On a Silent Night

KATHY CHAPELL|GUEST Silent Night is my very favorite Christmas hymn. It speaks to believers AND non-believers around the world.  Those who know just who that infant in the manger was hear in this simple song the provision of a Redeemer by a loving Father.  And those who don’t know Him as Savior still love this tender song that is steeped in tradition and sentiment.  On Radiant Beams  Growing up in a tiny church in southern Illinois, I had two different impressions of the carol.  The first, I must admit, was based purely on the sentiment and sweetness of watching the adults in that church sing it. The church was founded in 1881 by German immigrants, and when I was young, most of the 25 members of Woodburn Presbyterian Church were either first-or second-generation German Americans.  So, when we sang this song, there were many who sang it in their heart language: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schlaft; einsam wacht….” As they sang, with all the memories of family and heritage, these dear saints would sometimes close their eyes and weep as they sang.  Even as a little child, I knew that this song meant something important to them—and therefore to me...

On a Silent Night2023-03-24T17:45:35+00:00

The Joy of Advent

BECKY KIERN|CONTRIBUTOR O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, planes formed of old, faithful and sure. He will swallow up death forever; and the LORD GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, It will be said on that day; “Behold, that is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”  (Isaiah 25:1, 8-9) There is nothing like the excitement of children around the holidays. Just the other day while on a video call with my niece, she excitedly showed me a count-down chain she and my nephew had just finished creating. She explained how each little paper circle represented a day of school they must complete before they get to start Christmas break. Christmastime is almost here, and she can’t wait. Likewise, the Christmas season stirs up a variety of emotions in adults as well. Gathering with family and friends can bring us much joy, laughter, and gratitude. But the season can also bring painful memories and tears as we grieve those who won’t celebrate the holidays with us this year. Hard emotions born from life lived in a fallen world often compete with the joy of the season—emotions such as grief, fear, doubt, weariness, loneliness, cynicism, or despair. They may wrestle for our affections and attempt to steal our hope and joy. But Advent knows better!...

The Joy of Advent2023-03-24T17:46:44+00:00

Hurrah for the Seasons

HOLLY MACKLE|CONTRIBUTOR In college a friend told me she welcomes the seasons—even celebrates them. I’m sure I nodded to look cool, “I totally get that.” (Not likely.) I’m getting older now, with definitely more wrinkles and possibly more maturity, but finally I get it. Now I too celebrate the seasons. For me, this celebrating of the seasons is more than pumpkin spice lattes and tall boots—it’s about worship. God has been about the business of seasonality for a long time. He’s the One who set the Old Testament festivities for his glory and our good when we were just being introduced to his character. By way of introduction, the Old Testament Jews were given Passover, Purim, and the Feast of Booths—just to name a few. Through them it’s as if he said, Allow me to introduce myself. And once you understand me a little bit more you’re going to want to worship me—so here’s how you do it, and here’s how you celebrate who I am and the story I am writing. On this side of the cross, we have tremendous Christian liberty and holiday celebratory leeway as we walk around indwelt with Christ himself—the personification of the Temple, Jesus—abiding in our very hearts. In John 2:19 Jesus referred to himself as the temple, and 2 Corinthians 6:16 pulls from Leviticus 26:11-12 to explain how this indwelling extends to us, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”...

Hurrah for the Seasons2023-03-24T17:47:08+00:00

How Advent Transforms January

ELIZABETH SANTELMANN | GUEST It’s jarring to come off the worship of Advent season and land in January. A week after Christmas, we turn off the carols and snap on the workout track. We rush as quickly as possible toward productivity. We dream that our lofty goals will produce the perfect version of ourselves. Frantically, we scrawl habits that will make us as successful as possible in the shortest amount of time. If only we could turn over a new leaf, we would become as flawless as is humanly achievable! We attempt to shove down our own human frailties to claw our way to the pedestal of who we can become. Oh, but January is hard. Our resolutions are interrupted by sick babies in the flu season. Snow days force us into the stillness of hibernation. We attempt to refocus our sights on the sweaty-faced trainers screaming “don’t give up on yourself now!” on the screens of our tv. The package of kale goes bad in the refrigerator. As one grey January day dissolves into the next, the willpower we mustered in our hearts begins to melt. Don’t Forget Advent What if we allowed the truths we learned in December to transform our hearts in January?

