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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

First Advent: Hope


"Our King and Savior draweth nigh. O come, let us adore him!"

 

First purple candle lit
"Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it." (Isaiah 40:5)

While the four Advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace are sometimes recalled in different orders, hope is almost always the theme celebrated on the First Sunday of Advent.  As the first candle of an Advent wreath is lit, a family choosing to use this custom as a way of preparing for Christmas can thus use the occasion to remember how the Christmas Story recalls the birth of the Promised King, an event prophesied and hoped for from the time of Adam until that first Christmas.  

An example of this hope is reflected in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus as well as the angel’s message to Joseph, promising the birth of Immanuel, or “God with us” (Matthew 1:1-23).  But the celebration of Advent does not just remember Jesus’ first coming. It can also celebrate his presence and importance in our lives now while also helping us look forward to his second coming.

Reading scriptures that reflect these aspects of the hope that we have in Jesus is a valuable part of a family celebration of Advent.  Traditionally Advent scriptures are drawn from Old Testament prophecies that were taken to anticipate the coming of Christ. In our family we draw passages from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon as well, some of which, also look forward to the Second Coming or the promises that will come to us in the next life.



The Promised Advent
  • “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn . . . ” (Isaiah 61:1–3, emphasis added)
  • “For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us.  Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name . . .” (Jacob 4:4–5, emphasis added)
The first Sunday of Advent is when we set up our Nativity.






On the Eve of His Coming: The Annunciation to Zacharias and the Benedictus
A plaque with the Benedictus in `En Kerem

I suggest that after discussing that week's theme families also consider reading each week one of the familiar parts of Luke 1 and Matthew 1 that lead up to the actual birth of Jesus.  This helps set the realization of the prophecies of Jesus' birth into the immediate context of their fulfillment, and it also adds to the excitement of the Christmas season as we join Zacharias and Elisabeth and then Mary and Joseph in their experiences.  

For the first week of Advent, I recommend reading the Annunciation to Zacharias, focusing on how the promise of John the Baptist's birth revolved around how he would prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 1:5–17).  This can be followed by the Benedictus, Zacharias' prophetic blessing to his son, which focuses above all on the salvation that the promised Messiah was to bring (Luke 1:67–79).


And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him,
all the days of our life.

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:67–79)
 
Click here to see a brief video clip of me reading the Benedictus, the blessing that Zacharias later pronounced upon his son.        
 
On the steps of the Church of John the Baptist at `En Kerem
Samuel watching groups of pilgrims at the John the Baptist Church
         


















The Hope That Christ Brings

  • “Therefore Being Justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:1–5, emphases added)
  • “And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal . . .” (Moroni 7:41, emphasis added)


Looking Forward to Christ's Second Advent
  • “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:  Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.” (Mark 13:35–36, emphasis added)
  • For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17)
The traditional Anglican collect from the Book of Common Prayer reads:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This is a lovely literary reflection on both the first and the second Advent of Jesus.


Music for Advent

Music is an important part of the celebration of Advent as it is of the Christmas season generally.  In some traditions only carols especially meant for Advent are sung in the weeks leading up to Christmas, with Christmas carols themselves being reserved for Christmas Eve and the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that begin with Christmas Day.  However, families can use any familiar carols for their home celebrations, though our family always opens our Christmas season by singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is the traditional carol for the beginning of Advent.  The original Latin text dates back as early as the reign of Charlemagne (771–814).  The English text and the tune that is now familiar were not published until 1854, though the melody seems to have been based on an earlier French original. 
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Chorus

O come, O Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here,
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds and bring us light.

Chorus

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height
In ancient times did’st give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Chorus



Saturday, November 26, 2016

Celebrating Advent


Taken from Good Tidings of Great Joy: An Advent Celebration of the Savior's Birth, 16-17.
For other Christmas ideas, see the page "Preparing for Christmas"


“When I was very young and living in East Germany, Christmas in our family began four weeks before Christmas Eve with the beginning of Advent. We made a fresh cut wreath from a fur or a spruce and put four candles on top of it and placed it on our kitchen table. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, we lit the first candle. Then each night until Christmas, my family gathered around the table and sang Christmas songs and listened to Christmas stories. . . . Advent was a time of anticipation and hope and it brought a special feeling into our humble home as we prepared for something holy and beautiful. Each Sunday we lit one additional candle, by the fourth Sunday our expectations for the coming joyous events had reached their peak." (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, address delivered at First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional, Salt Lake City, December 2008, transcription of audio; available at http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,8450-1-4729-1,00.html)

Giotto Bondone, The Nativity (Wikimedia Commons)
As part of preparing for Christmas, Christians from some backgrounds observe a custom called Advent. This observance takes its name from the Latin term adventus, which means "coming" or "appearance."  As such, Advent is a way that some choose to celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world at his birth; focus on his presence in their lives now; and look forward to his return in glory in the future. Whether gathered in church or at home, those who observe Advent today use the Sundays leading up to Christmas to prepare themselves through scriptures, music, and other traditions. While Advent is not a regular part of LDS practice, individual families, such as ours, have found that incorporating some aspects of it into their own traditions at home can be a wonderful way to keep the Christmas season Christ-centered.

