When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1555/1560). Jacopo Bassano, Venetian, c. 1510-1592. Samuel H. Kress Collection, NGA.
What always strikes me most about this passage are the two very different ways in which the shepherds and Mary reacted to the birth of Jesus. The shepherds “went with haste” to find the baby and then “made know what had been told them about this child” by the angels. I could almost picture them running to Bethlehem with boundless energy and jumping up and down with excitement upon finally reaching the holy family. Barely pausing to catch their breath, they sped off to tell everyone else they could find. On the other hand, Mary “treasured” the words of the angels and “pondered them in her heart.” Here I could imagine a young woman sitting quietly with her child, wearing a slight, somewhat shy smile that was hardly noticeable to those around her.
This passage also makes me think about how I react to good news. Sometimes, like the shepherds, I’m so happy that I want everyone else to know what is happening right away. Sometimes though, the news is so momentous that I would prefer to ponder it in my heart first, to enjoy it for a while on my own before sharing. Maybe this is how Mary felt as she tried to understand that what had been promised to her many months ago – that her son would be great and called the Son of the Most High – was actually coming true. Maybe to Mary, news like that takes a bit more time to sink in before it’s ready for a public airing.
This Advent season is most likely different from any that you or I have experienced before. As I am writing this, I don’t know what our worship will look like or how many of us will be able to gather in person together. In these strange times, can we run and tell people things in person? Will good news be heard through our masks and face shields? Even though we have so many more ways of communicating than the shepherds did, I can’t help but wonder if this year we will miss out on some of their energy and joy. Of course, like Mary, we can still pause to enjoy some good news on our own. It might feel particularly right to celebrate some things quietly, whether it’s a chance to worship in person or see family and friends for the first time in a long time.
And so my prayer for all of us is that this year, as in years past, our hearts may overflow with joy newly experienced or recalled from Christmases past. That we won’t be able to stop ourselves from showing this joy to others and inviting them to experience it with us, even if we are experiencing it through our computer and tv screens. I pray that in our quieter moments we will ponder the mystery of God sending his son to live among us as a baby. Our hearts may overflow with joy in a simple but nearly unnoticeable way as we contemplate and meditate on God’s amazing love for us. I hope that even this year, we will embrace both kinds of moments during this Advent season, because through them we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Christmas Eve wouldn’t be quite the same without our annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. The service was conceived by the Right Rev’d. Edward White Benson and premiered on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro, England. Only a handful of lessons and choruses from Handel’s Messiah were offered that year. As time went on, so did the popularity of this service. The combination of music and the spoken word made the Christmas Story come to life. Add to that the inclusion of readers representing all ages of the congregation and this service truly became one of the most engaging of the year for the whole community.
News of this service spread throughout England. In 1918 the Rev’d. Eric Milner White, the new dean of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, added his own ideas to the service and offered it’s premiere in King’s College Chapel. It is his Order of Worship that has been offered in tiny chapels and grand cathedrals all around the world for more than 100 years. The service always opens with the carol, Once in Royal David’s City. There are always nine lessons from Holy Scripture reminding us of the loving purposes of God. After the ninth lesson, the carol, O Come All Ye Faithful, is sung.
This year, our choir is unable to lead the congregation in the singing of O Come All Ye Faithful. However, we have come together to create a virtual choir of the same. As we worship in our homes, may our song be ever “joyful and triumphant” as we remember the birth of the Christ child. May our (virtual) choir (of angels) lift our spirits in the third verse with their soaring descant as they bid us to “…come, let us adore him.”
For me, Christmas ‘arrives’ each year in the final stanza on the word, “word”. Listen for this phrase:
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
And may the power and majesty of the music make real for us the power and majesty of the scripture: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Happy Christmas to all!
In times of tragedy, crisis or need, we sometimes hear internal and external voices saying, “We don’t need prayers. We need action!” As people of faith, what if we understood prayer as a part of action, and our words with God as bridges to God’s will being made manifest in us and through us? Recall how God in the beginning said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Remember how before being crucified, Jesus said in the garden, “Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Hold also the vision of the Holy Spirit, filling the disciples at Pentecost with speech, that testified to what God was doing by the power of the gospel of Christ.
This Christmas, consider prayer a meaningful part of your service. Speak to one another, and speak to God, as though your words matter, as though they are the molds by which your actions with and for others take shape.
In that spirit, here is a prayer for peace, shared by our denomination. Pray it, celebrating how peace makes a sound in your very own voice.
A Prayer for the Reign of Peace
Almighty, all-merciful God,
through Christ Jesus you have taught us
to love one another,
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
and even to love our enemies.
In times of violence and fear,
let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts,
so that we may not be overcome with evil
but overcome evil with good.
Help us to see each person
in light of the love and grace
you have shown us in Christ.
Put away the nightmares of terror
and awaken us to the dawning
of your new creation.
Establish among us a future
where peace reigns,
justice is done with mercy,
and all are reconciled.
We ask these things
in the name and for the sake
of Jesus Christ our Lord.