How Advent Transforms January2023-03-24T18:10:50+00:00

The Backwards Baby Announcement

SUSAN TYNER|CONTRIBUTOR Interruptions are not my finest moments. Whether a flat tire or a sick child, I get frustrated when I can’t walk through the day as it’s set on my calendar. Imagine how Mary felt. According to Luke 1, Mary was minding her own business when Gabriel knocked on the door. There she was, flipping through a stack of wedding magazines when an angel gave her a backwards baby announcement. Instead of a pregnant mother announcing that she’s expecting, Mary was told to expect a baby. The Baby. This was more than a flat tire kind of interruption. Not only did Gabriel’s announcement change the trajectory of her life, this pregnancy threw a serious kink in her plans to settle down with Joseph. Gabriel’s words made any white picket fence dreams go up in smoke. And besides the obvious shock of an angel dropping by, his words did not make sense. Mary knew enough about the birds and the bees to ask how? If she were a virgin, how could she become a mother? Gabriel explained a bit more, but I wonder if that just made Mary more confused (after all, what does “overshadow” even look like?). How did Mary respond to getting her world turned upside down? Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38) First, she believed. Mary did not understand all the nuts and bolts of how she would get pregnant, but she accepted the extraordinary explanation that God would be the Father of this holy child even as she, a sinful woman, carried Him. While the old priest Zacharias (read the previous passage) pushed back on Gabriel during that angelic interruption, Mary, a mere teen, accepted the mystery of immaculate conception...

The Backwards Baby Announcement2023-03-24T18:12:06+00:00

The Christmas Door We All Need to Walk Through

MARISSA BONDURANT|GUEST “I’m so sorry, but your daughter has cancer.” She was only four years old. The tumor was found on a Wednesday afternoon, and by Friday morning she was being wheeled back for surgery. It was so sudden, traumatic, and terrifying. We kissed our daughter, pleaded with the nurses to not leave her side, and then watched as her bed was pushed through the swinging doors of the pediatric surgery hall. As the doors swung closed behind her, my knees buckled, and I crumpled against my husband. I hated those doors. They represented my lack of control, my fear for her wellbeing, and my inability to fix the problem of her cancer. How could God separate me from my baby? Why would He put her, and us, through this? A few months later, Christmas rolled around. The lights, the wreaths, the trees—all seemed so frivolous compared to what we were walking through. Out of necessity, we toned down our Christmas activities that year...

The Christmas Door We All Need to Walk Through2023-03-24T18:12:11+00:00

The Wonder and Joy of Advent

BARBARANNE KELLY|CONTRIBUTOR The anticipation of Christmas begins building earlier and earlier these days, doesn’t it? The past couple of years have been especially hard on us all, with the common hardships and losses of the pandemic combined with stridently divisive voices shouting at us from every source of media. Our fears and isolation magnified until we are numb. It’s no mystery why we start looking forward to the Christmas season even before the first leaf falls in autumn. Amid all the tumult and strife of our weary world, we long for peace. Bombarded by cynicism and sarcasm we seek for simple, childlike wonder. Drowning in heartache and pain, we hope, however faintly, for joy. Peace is the great need of mankind, but it won’t be found in the traditions and celebrations of a mid-winter holiday. Wonder doesn’t come wrapped in shiny paper and bows, and joy can’t be manufactured and ordered with one-day shipping. The Peace We Need Most The peace we need is a person—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We need Jesus because the root of all our tumult and strife isn’t the wars that rage between peoples and nations, between political parties and factions, or even the strife between family members which drives loved ones apart. The source of our unrest is that we were born at war with God—enemies with our Creator. Because of the sin resident within our hearts, we cannot make peace on our own. We need the peacemaker. We need Jesus. During this Advent season, we anticipate the celebration of his birth, which was foretold by the prophets of old: But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days… And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2, 4–5a) True wonder wells up in us as we learn who this child is, born to Mary, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in the manger: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6–7) Very God of Very God Isaiah drew a strong prophetic sketch of the child who is Mighty God, the Everlasting One who will establish David’s throne and rule his kingdom of peace forevermore. The apostle Paul filled in the sketch with blazing colors: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15–20) This is the child who is born to us, the Son given to us. He is, as the creed so boldly declares: “very God of very God.” Our Creator humbled himself to be born of a virgin in order to reconcile to himself all things. The Son of God, born to bring peace by his death on the cross...

