בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Bārūch atāh Adonai Elohênū melekh ha`ôlām šeheḥeyānû veqîmānû vehigî`ānû lazman hazeh

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rejoicing in Salvation: The Focus of Advent and Christmas

Every family has its own Christmas morning traditions, and our family, like many I suppose, tends to focus on opening gifts and celebrating the fun aspects of Christmas more than the religious.  Our Advent season waiting for Jesus makes Christ the center of our celebration Christmas Eve, but if we do not make a concerted effort, he can be lost the very next morning. 

So some years ago we started the tradition of gathering in the living room for family prayer before going downstairs.  Once more we light the candles of our Advent wreath in turn, remembering the Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace that Christ brings, then lighting again the central white Christ Candle.
Having gathered early in the magical semidarkness of a living room lit only by Christmas lights and candles, we kneel together and thank God for the great gift of his Son, and then thank him for the bounty that allows us to give and receive the gifts that we are about to share. Only then do we descend into the family room to see what Santa has brought the children, returning later to sit by the Christmas tree in the living room to open our gifts to each other.

For us, then, the central white Christ Candle serves as the focus of our Advent preparations and the culmination of our Christmas celebrations.  The fact that Advent also looks forward to Jesus’ second coming has also led to our using this candle to think about the day when he will again be present with his people.  But the great joy of both the Christmas and Easter message is that Jesus Christ can always be present in our lives if we open our hearts to him. Indeed, in some traditions, this candle sometimes represents the Advent theme of Presence, meaning that the promised Messiah has at last arrived and is present with his people.
  
However, given the emphasis of Book of Mormon Christmas passages on the salvation that Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection make possible, I have begun to consider this candle as representing a new fifth Advent theme, Salvation.  In the biblical stories as well, the angel of the Lord told Joseph that he should call the baby “Jesus,” or Yēšûa`, because “he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21b), and the canticles of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon likewise included expressions of joy over the coming salvation (see Luke 1:69, 77; 2:30).

Because we also use the Advent candles to symbolize covenants, lighting the white Christ candle on Christmas Eve symbolizes that the True Light has come into the world to usher in the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah 31:31–34. The Lord himself referred to this covenant at the Last Supper when he said that the sacrament represented his “blood of the new testament, which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24). He thus made possible the blessings and promises of the “new and everlasting covenant” mentioned throughout latter-day revelation, whereby we are promised all that God has if we have faith in Christ and make sacred covenants of our own in his name (extracted and adapted from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 132–33).


Salvation: The Reason the Word Was Made Flesh
  • “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I beseech thee [Hebrew, hosanna], O Lord . . . Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Psalms 118:24–25a, 28–29, emphases added).
  • “And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light unto the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, emphasis added).
  • “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17, emphasis added)
  • “ . . . that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal. And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:14b–15, emphasis added).
  • “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the flory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) 
The traditional Anglican collect for Christmas Day reads:
O God, thou hast made us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of thy Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Praising God for Salvation

The faces of the men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir exude the joy of the season 
as they sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah
My Christmas season never seems quite complete without singing or listening to no Christmas is complete with hearing or singing the joyful strains of Handel’s great “Hallelujah Chorus” from his Messiah.  This great oratorio by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) treats the entire messianic career of Jesus Christ, beginning with prophecies of his coming and continuing through his birth, passion, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. Handel’s collaborator Charles Jennens (1700–1773) drew the text from Old and New Testament passages, after which Handel composed the score within a few months in the summer of 1741. First performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland, Messiah was not received well initially because some in the religious establishment did not feel that the Bible should be sung as entertainment. Repeated performances, however, led to its being widely accepted, and it has since been generally acknowledged as one of the great pieces of musical literature.


Messiah is divided into three parts, only the first of which treats the promised birth of Jesus. The work as a whole was originally performed during Lent, the preparatory period leading up to Easter. However, it has become traditional to perform the first part, together with the “Hallelujah” chorus from the second part, during Advent, making it an important musical fixture of the Christmas season.  


When we remember that halleluyah is Hebrew for “praise YHWH” or Jehovah, it is a wonderful way to thank the Lord for the salvation that he has brought us.


Christmas is a Season
(Extracted and adapted from "Remembering Christmas," Good Tidings of Great Joy, 135–36) 

If I am not careful, a certain melancholy is likely to settle over me late each Christmas afternoon, perhaps that evening. All the preparation for the season, spiritual and otherwise, comes to a climax Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Then when the gifts are all opened, or perhaps later when the Christmas meal is at last finished, the celebration is all over, and the joy of Christmas can be replaced by a certain sadness. Yet, when this occurs, it is clear to me that my studying, reading, singing, and devotions in advance of Christmas may not have been enough. My efforts to make Christmas a more religious and spiritual occasion have not been successful if giving and receiving gifts, having fun, and eating reveal themselves to have still been the real focus of my season. 



As we seek Christ, as we find him, as we follow Him, we shall have the Christmas spirit, not for one fleeting day each year, but as our constant companion always.

— Thomas S. Monson, In Search of the Christmas Spirit (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 8.
   
As President Monson has observed, if we want the Christmas spirit to last for more than one day, we must seek Christ, find him, and then daily follow him.  To have the spirit of this special season with us always, we need to do more than celebrate Christmas; we need to remember what it means every day. 

Traditionally, Christmas was a season, not a single day. Rather than being some kind of countdown to the big day, the customary Twelve Days were a celebration that began with Christmas and stretched to the eve of Epiphany on January 6.  In recent years we have tried to recapture some of that concept of a season of celebration rather than just a day. While we still take down our tree and many of our decorations on New Year’s Day, perhaps out of convenience as much as anything, we have started leaving our Christmas lights on until January 5, the night our family reads the story of the coming of the Wise Men from Matthew 2. And rather than abruptly ending our December pattern of reading and singing together each evening, we now try to read some of the other stories that follow the birth and the adoration of the shepherds, such as the Presentation in the Temple and then the story of Jesus as a boy, later teaching in that same temple (Luke 2:41–52).


For Christians, every day should be Christmas as each new day presents again to us God's great gift of salvation in his Son Christ Jesus.  May we be like Mary as we seek to magnify the Lord by helping to bring, each day, Jesus more fully into the world through our testimony and service.

Look for a final essay, "Christmas throughout the Year" as well as two final holiday posts on Epiphany and the Presentation ("Candlemas," in the Anglican tradition).
 

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