Christmas Eve: The Nativity of the Lord

The Word

Luke 2:15-20

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.

Reflect

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.

Listen

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!

Serve

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.

Advent Four – Week of December 20

The Word

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Reflect

The Annunciation. Fra Filippo Lippi, c. 1435/1440. Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art.

I have always loved the beautiful reply from Mary to what must have been astonishing and terrifying news: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Such simple acceptance, such an ability to trust that it was going to work out. I have a tendency to over-think, over-analyze, and over-plan. I rarely let it be. But that’s my aspiration. And it gives me hope—that if Mary could manage it in the face of hearing that she was going to give birth to the Son of God, then surely I can manage it on an average Tuesday.

As we prepare for the birth of Christ, let it be with all of us according to the Word—the Word that is about to become flesh and change the world with a message of love and light…and simple acceptance. Amen.

Listen

One of the chief reasons I followed the call to become a church musician is that I am able to unite people through music. At Westminster, we are blessed with a vibrant music ministry and one that frequently collaborates with other musicians. Over the years, my music director colleagues Louise Wilson at Farlington Methodist and Linda Cancellieri at Trinity Methodist have been frequent collaborators with us. In spite of our distance during the Corna-tide, these terrific women have continued to work with me to create meaningful music – virtually. As all of our churches are preparing for Christmas this Advent, Louise and Linda have been kind enough to offer their singers the opportunity to join in a virtual choir which we call the Alexandria Sacred Chorale. In our most recent project, “People Look East,” the chorale included 51 voices with Louise at the organ. Louise and I made recordings of the organ and conductor in early November and the singers used those to record their voices from home.

The poem “People, Look East” was first published in 1928 in the Oxford Book of Carols and was originally titled “Carol of the Advent.” Churches throughout the English speaking world have used this carol for nearly 100 years during the season of Advent. The author, Eleanor Farjeon, was in the prime of her career when this was published. She was well-known for imaginative books for children and had already produced the popular hymn, “Morning Has Broken.” Her commissioners asked her to compose a poem set to an ancient French tune. In my estimation, she not only succeeded in her charge, but excelled in it! The words pair perfectly with the tune despite the later being composed 200 years earlier.

Just like the season of Advent moves us ever closer to the great festival of Christmas, each stanza of the poem moves us heavenward through imagery: People/guest, Furrows/rose, Stars, and finally, Angels. The stanzas conclude with the phrase “Love the __ is on the way.” May the poetry and beautiful singing of the Alexandria Sacred Chorale lift your spirits as we celebrate this the last Sunday of Advent. –Dr. Ben

People, look east. The time is near
of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able;
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
one more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
that in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
one more light the bowl shall brim,
shining beyond the frosty weather,
bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
with the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Serve

2020 — it’s not been an easy year for anyone. How better for us to close it out than by celebrating the birth of our Savior. Yes, the celebrations may look very different this year, and yes, there are many reasons for which NOT to celebrate. And yet, we join those heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace!” (Luke 2).

The end of one calendar year and the beginning of a new one often leads us to resolve new ways of being, new ways of sharing our blessings with others. The challenge often is knowing how and where to give that support, especially in this time when our patterns of being and doing are being transformed. Each week, the church updates a list of how we may help our local brothers and sisters. As Advent comes to a close, we encourage you to take a look and see where you might yourself serve, or where you may direct your prayers on behalf of those who are able to do so. Allow time for this to be a matter of prayer, so that any resolutions that come emerge from a deeper place of listening and desire.

Advent Three – Week of December 13

The Word

John 1:1-8; 19-28

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Reflect

St. John the Baptist by Titian, 1540. Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Today, more than ever, our world needs witnesses of hope. Our text brings us a messenger of hope in the form of John the Baptist: he is the hairy, unkempt, wild-looking guy wearing camel’s hair. There would be locusts caught in his beard and honey dripped on his shirt. Much like the Scribes and Pharisees, we don’t want to hear what our weird cousin John has to say, but John plays a pivotal role in all four Gospel accounts for the Advent season. We don’t want to listen to this relative who always shows up at the beginning of the holiday celebrations talking too loudly and eating a diet of barley, berries and bugs. He interjects himself into our holiday plans shouting repentance, baptism and salvation. 

However, John reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas. When questioned, John leaves little doubt. He is not Elijah, nor is he a prophet, he is not a man with credentials or religious ideology. John tells us he is not the light, but he has come to bear witness to the light. John is clear and straightforward: he is bringing a word of promise and optimism, testifying, pointing to the Savior Jesus Christ, telling us to, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” 

Everything about John points to the light and to the life of the one who both stands among us and the one who is to come. John clearly understood that his primary call was to prepare the way for the One greater than himself. John testifies that he is a herald and proclaims the greatness of the One who would come after him. John tells the Scribes he is not even worthy to perform the act of a slave to “untie the thong of his sandal,” because Jesus comes not to baptize with water but to baptize with the power of the Holy Spirit. 

John’s is a voice of hope, but his voice was not the first to witness. Before John, Mary proclaimed the greatness of the Lord. She spoke of the One who shows favor to the lowly, offers mercy, and lends the strength of his arm. He fills the hungry with good things and comes to the help of his people. And before Mary there was Isaiah, anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners. He spoke about God comforting those who mourn and rebuilding the ruins of their lives, clothing them in garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. Isaiah’s is a joyful anticipation. They were witnesses of hope. These witnesses testified to a light, a life and presence beyond their own. Hope that does not change the circumstances of our lives but changes us. The Advent themes of expectancy, repentance, and promise of the Messiah are found in these words of John as he prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus. 

