God, so that all might believe!

Be born in me (Mary), Francesca Battistelli 

This post was originally published in Messiah Lutheran Church and School’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2014/January 2015).

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2014 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

1 Comment

Filed under Advent, Christmas, Grace

Epiphany Blessing

 

3kings blessing

 

 

Epiphany, also historically known as “Little Christmas,” marks the end of Christmas celebrations in Western Christendom on January 6th. The arrival of the Magi is often remembered as part of these celebrations. Although scripture never numbers the gentile Magi who came to worship Jesus, a tradition developed that there were three; each one baring a special gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They became popularly known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar and are often artistically represented as being of different peoples and races, for Jesus came to offer salvation to all.

Over time, a popular custom began to bless one’s home on Epiphany with the words in Latin, Christus Mansionem Benedicat (May Christ bless this house). I surmise this was because of the biblical scene from Matthew 2: 1-12. (Jesus was no longer in the stable but described to be in a house with his own family when the Magi visit.) Yet, I have not confirmed the origin of this practice. The first letter from each word of this blessing corresponds to the traditional names given the Magi. Which came first – the blessing or the names – remains a mystery, but their development within popular culture is likely related.

As we move forward into a new year, I suggest use of a simple blessing ceremony I have adapted from the internet. You can further adapt it to meet your family’s needs:

Once gathered, all may make the Sign of the Cross.

Leader: Peace be to this house and to all who dwell here, in the name of the Lord.

All: Blessed be God forever.

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Using chalk, write on the outside of your house’s door or frame (alternatively, on a path or driveway, or above or next to an entrance):

+ 20 C M B 14 +

This stands for the first half of the current year written out, Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house), then the other half of the current year written out. Start and end with a cross.

Optionally, the entire phrase may be written out. Each marking or word could be written by a varied member of the household if desired. The leader can share a prayer of their own or simply ask God to bless your home as the markings are made.

When finished, all can join in a closing prayer – “Lord God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only begotten Son to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness and the keeping of your law. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our love for each other may go out to all. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

May a joyful and blessed Epiphany be yours!

Pastor Lou

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christmas, Community Life, Epiphany, Liturgical Year, Uncategorized, worship

My Heart Remains in Wonder

stained glass nativity with sunOn coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

Have you ever taken a good look around our sanctuary? Our stained glass windows are beautiful and educational. Long before the average person could read, people attempted to capture and share the wonder of God’s love for us through the art of stained glass.

At this time of year, my thoughts are always drawn to meditate upon the meaning behind our nativity window. It shows the star of Bethlehem shining above a manger. In the manger is the ancient “Chi Rho” symbol. This symbol is the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek joined together. Early Christians used this mark to represent Jesus. The window reminds us that Jesus, the Christ, came to us in human form at Christmas. Such news becomes even more wondrous when one considers that he comes to us throughout time. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end – present before history began and will be after it ends – because Jesus always was, is and will be our God who is with us and for us.

Luther once wrote that the Bible is like the manger where we can meet, know and worship Jesus the Christ over and over again. This, too, is true, but it also doesn’t quite capture this special relationship – the intimacy spoken of goes well beyond “knowing” Jesus with only our intellect. Our holy texts assure us that Jesus has come to live with us in our hearts. Jesus wants to abide in us. He longs to be an intimate part of every aspect of our lives. This joyful mystery cannot be captured fully in written word or by any other human art, yet my thoughts came back to an old 18th Century Danish hymn which focuses upon the joining of our human hearts with the divine heart though the incarnation and gift of faith. It is one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music.

BrorsonWritten by a Danish Lutheran pastor and later bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson, Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker (in English, sometimes entitled “My Heart Always Wanders” or “My Heart Remains in Wonder”) movingly grasps at the surprise and mystery of the incarnation. Soundly pietist,  the reflection remains more oriented toward his feelings and heart rather than any intellectual exploration. The lyrics reflect relationship and intimacy, as well as grace and gratitude. Contemplating this miracle, God coming to us as a vulnerable newborn in a stable, Brorson’s own mind and heart wanders and enters a blissful wonderment as he thinks about his current saving, relationship with Christ.

O come, my Lord, I pray Thee!
And be my honour’d guest,
I will in love array Thee
A home within my breast.
That home can be no stranger
You bought it all yourself.
Thou will surely stay here
Swaddled in my heart.

We will never be able to fully appreciate, capture, or understand the miracle of love offered to us through Jesus Christ. Yet because it is not just an historical event, each and every day we may strive to cooperate with grace and make room for the Christ child in our hearts above all other things. His birth should move us to reflect upon the ultimate, ongoing Christmas miracle which comes to us through Christian faith, worship, fellowship and service. Christ’s Spirit continues to shape us and sanctify us into the gift God first intended with our own creation. We become part of God’s greatest gift to the world, where in Jesus’ name, we will love others. Through grace, we concretely become the Christ’s body, here and now.

Throughout your holiday wanderings and celebrations, I pray that you, your family and friends stop and ponder the nativity. Continue to wonder about and experience this joyful mystery and invitation in your life. Rejoice, for a child has been born for us! His name is Jesus, and we will never be alone or unloved. In response, let us seek to rightly worship him, opening our hearts and offering all that we are to him in thanksgiving.

—————————–

Many variants of the song exist in English due to the difficulty of translation. Along with the above video, here are English lyrics for this wonderful Christmas song:

My Heart Remains in Wonder/My Heart Always Wanders

My heart remains in wonder (or better translation: My heart always wanders)
Before that lowly bed
Within the stable yonder
Where Christ, my Lord, was laid. (or: was born)
My faith finds there its treasure,
My soul its pure delight,
Its joy beyond all measure,
The Lord of Christmas night.

But Oh! my heart is riven
With grief and sore dismay
To see the Lord of heaven
Must rest on straw and hay,
That He whom angels offer
Their worship and acclaim
From sinful man must suffer
Such scorn, neglect and shame.

Why should not castles royal
Before Him open stand,
And kings, as servants loyal,
Obey His least command?
Why came He not in splendor
Arrayed in robes of light
And called the world to render
Its homage to His might?

The sparrow finds a gable
Where it may build its nest,
The oxen know a stable
For shelter, food and rest;
Must then my Lord and Savior
A homeless stranger be,
Denied the simplest favor
His lowly creatures see.

O come, my Lord, I pray Thee,
And be my honored guest.
I will in love array Thee
A home within my breast.
It cannot be a stranger
To Thee, who made it free.
Thou shalt find there a manger (or: Thou will surely stay there)
Warmed by my love to Thee.[i] (or: swaddled in my heart)

In English, it is difficult to find a flowing, direct translation of the traditional final stanza in Danish or Norwegian, but it means roughly:

I’ll willingly spread branches
Of palms around your bed.
For you and you alone
I will live and I will die.
Come, let my soul find bliss
In this moment of delight:
To see you born right here,
Deep inside my heart’s abyss. (or: loving heart)[ii]


[i] English version on Hymnary.org

[ii] Translation merging multiple sources, primarily the above video and pust.org

The above piece was adapted from one shared in Messiah’s newsletter, The Messenger, in November 2009. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christmas, Liturgical Year, Uncategorized