The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
I grew up with the words “For unto us a child is born….” These words are from the prophet Isaiah, and they have found much resonance among Christians, partially through Handel’s Messiah, and partially through the sheer purity of the joy these words express. What is more pure, more beautiful, more innocent, more gracious, than to say, “to us a child is born”? This is certainly true if we are parents to the child; it is even more true when we consider that as Christians, we have traditionally seen this text as pointing to and embodying the child who is the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of God’s created order, Jesus Christ.
Notice, too, the equally appealing words attached to this simple statement “For unto us a child is born:”
“Prince of Peace”
These are enormously positive words as well. Then words in the passage get a little more earthly and move toward a certain concreteness:
Less ethereal than the earlier words, these still speak to deep yearnings in the human heart. Interspersed, we have sentences which can be jarring to the hopeful cadence we have encountered so far:
“Authority rests upon his shoulders”
“His authority shall grow continually”
“The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”
I am not sure whether as a society or a people we have as positive place in our hearts for the word “authority.” In recent years we have grown to distrust authorities, to discount experts. We have also seemed, on the one hand, to yearn for leaders who seem to possess authority and, on the other, to doubt and distrust authority of human offices and of leaders who occupy those offices. And while we may accept and affirm the “zeal of the Lord of hosts,” we are also distrustful of human zeal, unless of course it is our own.
A central mystery of our faith is that the One who has the greatest authority – God – chooses to become a person who appears “as one without authority.” One born. One born in a manger. One suffering and dying on the cross. At its heart, and at the most mature place in our faith, the authority of God in Jesus Christ is that of One born “unto us,” “among us,” “within us,” an authority of “light” and “peace” and “counseling” that is said to be “wonderful.” That authority is supreme even as it seems soft. It is zealous even as it whispers to us. It grows continually and lasts forever, even as Christ, its bearer and bringer, is vulnerable much of the time, vulnerable even to the point of death.
“For unto us a Child is born.”
A child. A mere child. But what authority rests upon his shoulders.
On Advent 3 we light the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. Also known as Gaudete Sunday or Rose Sunday (“gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice”), on this Sunday of Joy we focus on the building sense of joy as we await the great festival of Christmas.
The theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness: while happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
This week, we focus our attention the beloved carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In many churches, the tune ST. LOUIS is most often paired with this text. This tune was composed by Episcopal priest, Phillip Brooks, in 1868. The alternative tune, FOREST GREEN, provides a more flowing melody to this gentle text and is performed by the Westminster Ringers. In the recording you will notice that the handbells begin with the tune in a minor mode, then move to major. This is an excellent way to highlight the joy of Gaudete Sunday, while reminding us of its context in the season of Advent.
Third Sunday of Advent – the Candle of Joy
This week, set up your own manger scene one character at a time as you read the Christmas story. Change it up, put Mary and Joseph outside the stable and then move them inside the stable on Christmas Eve. Give the shepherds, wise men and the angel prominent spots. Encourage children to play with the pieces to learn more about the story. Talk about how God brought joy into the world when Christ was born. Tell a story of a time you experienced joy. (This would also be a great time to tell stories about the birth/adoption day of your children!)
Dear Lord, help me see the drama of your birth through new eyes of discovery. Amen.
Westminster is part of an ecumenical program of nine churches in Alexandria that serves mid-day meals every weekday throughout the year (and on Saturdays from October to April) to low-income and homeless residents of the City. The meals consist of sandwiches and other bag lunch items, and in cooler months, we also prepare a special soup that is a favorite of the clients. This ministry nourishes and also provides a sense of community for guests: all who arrive are welcome.
As part of your Advent devotions, consider making sandwiches for the program. Simply prepare generous turkey and cheese sandwiches on wheat bread, and bag and label them with the date. Then, place the sandwiches in the bag lunch shelf of the WPC freezer, located in Fellowship Hall.
We also need volunteers to help serve the meals, which involves a commitment mid-morning to 12:30 p.m., beginning at Westminster to assemble the lunches and then going to Meade Memorial Episcopal Church in Old Town to serve the residents. This is a meaningful way to make face to face connections with those we serve. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.