Today we can look to John’s example for our own work and our preparation to receive the transforming presence of Christ in our lives. Each one of us is called to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming: even as 2020 comes to a close and hope may appear dim, even as the promised reign of God seems far off, even as we embrace this new normal for our lives. Jesus came over 2,000 years ago as a babe in a manger. He is constantly coming to us, in His love, in His grace, and in His mercy and He will come again to bring all things to fulfillment. Are our hearts ready to receive him? 

John calls us out of the wilderness so that we might focus on Christ. He asks us to respond to a message of repentance, to pray about those things that separate us from God and from one another, to pray and to cry out, “Lord, deliver me from this, forgive me for that.” He invites us to follow him on Jesus’ way, the way of the cross; the way of giving our lives away. 

John the Baptist may not be featured on our Hallmark Christmas cards, but this compelling figure enters the Christmas narrative to get us ready for the coming of Christ. He calls out to all who will hear: the Lord is on His way. He’s coming in the fullness of His salvation. He’s coming, the Son of God in whom all the promises of God are a resounding, “Yes.” We, too, can be witnesses as we prepare to receive the real gift of Christmas. 

 This is the Good News of the Gospel, thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen

Today we light a special candle in the advent wreath: the candle of Joy. Unlike others in the wreath this candle is pink, for on this day we remember the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each year on the third Sunday of Advent, the gospel lesson is the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song, from the first chapter of Luke. Just after the angel Gabriel visits Mary with the good news of Jesus’ birth, Mary proclaims, “My My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” It is this expectant joy we celebrate today. 

The music I chose to share is from an anonymous 15th century English text. Our own chamber choir recorded this beautiful setting in November. The choir sings in the original early english, below you will find a modern English translation. I pray our musical offering will leave you with a sense of Joy on this, the Third Sunday of Advent.

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

Serve

During the Christmas season and at other times during the year, we look to those like John the Baptist who may live differently from us, but who have much to teach us about how to give and to live rightly. At Westminster, our relationship with Bdecan Presbyterian Church on Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota helps us to learn more about how those on the reservation live and also the different ways to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Westminster has maintained a relationship with Bdecan since 2001. As part of that relationship, we have sent mission teams, conducted Vacation Bible School, and helped support Bdecan’s food pantry and clothing closet. Since 2016, we have supported a scholarship fund for those attending the Candeska Cikana Community College, a tribal college located on the reservation. Our relationship with them has not only helped them with food, clothing, and education, but has also helped us grow as Christians by getting to know others from different backgrounds and learning how their worship can inform and inspire ours.

This summer, Rosie and Bob Helland took over for Joe Obermeyer as the program coordinators at Bdecan. As program coordinators, they have been overseeing the food pantry and clothing closet, conducting Sunday school and other youth events, and have plans to institute additional programs for adults, such as a men’s breakfast and a women’s Bible study. We invite you to send them a card this Christmas to encourage them in their work with those at Bdecan and Spirit Lake and keep them in your prayers this Christmas season. Their address is: PO Box 141 Tokio, ND 58379.

Advent Two – Week of December 6

The Word

Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Reflect

Madonna and Child, c. 1450. Circle of Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

When I read this passage, my mind instantly fills with music. First Handel’s Messiah, a powerful, beautiful and mature piece. Then “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell, an energetic and youthful, but no less powerful piece. The pieces present such different ideas: the idea of comfort – calming and peaceful and deserved, a parent comforting a child – and a herald exclaiming the joy of preparing for the coming Lord. I have struggled to come to terms with the two views. How do they come together as one passage and one message? It was in the struggle, and discussion with others, that I realized the two passages are not truly separate but in fact linked, particularly when viewed through the season of Advent.

The first portion of Isaiah talks of comforting the people who have been in exile. They have been through much and “will be comforted and rewarded.” Much like the Hebrew people, in exile waiting for redemption, the early Christians were waiting for the coming of Christ and the redemption that his coming would bring. In fact, the term advent comes from the Latin word for “coming.” The second part of Isaiah moves on from comforting to tell us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” for the Lord is coming. Historically, Christians believe that they were preparing the way for the Lord to come again quickly, but as time has moved on, the date for the return has become more distant and ambiguous.

As different as the two views are, they also come together beautifully. A mature, experienced point of view may be a better source of comfort after hardship, while the anticipation of waiting for something amazing and exciting and joyful is often best seen through the eyes of a child. So while I started out thinking about music, in the end, this passage reminds me of family. During Advent particularly, we are surrounded by reminders of family. With this text I am reminded how family comforts us with the strength of our parents’ arms during times of difficulty, and jumps for joy like a five year old celebrating the coming of Christmas (ok the presents, but still!) In fact, it is the knowledge that we will be comforted if we fall that allows us to feel the joy and anticipation of the coming gift – the Messiah.

So we should sing both the classic Hallelujah with grace and majesty as we clap our hands and dance and sing Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! We should reach for our parents and grandparents, and their memories, as someone reaches for us. And we should jump for joy with the excitement of the best present EVER coming in this season of Advent.

Listen

“The Finale (The Dargason)” from St. Paul’s Suite by Gustav Holst, performed by the Monticello String Quartet.