The Wonder and Joy of Advent2023-03-24T18:12:22+00:00

Immanuel: Not Just for Your Christmas Card

CHRISTINE GORDON|GUEST It’s that time of year when many parents of young children ask their friends this important question: “Do any of you have a shepherd’s robe or sheep costume we could borrow for a couple of weeks?” We enjoy watching our little ones dress up as Mary or Joseph, an angel or camel, and listening to the history of how Jesus came into the world. We do it to help our kids learn the story and to remind ourselves of the same. We wrap them in burlap and flowing robes to help them act out the scenes of Jesus’s birth, inviting them to enter the culture and customs of Jesus’ world. In their telling of the story, they often read a portion of Matthew 1, including these verses:  Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-24)  Every year we are transported back into the world of 1st century Palestine as we again hear the beginnings of the Christmas story. But is that really the beginning?  Before the Christmas Story As with much of the Bible, the scripts our children read to us are part of a story within a story— one that originated not just with the birth in a manger, but hundreds of years before. There are hints of the Christmas story throughout the Old Testament narrative, beginning even in Genesis. One of the greatest parts of the origin story for our Christmas plays starts with the prophecy Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7 in Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” What might our children encounter if they entered Isaiah’s world?  More than 700 years before Mary placed Jesus in the manger, God’s people were threatened by Assyria...

Immanuel: Not Just for Your Christmas Card2023-03-24T18:12:28+00:00

Let Earth Receive Her King

BECKY KIERN|CONTRIBUTOR Joy to the world! Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. Joy to the world! the Savior reigns; Let men their songs employ; While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat the sounding joy. No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found. He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love, And wonders, wonders, of His love. -Isaac Watts, 1719 Everlasting Joy Sometimes things become so deeply embedded in the zeitgeist, the cultural experience, that we forget its intended meaning or purpose. A quick search on Spotify for “Joy to the World” shows recordings by everyone from Mariah Carey to Kenny G, Ella Fitzgerald to George Strait. There is no doubt that for years this song has been a beloved Christmas staple, embedded in American culture. I have to admit a smile comes across my face when the beauty of the redemptive promise blares at unsuspecting shoppers during the holiday season. As “Joy to the World” begins to be played on airwaves, in commercials, and sung in our churches, it is good to take a moment to ask what was the songwriters original intent? Let Earth Receive Her King Writing at the beginning of the eighteen century, a time when most church worship centered around the poetry of the Psalms, Isaac Watts’s “Joy to the World” finds its roots in Psalm 98. This uncredited psalm of praise, found in book four of the psalter, centers around a joyous celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. The Lord, Yahweh, has “made known His salvation” (Ps. 98:2), “revealed His righteousness” (Ps. 98:2), and “remembered His steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 98:3). Yahweh’s faithful righteousness thus produces “joyous song and praises” (Ps. 98:4) in “all the earth” (Ps. 98:4). Although not originally written as a Christmas or Advent hymn, “Joy to the World” becomes arguably the perfect Advent song....

Let Earth Receive Her King2023-03-24T18:12:46+00:00

Celebrating Advent with Your Family

ELIZABETH SANTELMANN|GUEST While I was pregnant with our first son, I dreamed of my near Christmas due date. The fresh smell of a newborn combined with the hymns of the season to make the Christmas story real in a new way for me.  However, when it arrived, the joyful expectation I had anticipated was drowned out by the needs of a baby. Nighttime feedings, a tender body needing to heal, and learning what it meant to be a mother consumed my energies. Rather than the breathtaking euphoria I had anticipated, I was overwhelmed with panic in December when I realized that I was now responsible for the traditions and culture of the Christmas season.  Growing up, my parents tried to focus on “Jesus is the Reason for the Season." As a first-generation Christian, my mom wanted Christmas to be deeply meaningful. She or my dad would read us the Christmas story before we opened presents. We also had a HUGE cookie production. We would bake hundreds of cookies and take them with a gospel-centered Christmas card to all our neighbors. In church, I remember hearing rumblings of anger about how people in the would say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and concern that people were “taking Christ out of Christmas.”  With our kids, I knew I wanted faith and Christmas to flow together more positively and naturally. But how?  Discovering Advent  The year after my first son was born, I discovered Advent. I had settled into my husband's childhood church. It frustrated me because none of the songs they sang in early December were familiar. I wanted the achingly beautiful songs of Christmas, the ones I remembered from my childhood. This was also the year I joined the choir at our church. One day, the choir director explained to us why and how the hymns in Advent season were chosen each week.  The songs from the first Sunday in December until Christmas Eve were picked to reflect the building desire of the Israelites’ longing for a Messiah...

Celebrating Advent with Your Family2023-03-24T18:12:58+00:00
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