Saturday, December 22, 2007

Watching and Waiting

I have been at home painting ceilings this week. How I could do this the week before Christmas Eve services is a long story, and not very interesting.

The ceiling paint we use just begs for analogies, metaphors, and object lessons. So here’s my first crack at that … and my last crack at Advent hymns:

The paint we use for ceilings goes on pink and dries white. You open the can and it is a real deep, creamy pink. You brush and roll it on, and there is this bold, warm swath across the ceiling. And the painter – not to mention those standing below – can see where s/he missed spots. It dries white, of course, and fairly quickly. It’s slick, and I am only slightly reluctant to post here the brand name.

The Advent season, and especially the hymns of Advent, do this for a crèche-centric Christmas culture. If we cover the month with watching and waiting, and are attentive, we will be able to see what we are missing about the big event. Our nativity celebration will be covered in the richness of the Bible’s focus on the nativity of our Lord. We will truly spot – and then fix – the cultural, sentimental, emotional extras of Christmas Day. (Dr. Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, in an Advent sermon at College Church, warned about “celebrating celebrations.”) And perhaps then, too, we will see why it takes “Twelve Days” to celebrate the astonishing Incarnation.

Well, that’s a stretch of an analogy. So let’s just look at one more Advent hymn that did not get sung at College Church this year:

Watchman, Tell Us of the Night

Watchman, tell us of the night,

What its signs of glory are.

Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height

See that glory-beaming star!

Watchman, doth its beauteous ray

Aught of joy or hope foretell?

Traveler, yes; it brings the day,

Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;

Higher yet that star ascends.

Traveler, blessedness and light,

Peace and truth, its course portends.

Watchman, will its beams alone

Gild the spot that gave them birth?

Traveler, ages are its own;

See, it bursts o’er all the earth!

Watchman, tell us of the night,

For the morning seems to dawn.

Traveler, darkness takes its flight;

Doubt and terror are withdrawn.

Watchman, let thy wandering cease;

Hide thee to thy quiet home!

Traveler, lo, the Prince of Peace,

Lo, the Son of God is come!

John Bowring (1792-1872)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rejoice, Believers!

Advent hymns.

They really only make sense if we are committed to not just Christmas Day itself (the Feast of the Nativity as our only “Christmas”) but to the short season – the 12 days of Christmas. To a season that goes until at least Epiphany Sunday, early in January. With the full calendar we can “afford” to prepare, to ramp up. But when it all comes to a crashing halt on December 26 we may look back at four Sundays and mourn the missed opportunities to sing Christmas songs, hymns and carols.

In my present context, this is where we are. As a pastoral musician I will concede my responsibility to educate, to push the rock uphill, to stand firm and chip away at a good Advent. But as long as the days after December 25 are “something other than Christmas” there will be partial – and probably hollow – victories.

Meanwhile, there are some outstanding Advent hymns to put into peoples’ hands in a College Church hymnal. And the prayer that they will not only get used (I can see to that!) but embraced by the congregation.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers
Rejoice, rejoice, believers,
and let your lights appear;
The evening is advancing,
and darker night is near.
The bridegroom is arising
and soon is drawing nigh.
Up, pray, and watch and wrestle;
at midnight comes the cry.

The watchers on the mountains
proclaim the bridegroom near;
Go forth as he approaches
with alleluias clear.
The marriage feast is waiting;
the gates wide open stand.
Arise, O heirs of glory;
the bridegroom is at hand.

The saints, who here in patience
their cross and sufferings bore,
Shall live and reign forever
when sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory
the Lamb they shall behold;
In triumph cast before him
their diadems of gold.

Our hope and expectation,
O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for,
o’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted,
we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption
that sets your people free.

Laurentius Laurentii (1660-1722),
trans. Sarah B. Findlater (19th century), alt.
as found in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)

Monday, December 3, 2007


And here we are again. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or at least, it is leading up to it.

But even here where I serve, where we enjoy a history of Advent services and (if I may say so) pride ourselves on being an evangelical church that really takes to Advent, there seems to actually be pretty low tolerance for the hymns of Advent. We mostly want to spend the month in Christmas, hymnically. And why won’t the choir sing more carols, anyway?

We have our favorite Advent hymns, which we dole out between the first 2 Sundays of the season. (I alternate their appearance from year to year … that’s how we keep from getting into a liturgical rut.) Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I can slip in Joy to the World because people think it is a Christmas hymn. (Ha ha!) We’ve flirted with some standard great Advent hymns – Savior of the Nations, Come; O Lord, how shall I meet you?. And if Advent 1 falls on the last Sunday of November we can even get away with Timothy Dudley-Smith’s He Comes to Us as One Unknown. (Did he intend this as an Advent hymn? It functions as such, perfectly.)

But I have learned that pastorally, at a very important level, there is an emotional need for this congregation to sing Christmas hymns, songs, and carols, through the season. Please, don’t even get me started about “educating the congregation” in this matter. I have painted the picture rather bleaker than it actually is. The reality is that we poke away at these things little by little.

But here, in this private/public space, I can revel in Advent hymns; and as I have already referenced him, let me take you to Timothy Dudley-Smith

He Comes to Us as One Unknown

He comes to us as one unknown,

A breath unseen, unheard;

As though within a heart of stone,

Or shriveled seed in darkness sown,

A pulse of being stirred.

He comes when souls in silence lie

And thoughts of day depart;

Half-seen upon the inward eye,

A falling star across the sky

Of night within the heart.

He comes to us in sound of seas,

The ocean’s fume and foam;

Yet small and still up on the breeze,

A wind that stirs the tops of trees,

A voice to call us home.

He comes in love as once he came

By flesh and blood and birth;

To bear within our mortal frame

A life , a death, asaving Name,

For ev’ry child of earth.

He comes in truth when faith is grown;

Believed, obeyed, adored;

The Christ in all the Scriptures shown,

As yet unseen but not unknown,

Our Savior and our Lord.

Timothy Dudley-Smith

© 1984 Hope Publishing Co.