English composer Gustav Holst was born in 1874 and went on to his great rewards in 1934. During his lifetime, he was nothing short of a prolific composer. He is most remembered for his masterworks for orchestra, The Planets. As a champion of the English Folksong Revival movement, Holst frequently employed English Folk songs as the basis for his compositions. In his St. Paul’s Suite, a multi-movement work for string orchestra, Holst combines English folksongs with newly composed melodies and sometimes with themselves. Such is the case in the final movement, “The Dargason.” Here, Holst takes the folksong “Greensleeves” and combines it was an ancient, traditional dance called “Dargason.” 

I find this combination to be particularly striking for the season of Advent. We are bombarded – as early as 1 October! – with Christmas songs here in the US. By early November, street decorations are making their appearances and now that December is well underway, it’s hard to pass a moment of social media scrolling without seeing or hearing something about the great joy of Christmas. For me, it is this ‘great joy’ that Holst aptly captures in his Dargason. The rollicking tune and tempo of the dance is sure to make even the most stoic tap their foot or gently sway. While there are no words associated with the dance, it’s unmistakably joyful!

A more close look at the calendar reveals that we are not yet in the season of Christmas. It’s now Advent – the time to prepare for Christmas. In most years, finding time for that preparation is nearly impossible. Usually my December is filled to the brim with rehearsals, parties, concerts, church services, and, of course, shopping. This year, the virus has caused us all to pause. We are all experiencing a season of Advent unlike any other. Despite that pause, the joy of Christmas is just around the corner and I, for one, am eager for Christmas Eve and Morning. The tune “Greensleeves” beautifully captures a feeling of expectation and quiet joy.  It is most often sung to the poem “What child is this?”  

While Holst intended no religious connotation to this work, I find it an oddly appropriate movement to include in our celebration of Advent at Westminster. The combination of rollicking joy with quiet expectation seems to beautifully capture my feelings about the weeks preceding Christmas. In this week’s recording, our own String Quartet performs an arrangement of the work. It begins with the jovial “Dargason” and part way through the dance gives way to the more introspective “Greensleeves” tune.  

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Refrain
This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Refrain

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Refrain

Serve

Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and invites us to have a more global sense of what it means to be a neighbor. At Westminster, we practice his teaching by extending our love and care beyond our local and national boundaries. As part of your Advent devotional, we encourage you to extend your love also to those we support in places far away geographically, but very close in Spirit. Here are two suggestions:

Send a Christmas email to Paula Cooper, the Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-worker based in Zambia. As regional liaison for East Central Africa, Paula facilitates PC(USA) relationships with partner churches and institutions in Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia, where the church is growing rapidly, and pastoral training and leadership development are of major concern.

Paula also provides support for PC(USA) mission personnel and Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) in the region. Paula is the recipient of ongoing budget support through our International Missions Committee. We encourage you to email your thanks and prayers for work and ministry, identifying yourself as a member or friend of Westminster. This way, she may know that our financial support is matched by our human care. Paula may be reached by email at paula.cooper@pcusa.org, and you may copy internationalmission@wpc-alex.org, so that we may echo your well wishes.

Attend the now-virtual Alternative Giving Bazaar (December 6 to 13). Funds raised at the bazaar comprise an essential portion of the funding needed to house, educate and nurture the children, youth and graduates of our partner United Orphanage Academy in Moi’s Bridge, Kenya. The event also supports our partner, the Community Coalition for Haiti, as well as Heifer Project International and Equal Exchange. To attend the bazaar, simply visit wpc-alex.org/agb, where you will find videos and introductions to these agencies and how your support can support their mission.

Advent One – Week of November 29

The Word

Mark 13:24, 27, 32-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Reflect

Sunrise or Sunset. Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
As the fires rage, and the days grow shorter, and as our patience thins.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
as the darkness closes in.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
But the last year has been an entire chapter of our communal lives, spent in an ever-present state of dusk, “distanced” as it were, physically, socially, emotionally. I have not only felt distanced, but even further separated still – disembodied even – from my community, my family, my congregation. And this disembodiment has been exhausting. If I was tired last Advent, this Advent I feel simply defeated.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
I know Jesus is coming, that is the entire point of this Season of Advent. Both the birth in Bethlehem, the fantastic conglomeration of light and dark and angels and shepherds. And the rebirth. The rebirth that I so desperately want to see in the routine and mundane and quotidian.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
Awake like the fig tree? The one that grows its leaves every year at just the right time, indicating that summer is about to begin? How does it sense that the time is right to bud? Can it notice the change in seasons, the light and dark of Advent, the light and dark of a darkened sun or moon? I think it must. How else can it grow? How else can it learn when the time will come?

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
Awake like the fig tree. For it senses the cyclical nature of our world. The seasonal blessing of life and death, of birth and rebirth. The promise of springtime, the gratitude of harvest. The sacred gifts of time, and opportunity, and hope, and another chance. The loving embrace of the possibility of God.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
Yes, fires are raging, darkness closes in, but the fig tree still blossoms. Birth, rebirth, still arrives, often unexpectedly, often in the unknown.

Jesus instructs us to keep awake –
As the darkness closes in – so too does God.