Advent was originally a solemn, preparatory period before newly converted Christians were baptized on January 6. That day was selected for such baptisms because it was the day, particularly in the East, that commemorated Jesus' own baptism. Perhaps because of that date's proximity to Christmas, Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604) later established Advent as a period of preparation anticipating the Feast of the Nativity, a period that he set as beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. While the Reformation later led some Protestants to stop observing Advent, Martin Luther, who loved the Christmas season, felt that it was still a useful way of teaching children and families more about the importance of the coming of the Babe of Bethlehem. As a result, Advent continued to be particularly important in Germany, from where many of its customs have spread.

In the German tradition, Advent is often anticipated by the strains of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, a Lutheran hymn composed by Philipp Nicolai in 1598 that is based upon the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew 25:113. The idea is that as we move into the Advent season, we should be like the five wise virgins, who are prepared and watching with lamps trimmed. Perhaps its most famous setting is by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose cantata featuring it was first performed on November 27, 1731 on Trinity XVII, the last Sunday of the liturgical year right before Advent.

An English translation of its lyrics include the following lines:
Awake, calls the voice to us of the watchmen high up in the tower;
Awake, you city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named; they call to us with bright voices;
Where are you, wise virgins?
Indeed, the Bridegroom comes; rise up and take your lamps,
Alleluia!
Make yourselves ready for the wedding, you must go to meet Him.


Perhaps the best known Advent custom is the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and sometimes with a single white candle in the center.  [For a basic wreath to order online, see https://www.amazon.com/Traditional-Pine-Cone-Advent-Wreath/dp/B001AYECU4]

 In 2002, our family decided to incorporate Advent into our own Christmas traditions, and it became a particular favorite of our daughter, Rachel. She was five at the time, and I remember how much I enjoyed explaining to her the symbolism of the small wreath that we had purchased, describing how the wreath represents the never-ending circle of God's love, showing that he is the same forever in his love toward his people. The green of the wreath, as in the Christmas tree, represents the hope of eternal life that comes through Christ and serves as a reminder of the freshness of God's love and promises. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, that his birth represented the coming of that light into darkness, and that we are called to reflect that light in our lives.

Traditionally the four candles of an Advent wreath are purple, the color of royalty, although one is sometimes pink or rose-colored. We decided to include the central, white candle in our wreath, which we light on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day. Each Sunday before Christmas an additional candle is lit, creating a beautiful stepped-effect as the previous weeks' candles burn down farther. After lighting each candle, we take turns reading scriptures that illustrate Advent themes, which we draw from the Book of Mormon as well as from the Old and New Testaments. After singing a carol, we have family prayer and then proceed to more fun traditions, like opening the day's pocket in our Advent calendar and enjoying a treat together. 

Rachel and Samuel with our Advent calendar
Traditions differ regarding the symbolism of the candles, but a common one is that they represent the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through Jesus Christ. In weekly posts I will share ideas for scriptures, songs, and other customs that families can use on the four Sundays of Advent as well as some that they may incorporate into their Christmas Eve traditions.

Each weekly Advent post will be divided into sections.  The first section, The Promised Advent, will review prophecies of the nativity of Christ. Then in a section called On The Eve of His Coming we will then bring the story into the gospels by reflecting the experiences of Zacharias, Mary, Elisabeth, and Joseph as they witnessed the realization of these prophecies.  The next section will then reflect upon how Jesus fulfills that day's Advent theme.  The final section, Looking Forward to Christ's Second Advent, will consist of a scripture looking forward to Jesus' promised Second Coming and the blessings that will be realized at his return.

I also frequently feature special music for Advent. Some, such as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," are almost always Advent, but many customary Advent hymns are not as familiar now. As a result, even though some traditions reserve Christmas carols for Christmas Eve and the twelve days including and following Christmas, I have selected many familiar Christmas songs that nonetheless accord with the theme of each Advent Sunday.

At the end of the season I will then reflect on the the focus of Advent, salvation, by considering Book of Mormon prophecies of Christ.  Finally, I will consider how we can keep the spirit of Christmas alive throughout the year.