Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Advent (Page 1 of 7)

Repost: The Night Before Christmas Revisited

5287582073_7bd9ce9203_bIt’s Christmas Eve.

Maybe all your presents are wrapped and you’re all set for the big day… or maybe you’re running around like a headless turkey and wondering how you’re going to get everything done in time.

Either way, I invite you take a moment in the midst of the hustle and bustle and, through the medium of poetry, remember the real reason for the season.

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‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the land
The people were stooped under Rome’s mighty hand;
They clung to the hope their oppression would end
As they looked for a king they believed God would send.

They read in their books what the prophets foretold:
A Messiah would save them, as promised of old;
This coming Redeemer would save them from sin
And a glorious new kingdom of God usher in.

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What matters at Christmas

8301267396_149c9fbf99_kJesus quite possibly wasn’t born in Bethlehem.

I realise that’s a shocking opener. And when I first came across the idea a few months ago, I was initially quite shocked at the mere suggestion that such a long- and firmly-held tradition might not be true.

Yet you’ll find plenty of credible scholars willing to assert that they do not believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The main argument is that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke needed to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to cement his royal lineage (Bethlehem is known as the city of David), but that the idea of a census in which people had to travel to their birthplace in order to be registered was completely far-fetched, even in the ancient world. If you want to register people for tax purposes, you register them where they live and work, not where they were born.

It seems entirely plausible, if not likely, then, that Luke dreamed up the idea of a census-required journey simply as a narrative device for getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

In fact, when you think about it, the nativity story is full of elements that are impossible to verify and might legitimately be considered fantastic, from Jesus being born in a stable or cave, to an angelic host appearing to shepherds, to magi journeying from the East, to Herod ordering the massacre of every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years of age…

However, the point of this post is not to try to convince you that various elements of the nativity story may not have unfolded as reported in the gospels. It honestly matters little to me whether or not you hold firm to the traditional version of events. For myself, I’m undecided on various aspects of the nativity story.

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Repost: Who are you waiting for?

(This post was first published in December 2014.)

King candleIt seems that the Christmas season begins earlier and earlier. Seasonal goods appear on the supermarket shelves in September, cities switch on their Christmas lights in mid-November, and carols begin to play on the radio before December has arrived… Welcome to Advent, twenty-first century style.

Note: we consumerists don’t like to have to wait for anything. Even if we can’t have the gifts and the baby Jesus today, we’re going to act like we can, waiting be damned.

My church background is Pentecostal, and we Pentecostals are not known for waiting patiently in the in-between times. We tend to hit the highs and ignore pretty much everything else. For example, we ignore Lent, that time of self-deprivation in anticipation of the self-giving of Jesus, and then we more or less skip right over good Friday and rush triumphalistically to Easter Sunday. Similarly, we ignore Advent – the term would not even be recognised by most Pentecostals, except in reference to a calendar with chocolates in it – and jump straight into Christmas on 25 December, when the Saviour’s birth is announced with great pomp, choirs of angels assisting. There is no time for prior reflection on the mystery of Advent, which is about those who dwelled in darkness and did not know the great light was coming (see Isaiah 9:2).

They waited, and they hoped, but they did not know.

Those dark days and years that preceded the coming of Jesus are known to us as the intertestamental period – the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Why were they dark?

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An Advent post: on waiting

Candle(Today I was going to write a post about Advent and waiting, but when I looked back through the archives I realised I’d already written it. So here it is: a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)

Once when I was a kid my parents bought a new sofa and armchair for the lounge. I remember hearing them say that they had saved up for years to buy it. I don’t know whether it was a couple of years or significantly longer than that, but the period was measured not in weeks or even in months, but in years.

This was only thirty-something years ago. How times have changed. The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that many young people today think nothing of taking on sometimes eye-watering amounts of debt in order to have something they want now! Whether it’s a car, a house, an exotic holiday, a fancy wedding, or the latest super-sized HD television… Easy credit has largely done away with the notion of having to wait for what you want, or even what you need.

This is the culture in which we, in the over-indulged, supremely pampered West, now live. Two words sum it up well: instant gratification.

And here we are at the beginning of Advent. Advent is deeply counter-cultural, because it is about waiting.

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The night before Christmas revisited

NativityThe poem The Night Before Christmas has long been a favourite in many households. With its combination of mystery and mischief, it seems to uniquely capture something of the magic of Christmas. But what if it could be rewritten to somehow reflect the reality of the very first Christmas?

(I wrote this poem over a year ago and first published it on Christmas Eve 2013. I’m greatly honoured to say that this Christmas Eve, it’s also appearing as a guest post at Internet Monk. A warm welcome to all IM readers!)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the land
The people were stooped under Rome’s mighty hand;
They clung to the hope their oppression would end
As they looked for a king they believed God would send.

They read in their books what the prophets foretold:
A Messiah would save them, as promised of old;
This coming Redeemer would save them from sin
And a glorious new kingdom of God usher in.

But how could it be they had waited so long
For a Saviour to come who would right every wrong?
Where were the signs of his glorious reign
When their day-to-day lot was all suffering and pain?

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One of us, or the myth of separateness

AloneIn 1995, Joan Osborne released the original version of the hit song One of Us. (You can watch the video and listen to the song here.) The opening lyrics are as follows:

If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home?

Of course, the idea of God simply being one of us – just a slob like one of us – is, in some ways, quite preposterous. We are not gods: we did not create the universe, nor do we sustain it; we are neither omnipresent nor omniscient; and we are not perfect, however you may care to define perfection.

In one sense, then, God is quite clearly not one of us. He is wholly other than we are. To deny this is to deny his very God-ness.

Yet there is another sense in which the question What if God was one of us? takes on a different and more profound meaning.

If a person is said to be not one of us, it usually means he or she is not recognised as part of whatever group is being referenced. Conversely, to say “She’s one of us” means the person in question is indeed seen as belonging to the group being referenced. And it is in this sense that the song One of us unintentionally prods at one of the great questions that has faced humanity for millennia.

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Dangerous baby

(Note: this is a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)

Baby JesusWhen Jesus was born, angels announced him as the one who would bring peace on earth.

Some time soon after, astrologers came from the East seeking to worship the newborn king of the Jews whose sign they had seen in the heavens. Herod was understandably upset – after all, he was already king of the Jews. So upset was he, in fact, that he had all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem who were under two years old murdered. He was just doing what powerful men have always done – protecting his vested interests.

Jesus, it would seem, was a dangerous baby.

Thirty or so years later, Jesus began a public ministry that would pit him more and more starkly against the religious and legal authorities, until he was eventually considered enough of a threat to be executed following a staged trial. So much for the newborn king.

Two thousand years later, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and celebrate his birth at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Easter. But what kind of a king do we make him out to be?

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