Listen

WPC Chamber Choir: “Now the Heavens Start to Whisper”

New to us is the advent hymn “Now the Heavens Start to Whisper.” The poet, Mary Louise Bringle, found inspiration in Celtic sources for these stirring words. In particular, the idea of “thin places” – places where two separate realms of existence (heaven/earth, sacred/secular) – seem to come closer. For me, this is a perfect way to explore the paradox of the creator of the universe coming to earth as a child. The tune, Jefferson, was composed by an anonymous 19th century musician from Tennessee. A chamber choir of eight voices from the Westminster Choir sing it together here. To maintain our safety, we recorded – masked and distanced – in the Blomberg Courtyard back in November. The unexpected ‘accompaniment’ of passing DASH buses only further punctuates our music. –Dr. Ben

Now the heavens start to whisper,
as the veil is growing thin.
Earth from slumber wakes to listen
to the stirring, faint within:
seed of promise, deeply planted,
child to spring from Jesse’s stem!
Like the soil beneath the frostline,
hearts grow soft to welcome him.

Heavy clouds that block the moonlight
now begin to drift away.
Diamond brilliance through the darkness
shines the hope of coming day.
Christ, the morning star of splendor,
gleams within a world grown dim.
Heaven’s ember fans to fullness;
hearts grow warm to welcome him.

Christ, eternal Sun of justice,
Christ, the rose of wisdom’s seed,
come to bless with fire and fragrance
hours of yearning, hurt, and need.
In the lonely, in the stranger,
in the outcast, hid from view:
child who comes to grace the manger,
teach our hearts to welcome you.

Serve

Virtual Alternative Giving Bazaar

This year, the coronavirus has changed our ways of being and doing together and placed disproportionate burdens on vulnerable communities. With both realities in mind, Westminster will hold our annual Alternative Giving Bazaar (AGB) in virtual fashion during the weeks of December 6 and 13. We hope that the bazaar in this new digital format will still provide concrete help to our local, national and international mission partners and those they serve. As a part of your Advent devotion, we encourage you to participate this year by visiting when the site goes live later this week. Watch some of the introductory videos from our partners to learn how our support is needed and used. If you are able, make a donation online or by mail (using the form you receive in the mail), for which you will receive special bookmarks infused with seeds that you may share with loved ones for planting in their gardens.

James 3:18 says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” May you sow peace this Advent as you learn about and support our partner missions with your prayers and gifts on their behalf.

Christmas Eve & Christmas Day

The Word

Isaiah 9:2-7

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.

John 1:6-14

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Reflect

CmasEve-Day-- Moyers-Shine_HR-large

Shine by Mike Moyers.

Three of the gospel writers begin their narratives with stories of Jesus’ life: his birth or his ministry. The writer of John, however, begins with an affirmation of the eternal nature of God and the ancient hymn affirming that God is eternal, outside of time and space.God, and the Word that is with God and is God, existed before creation and continue to exist. The relationship between God and the Word is eternal, from before the beginning to the creation of the world and afterwards. 

Everything came into being through God, who is the source of all light and life. This light, which is eternal, shines even in the darkness.Even darkness cannot overcome this light from God. 

After reminding us of the eternal nature of God, and the Word, the writer John brings us to a specific time and place to describe the life and teachings of Jesus: Palestine at the time of John the Baptist, with no birth narrative or story of Jesus’ childhood.

The gospel of Mark introduces John the Baptist as calling people to repentance and baptizing them with water, but the writer of John introduces John the Baptist as one who came to witness to the light.This witness is an important vocation in this Gospel, because it is through witness that the world comes to know the presence of God in the world. The writer of John later describes John the Baptist’s witness in answering the Pharisees’ questions and baptizing. 

As the writer of John has emphasized the importance of witness in spreading God’s word, we are drawn to the question of how to bear witness in our contemporary society. Calling people to repentance goes against the grain of most Presbyterians and would doubtless cause some to question our grip on reality.However, in this season of Advent it may be worthwhile to explore how we can best witness to the reality of the Messiah, not for the sake of converting people, but to demonstrate to others that Christ lives among us. 

After describing the role of John, the writer of John closes this prologue witha return to the meaning of the Incarnation.The eternal Word enters our earthly dimension, becoming human.The story of Jesus, then, is the story of the Word made flesh. 

The significance of the Incarnation is that we are to discover God’s presence and God’s glory in Jesus himself. Thus, the rest of John’s gospel presents the life and teaching of Jesus, the Word made flesh which dwelt among us. 

For Unto Us a Child Is Born

CmasEve-Day-- Angels-Worship-Christ-Child

Angels Worship the Christ Child, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 

I grew up with the words, “For unto us a child is born.” These words from the prophet Isaiah 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:
Light – Wonderful Counselor – Mighty God – Everlasting Father – Prince of Peace – Endless peace

Then words in the passage get a little more earthly and move toward a certain concreteness:
Throne – Kingdom – Establish – Uphold – Justice – Righteousness – Forevermore

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 that we, as a society or a people, have a positive place in our hearts for the word “authority.” In recent years we have grown to distrust authorities, to discount experts. On the one hand we yearn for leaders who seem to possess authority and on the other we 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. 

Listen

Christmas is here! After four weeks of preparing, the purple of Advent is gone and the brilliant white of Christmas adorns our sanctuary. We embellish our church with hundreds of candles, guest musicians, and carols of celebration. 

While many familiar carols are associated with this most holy night, I have chosen to include the hymn, “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding.” In it, we are reminded of the brilliance of this season.  Familiar metaphors for Christ—”the sun” and “the lamb”—combine with a soaring tune to lift our spirits. Upper voices of the choir sing descants in two of the five verses. American composer, Richard Webster, provides us with a truly thrilling brass fanfare and accompaniment. The recording is of the Westminster Choir with brass quintet and organ recorded live earlier in December. 

This Christmas, may you and yours experience the excitement that the Christ Child brings.  

Pray

The Christ Candle

A gift is wonderful to receive. A gift is also wonderful to give.  Whether gifts are wrapped in beautiful paper, a bag, brown paper or newspaper, a gift brings us wonder, excitement, joy and appreciation.

The greatest gift that we have received as Christians is the birth of Jesus Christ. God so loved us that he sent us a son. What an amazing present that we get to receive year after year after year.

The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word gift. This is their response:

Word Art (4)

Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for the most wonderful gift of Jesus. As we celebrate Christmas day, we are most grateful for your gift to us.

Serve

CmasEve-Day- Mission Photo- Moi's Bridge

Why Do Mission in Kenya When There’s So Much Need Here?

This question comes up from time to time and is a fair one. Strategically, we may wonder whether it makes “sense” to devote such significant resources abroad, when such significant human need exists just down the street, where our money and time may “go farther” because we do not have to travel so far to serve. And yet, for reasons that have as much to do with identity than strategy, Westminster remains steadfastly committed to the children and staff of the United Orphanage and Academy in Moi’s Bridge, Kenya, because our relationship with them is now an inseparable part of our story in God. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do.

We have Scriptural precedent. On Christmas Eve, we re-inhabit the story of Mary and Joseph, who were summoned from Nazareth so that Bethlehem may be the manger of our Savior’s birth. We anticipate the magi journeying great distances to pay the Christ child homage. We remember their antecedents, Abram and Sarai, who left home to be a blessing to all people in a new place far away, and we honor how Ruth felt in her God-given heart to leave her own people to abide with her mother-in-law, Naomi. We recall how in his grown-up ministry, Jesus hiked many miles to Tyre and Sidon to be with “those people,” the Samaritans, when he had plenty to do with “his” people in Galilee. And likewise, there is Paul, whose missionary map unfolded far beyond his city’s blocks, leaving us a faith whose boundaries extend far beyond the human imagination of his time.

All this to say, there are always needs “right next door,” in those places that are familiar to us, and seem tailor-made for our involvement. And yet, God seems to move through God’s people such that they move, extending their care beyond the well-worn paths of their everyday lives.

The disciples are sent, empty-handed but sure-footed, to proclaim release to the captives, good news to the poor, health to the sick. As disciples of this age, we are likewise called to “go,” to not restrict God’s movement in and through us to the confines of our known contexts. For this reason, we serve people in Kenya, and Haiti, and Mexico. We nurture relationships with friends in the Spirit Lake Reservation. We cross borders locally, by serving meals to people who might never eat with us at our tables, so that in God, someday, they might.  

One need not travel far to move beyond one’s fenced-in yard. So, the invitation this Christmas is to go, be open to God’s leading you away from familiarity to the awe of the unknown, even if that place is just down the street. Join in this holy movement, because it is our story in Christ. It is who we are, so let it move in what we do, locally, nationally and abroad.   

 

Cover Art: Awake My Soul by Mike Moyers. Image from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original work from www.mikemoyersfineart.com/.

Advent Four – Week of December 22

The Word

Advent 4- Cover- The Dream of Joseph_James Tissot, 1886-96_Brooklyn_museum

The Dream of Joseph, 1886-96. James Tissot. Brooklyn Museum.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

Reflect

jacob-he-qi- Advent 4- interior

The Dream of Jacob. He Qi.

Well, this must have been awkward. Joseph and Mary are pledged to marry. They’ve probably gotten to know each other a bit. They’ve no doubt registered for gifts at the Nazareth market. The stage is set for a long, happy life together. And then she turns up pregnant. This would be an uncomfortable situation today, but it was, no doubt, far worse given the cultural norms of the time.

We want to imagine Joseph’s initial reaction as well as how Mary prepared to break the news. Did she just blurt it out? What was the conversation between them?

“I’m pregnant. But don’t worry, it’s from the Holy Spirit,” his bride says.

“Uh… what?”

Joseph must have felt betrayed. He probably thought she was delusional. He may have rolled his eyes, raised his voice or both. Although they technically were not yet married, Joseph and Mary were in a phase where they were legally pledged to one another. Her
action would have been considered adultery. We don't know what the exact conversation was like. But we do know that it seems to have left Joseph unconvinced that Mary was telling the truth.

Joseph has the inclination that many might: I’ve got to get through this. He wanted a divorce (to remove himself from the situation), and he wanted it done quietly (to save her dignity– and perhaps prevent a death by stoning, which would have been an adulterer’s fate). Joseph had a few options at this point, neither of them good. Divorce put Mary’s life at risk. Going forward with the marriage put his dignity at stake, since the community would know that they had not yet formally married. Either he wasn’t the baby’s father, or they had engaged in premarital sex.

Most of the Christmas story is focused on Jesus and Mary. Luke tells this portion from Mary’s perspective. The Angel appears before her to say that she will bear a son, and that she shall name him Jesus. Joseph isn’t mentioned at all in Luke’s telling, other than to note that he is engaged to Mary.

Matthew is the reverse. This passage is all though Joseph’s perspective. The angel appears to him: Don’t worry. Mary is pregnant but it’s through the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is the one who is told to name the baby Jesus. When Joseph wakes, he is abeliever. He does as the angel instructs, and he takes Mary as his wife.

There are many miracles we look to this time of year. I’m certain that Joseph’s understanding is one of those miracles.

Listen

The hymn “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth” is a perpetual favorite of mine. At Westminster we employ it in a twofold procession. The first, perhaps most obvious, is the physical movement of singers from the rear of the sanctuary to the chancel. In so doing, we are reminded of entering into God’s presence as we worship.

The second is procession of sound. As the hymn retells the story of the coming Christ, the number of voices and instruments swells with each passing verse. In today’s recording, the first verse of the hymn is sung by five of our Girl Choristers. A small number of handbells accompany 40 of our youngest children in singing verse two. The adult choir takes verse three. The remainder of the verses are sung by the largest choir of the church—the congregation.

The late Sir David Willcocks provides us with the free harmonization of the last stanza as we sing praise to the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Paraclete. The recording is that of the choirs of Westminster earlier in December 2019. May your celebration of Christmas be filled with the light, love, and joy expressed through our music.

Pray

Fourth Sunday of Advent – The Candle of Love

What is love? What do you love? How do you show love?

As you light the candle of love, spend time talking about what love means to you and your family. Take the time this week to intentionally show love to others, and don’t forget to take the time to love yourself.

The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word love. This is their response:

Word Art (3) love

Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for giving us love. Thank you for the ability to give love as well as to receive it. Amen.

Serve

 

baskets

In the Advent season we await and celebrate the coming gift of Jesus to our lives and the world. It is a glorious time to reflect on the gifts God continues to provide in our lives and share these gifts with our friends and neighbors. Through our long-standing relationship with local Alexandria agencies, Westminster Local Mission offers low barrier ways to share God’s gifts with our less fortunate neighbors. Westminster collects non-perishable food items for ALIVE and distributes “people in need packets” regularly to those without a stable home. Baskets to receive donated items for both of these local ministries are found in Fellowship Hall and the church lobby entrance off from the parking lot.

ALIVE! Last Saturday Program

This food distribution service at the Ladrey building in Old Town serves senior citizens and other clients. Volunteers prepare 90 bags of food the last Saturday of each month and distribute to people in the building and others who need assistance and are identified through the social services agencies in Alexandria. This opportunity is great for families or groups.

As part of your Advent Devotions, follow through on your desire to serve by adding a last Saturday date for 2020 to your calendar. Or, simply contribute some non-perishable food to the ALIVE donation baskets in the church lobby as you come into Christmas Eve services this week. In these ways you will feed those for whom the world has said, “there is no room in the inn.”

Advent Three – Week of December 15

The Word

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

Reflect

Advent 3- interior art idea

The Annunciation, 1430-1438. Stefano da Verona (Italian, c. 1375-1438). Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Advent seems so sentimental sometimes. Perhaps that is because Advent is often swallowed up the larger consumer culture winter holiday frenzy. This is the third week of a season that is four weeks and, by now, your calendars are that much more full of holiday obligations and errands. That call from the scriptures that this be a season of waiting, remembering and hoping may seem laughable.

Advent is about the waiting — not just the waiting of the Christ-Child who comes into the world in the form of the most dependent version of our humanity, but waiting for the reconciliation of the world. A world made right. A world fit for a Christ to come back and draw us to Him.

Sometimes the problem with sentiment and nostalgia around this time of the year is that it is always about the memory. The memories of little pieces of chocolate each day and bathrobed shepherds can be wonderful. What is so beautiful about Mary’s song is that it seems to remember while hoping for something to come. When Mary speaks of all these future generations calling her blessed, it is not of anything Mary has done of her own volition but because the God of her ancestors has been as faithful to her as God was to them. Mary is a vessel through which God is birthed in the world anew through the person of Jesus Christ.

There is something about getting ready for a change in life that tends to fill us with both excitement and anxiety. We get through those times of uncertainty: fear and excitement because of the memory of previous times when we got through change. In what ways this Advent season, can the memory of God’s faithfulness buoy our expectancy about the future?

The Magnificat, or the song of Mary, is looking backwards and looking forwards. God has been faithful and God will be faithful. However, God’s faithfulness in the future will not necessarily look like God’s faithfulness in the past. A different vision of God’s faithfulness is never as clear in scripture as in the advent of Jesus Christ. God’s faithfulness now becomes a crying, walking, talking, sometimes introverted, sometimes extroverted, son of a carpenter who proclaims that salvation is found not in seats of power and wealth
but in radical acts of love and forgiveness. God gives Mary the task of carrying all that into the world. And this week, we hear her song. A song of blessing, but that song did not come without fear and anxiety. She had to be supported by her cousin, Sarah. She had to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in the past so she could hope for God’s faithfulness in the future.

This week, Breathe! Slow Down! Gather around those you love and remember God’s faithfulness in the past. Where did God show up for you, for your ancestors? Where have you seen God’s mighty deeds in your life? Thank God for those times and if those times seem hard to remember, ask God to show up, to remind you of God’s faithfulness.

Listen

This week we focus on the song of Mary, also known as the Magnificat. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. Composers throughout the centuries have been inspired to set this text to music. At Westminster, you have the opportunity to worship through many musical settings both at our Sunday morning services, and at services of choral evensong. During this season of Advent, I have chosen a musical setting for our choristers and adult choir that is a reflection on the angels’ annunciation to the blessed virgin, “Angelus ad virginem.”

This popular 13th century carol is a poetic version of the annunciation story. It is said to have originally consisted of 27 stanzas, with each following stanza beginning with the consecutive letter of the alphabet. The setting employed by the musicians at Westminster use only four of those. This setting, composed by 20th century British composer Andrew Carter, uses a rollicking organ accompaniment to highlight the joy of the text. Carter chose to alter between groupings of three and groupings of two. In so doing he musically highlights the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – and the duality of Christ – truly God and truly Human. May the joy of the blessed Virgin Mary and this lively carol inspire us this Advent season!

Pray

Third Sunday of Advent – The Candle of Joy

How do you feel when you hear the word joy? Joy is a beautiful word. We want to feel joy, spread joy to others and live a joyous life.

In this third week of Advent, focus on sharing joy with those around you who may need to have more joy in their lives. Send a card to someone who may be sad, take treats to a hospital, fire house or police station, donate toys and clothes to a family shelter, and thank someone who has helped you. By giving joy, we receive joy.

The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word joy. This is their response:

Word Art (2) joy

Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for giving us joy. Help us to give joy to others, especially to those who need it more than me.

Serve

paula cooper_Mission_Advent 3

Meet Paula Cooper, the Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-worker based in Zambia. As regional liaison for East Central Africa, Paula facilitates PC(USA) relationships with partner churches and institutions in Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia, where the church is growing rapidly, and pastoral training and leadership development are of major concern. Paula also provides support for PC(USA) mission personnel and Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) in the region.

Paula brought her faith-filled exuberance and warmth in a visit to Westminster this past
March as part of the Kenya Mission Network conference that Westminster hosted. Paula is the recipient of ongoing budget support through our International Missions Committee. The committee would love for you, as part of your Advent devotions, to reach out to Paula and wish her a joyful Christmas season. As such, we encourage you to email your thanks and prayers for work and ministry, identifying yourself as a member or friend of Westminster. This way, she may know that our financial support is matched by human care.

Paula may be reached by email at paula.cooper@pcusa.org, and you may copy internationalmission@wpc-alex.org, so that we may echo your well wishes.

 

Cover Art: The Annunciation, 1380s. Netherlands, or possibly France, 14th century. Tempera and oil with gold on wood. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Advent Two – Week of December 8

The Word

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.|
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:1-10

Reflect

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Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Rosa gallica” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1799.

I was once at a Christmas party with the supporters of the Alexandria Symphony. Then-Maestro Kim Allen Kluge was playing Christmas carols on the piano while a group of us sang along. We were singing “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” when halfway through, I realized I was the only one still singing. I looked at the Maestro, and he said, “It’s great! Keep singing!”

To me, it’s not Christmas without this song. It has been special to me since I first learned it as a teenager. It reminds me of the many friends I have had in choruses and church choirs. When we get together at Christmas reunions, we still sing it in four-part harmony.

The devotional scripture for today foretells the birth of the Messiah. It has been dated to the seventeenth century, before the birth of Jesus. It clearly foretells that this Messiah will come forth from the line of David (Jesse’s son). For this reason, Christians have always traced the lineage of Jesus through the House of David to prove that He is the long-expected savior come to set his people free. Both Matthew and Luke include a genealogy at the beginning of their gospels to make this point.

Until modern times, most people could not read, but they could sing. This is why hymns of all types were so important in the Church—they told the story of Christ in a form that was easy for people to understand and to memorize. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is not just a beautiful carol, it was a way for Christians to recall Isaiah’s prophesy and its meaning.

Lo, how a rose e’re blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As those of old have sung.
It came a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.

Isaiah ‘twas foretold it
The rose I have in mind.
With Mary we behold it
The Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright
She bore for us a savior
When half-spent was the night
.

Listen

This week’s passage is my favorite from the Book of Isaiah. I always find a way to include it in Advent Lessons & Carols services, and this year is no exception. While there are many carols and anthems that reflect on this text, our terrific associate for children’s music, Molly Roden, found a perfect fit in our own library. Listen above to a recording of our children’s choirs singing a portion of “A Shoot Shall Come Forth Out of Jesse” by Richard Horn. Horn chooses to set several verses from Isaiah 11 and 32 in this anthem:

A shoot shall come forth out of Jesse,
And a bud shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of life shall be with him,
The spirit of wisdom and truth.

From out of the wells of salvation
Will he draw us the water of life;
His waist shall be girdled with justice,
The heart of his heart shall be Love.

He’ll come from the end of his heaven,
And the earth shall be torn from its place;
Our lives shall be filled with his radiance
As floodwaters cover the sea.

Refrain:
Then the lamb shall lie down with the leopard,
And the lion eat straw with the ox,
For the hand of a Child shall lead them
To the peaceable kingdom of God.

It is the words of the refrain that are most meaningful to me. May the voices of the children of Westminster remind us all of the promise foretold by the prophet Isaiah as our prayers for peace and concord ascend to the throne of heaven.

Pray

Second Sunday of Advent – The Candle of Peace

What is peace? Where can we find peace for ourselves, our family, our community, our world? How do we help others find peace? In this season of Advent, take the time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and find peace within yourself. Spread that peace to others. Use the word peace at your gatherings, dinners and prayers.

The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word peace. This is their response:

Peace.png

 

Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for giving us peace. May we find it within ourselves and help give it to others.

Serve

mission-01.jpeg

Each Christmas season, we look through Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus and remark at the accomplished and God-fearing ancestors of Him. One of those is Ruth, known not only as David’s grandmother, but also as one who gleaned Boaz’s fields to provide her and her mother-in-law Naomi enough to eat. Like Ruth, we at Westminster glean—gather produce left after a harvest—twice each year to provide food for those who need it.

In the summer, we glean corn through Healthy Harvest Food Bank, an organization which organizes gleaners to harvest fresh produce that has been left behind after farms in the Northern Neck of Virginia have finished their harvest. The produce is then taken to food banks within the Northern Neck region of Virginia, so that people can have fruits and vegetables when they otherwise may not be able to afford it. In the fall, Westminster gleans apples through the Society of St. Andrew. They coordinate produce gleaning across Virginia and, like Healthy Harvest, donate it to local food pantries. This year, we gleaned truckloads of apples and corn through the two organizations.

Though it is a little cold for us to be gleaning this Advent season, the National Missions team hopes you will keep our summer and fall opportunities in mind as you plan out your 2020 calendars. In addition to our annual gleaning trips, Westminster also contributes financially to the two organizations.

If you are interested further in Healthy Harvest Food Bank or the Society of St. Andrew, explore hhfb.org or endhunger.org/virginia. Please also pray this week for those who farm and those who glean food that will feed the Ruths and Naomis of the world.

 

Cover Art: Two Trees, first half 1800s. Johann Jacob Dorner (German, 1775-1852). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

 

Advent One – Week of December 1

The Word

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 

Genesis 3:6–12 

Reflect

Library-of-Congress_Currier-and-Ives_lithograph-hand colored-Adam&Eve in-th-Garden-of-Eden_LC-DIG-pga-05753

“Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888), Springfield Museums.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and [Adam and Eve] knew they were naked; And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
(vv. 3:7 and 3:21) 

Through the ages, the church has regarded Jesus Christ as the new Adam, who came to save humanity from the tragic sin that originated from (or is epitomized by) the “old” Adam and his wife, Eve. 

A theological question arises: Had Adam and Eve chosen not to eat forbidden fruit, would Christ have needed to come? Should we be somehow grateful for the First Couple’s tragic disobedience, without which we might not know the love and mercy of our Lord? This strand of thinking exists in the historical church, which explains in part why this “bad news” text is part of the Advent cycle of readings, but it can be hard to accept. Would we celebrate a cancer because of the joy of its remission? Would we embrace the ravages of war, without which we would not know the relief of armistice? 

And yet, so often we hear those emerging from periods of great ruin and suffering describe how paradoxically grateful they are for their hells, because of the new life that emerged through them. I have heard people express gladness for their battles with addiction, which shaped them into new people, capable of greater love and forgiveness. I have seen a friend nearly destroyed by his divorce nonetheless embrace it as a part of the journey that led him to the wife and marriage he now cherishes. In the church, we honor the cross for a similar reason, as we acknowledge how a grotesque tool of torture and death became an instrument of eternal life. It is this perspective that allows us to call the terror of Good Friday, “good.” 

The point of this is not to solve riddles (is darkness really a necessity of light?) or be persuaded to celebrate suffering or sin of any kind as a prerequisite of healing or forgiveness. Our invitation, instead, is to celebrate and anticipate the ways in which the God of our faith shines light in the midst of darkness so that even our horrors can become vessels carrying the possibility of transformation and gratitude. If Adam and Eve’s shame in seeing their nakedness led them to receive the very fabric of God’s mercy, may we in Advent look upon all that is unworthy of praise as the raw material through which we receive the joy that awaits us in Christ. 

And so we pray anew the prayer of the ancient church, saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” 

Listen

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

As we begin this season of preparation and expectation, there is nothing more appropriate than the beloved carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Like much of the music of this season, the music for this carol began its life in the 12th century. The text is taken from the so-called “O Antiphons,” and is more ancient than the music. We can find references to these dating all the way back to the 6th century. 

Originally, there were five “O Antiphons;” later, two more were added. The first letters of the Latin titles, from last to first, form an acrostic – ero cras – meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” 

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (O With Us is God) 

We will all join in singing this carol at Advent Lessons & Carols on Friday, December 6 and Sunday, December 8. For today’s recording, you will hear our own Dr. Ben Hutchens performing the original plainsong chant, in Latin. 

Pray

 

First Sunday of Advent – The Candle of Hope

Advent is a time of hope. It is hard for us to remember this when we think about all that we have or want to do. When your family is baking, wrapping, setting up the tree, shopping, or writing cards, remember what Advent is about. When the stress, hurriedness and over-stimulation of the season happens, stop, breathe and say the word hope. Use the word hope at your gatherings, dinners and prayers. 

The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word hope. This is their response:

Hope

Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you for giving us hope.

Serve

AGB 2019

Though Christmas is still weeks away, we have been bombarded for months by Christmas commercials, all telling us what we can or should buy to make someone’s Christmas bright. As a community of Christian faith, we join in that desire to bring joy to others, though we attribute the light we share to a different source. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said (John 8:12). Jesus also said, “I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). In that spirit, Westminster celebrates its annual Alternative Giving Bazaar (AGB), a festival of giving that provides an opportunity to honor friends and family with gifts in their names to nearly twenty organizations supported by our Local, National and International Mission Committees. 

One purchase gives rise to two gifts: 

1) to the people whom these donations will serve, and
2) to members of your family, friends, co-workers or neighbors whom you enable to be a part of this expression of love and care. 

The AGB is also a great introduction to the mission ministries of our church. This year, the AGB will be held after the 11:00 a.m. services on December 8 and 15 in Fellowship Hall. As part of your Advent devotion, make a point of visiting one of the tables and making a connection with the mission representative. We will also have children’s activities to help our young ones engage the bazaar. If you cannot attend, go to wpc-alex.org/bazaar to read the AGB catalog and prayerfully consider finding ways to support one of the featured groups with time, talent or treasure. Doing so will indeed infuse a measure of Christ’s light into the darkness of this world.