O Holy Night

Christmas has come at last! 

We have finally made it.

We were all wondering if we would survive and get everything done, and while prevailing seemed unlikely at points, there is something about Christmas that makes room for the unlikely to happen.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for you are most likely being celebrated with family, friends, good food and relaxing. Finally, it seems okay to get fully in the Christmas spirit and sing Christmas carols. One song that you probably sang is 'O Holy Night.' For some reason, this song hits home with the way we feel during the Advent season.

The song was originally written by a man named Placide Cappeau, who was a wine merchant and poet in a small town in France. What is unusual about this song in particular is that Cappeau was not a Christian, and actually considered himself to be an anticlerical atheist. By the time of 1847, Cappeau was known for his writing, and was asked by a local parish to write a poem for the upcoming Christmas mass. It seems fair to infer that he was probably shocked by this, but nonetheless, he was honored to share his talents with the church.

Basing his work around the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, Cappeau finished the poem which he entitled 'Cantique de Noel.' Thereafter, he found himself moved by his own work and decided that it should be put into the hands of a master musician. Thus, Cappeau turned to a good friend of his named Adolphe Charles Adams, who was a renowned classical musician at the time in the city of Paris. Though this poem was about celebrating Christmas and the person of Jesus, Adams was Jewish by heritage, so this poem was about a holiday that he did not observe, and about a man that he did not believe to be God incarnate. Nevertheless, he quickly went to work and was inspired by Cappeu’s beautiful words. The final product was then sang at the upcoming Midnight Mass that Christmas Eve in 1847.

At first, 'Cantique de Noel' was gladly accepted by the church in France. But when it was found that Cappeau was part of a socialist movement and that Adams was a Jew, the song was suddenly denounced by the church. As the church tried to bury this song, the people of France continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive songwriter in America would give the song to a new audience on the other side of the world.

John Sullivan Dwight, who was a supporter of the abolition of slavery at the time in North America, was able to identify with the lines that Cappeau wrote,

Truly he taught us to love one another;

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother;

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Dwight’s translation of the song quickly gained traction in North America. On Christmas Eve of 1906, the song retitled 'O Holy Night' was the first song ever sent through radio airwaves. The song is now sung in many churches of all stripes today.

This is an unlikely story of an atheist poet and a Jewish composer collaborating on a hymn for a small Catholic Mass taking place on Christmas Eve, which ended up becoming the first song to ever air on radio and is now one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. But this is the nature of Christmas: unlikely stories finding their way into history and reality.

God being born of a woman in the first century Greco-Roman world as a Jewish Carpenter. It sounds unlikely and uncommon because it is just that. God becoming a man named Jesus, entering into the strongholds of sin to bring liberty to the captives. It sounds wild, because it is. God has always worked in ways that are not predictable, because He cannot be pinned down or put into a box.

One of the marvelous themes of Christmas is that God is continuing to work in ways that are not predictable, and all people are invited to belong to God’s reclaiming and restoring of all things that He is doing in Christ.

As Cappeau wrote:

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

To listen to an in-depth look at all four weeks of Advent, please check out the series here.

Joy to the World

Christmas is almost here, all of the expectancy and foresight is about to erupt into everything that has been building for the past month. Before we know it, Christmas will be past, and we will not know what to be looking forward to next. The toys and trinkets we get will soon be dated and due for an upgrade. The clothes we get will wear out or be out of style before long. All gift cards will be spent (or forgotten about), all the eggnog will be gone, and eventually the lights will come down. It seems like all of the joy that we were anticipating at Christmas slips away somehow. 

I want to pause and think about the joy this season ushers in. Some of it is superficial, yes, although the eggnog is pretty darn good. But what about the bigger sense of joy that always springs forth during the advent season?

One popular Christmas song that can only be heard this time of year is 'Joy to the World.' This hymn was originally written by a man named Isaac Watts in the year 1719. As of the late 20th century, this song was the most published Christian hymn in North America. Watts based this hymn after Psalm 98, speaking more particularly to Christ’s second coming, now with His first coming behind us. In the finished work of Christ, there is finality and permanence. God has dropped the sins of the world into the black hole of Jesus’ death, and He has initiated the project of making all things new in the resurrection of Jesus. Upon Christ’s return, all of new creation will be actualized, and there will be no more more bondage to corruption and sin, there will be a joy that cannot be revoked.

As Watts wrote,

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

Upon the full ushering in of God’s kingdom, His redeeming hand will reach into every dark corner and and uproot everything that plagues the world and defaces the dignity instilled by God in all that He has made. However, this is not solely for the future. This is something that we can enjoy and rest in now as we await the second coming of Jesus.

The psalmist writes,

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth; burst into songs and make music… Let the sea and everything in it shout; let the world and everyone in it sing.

Psalm 98:4, 7

We live in the present most effectively by knowing what the future holds. We can live with joy knowing what has already been accomplished, and awaiting with eager expectation what is also coming. It is good news for everyone, because it is something that does not change with seasons.

Listen here for a deeper look into joy in the final week of Advent.

Hark the Herald

What is the vision behind the ‘Hark the Herald’ sermon series artwork?

The vision for all the art we do is to simply engage us more deeply with the Gospel. Since this season we’re focusing on beloved songs which have a much richer and deeper theological history than we often realize, we wanted to create something simple and familiar that would help draw us in to see the song in a new light. Inspired by vintage songbook illustrations, Liz and Justine created hand drawn scenes and lettering (for both the graphics and chalk wall) that focus on the notes and lyrics of the songs.

What does the process of creating the art look like?

For this one, after the initial creative team meeting to discuss the big ideas, we met as a design team to work on a concept. Typically one person would create the whole set of graphics, but we’re trying now to work more as a team, so we divided the responsibilities: Liz drew the illustrations, Justine did the title lettering, and I (Tim) did the final polishing in Photoshop (adding aged effects, etc.). Justine handled the chalk wall, and I’m sure her process is more exciting than mine. 

What is your favorite aspect of creating the artwork for each sermon series? 

I really enjoy the challenge of making something that speaks to the message of the Gospel, but isn’t the main thing. What we do is ancillary—it’s important and necessary, but always points to something more important. There’s an awesome freedom in that as an artist and as a believer.

What Child Is This?

Christmas day continues to approach as the mix of anticipation and excitement continue to build. Yet, Christmas is not always a time that is filled with excitement and happiness for everyone. For some, it is a time that revisits grief. For others, it is a season in which people have old wounds reopened, whether that is with family, friends, or past memories. In some cases, people can experience depression during the holidays, regardless of how many Christmas carols they might hear.

One song that you may be familiar with during Christmas time is “What Child is This?” It was originally written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. He began writing many of the hymns which bear his name at age 29, when he was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bed rest for several months, during which he went into a deep depression. Much of his best and most renowned work came from the worst season of his life.

Dix wrote these lines of inquiry,

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?

Why would God enter into the world as a fragile child? It would seem that God is not afraid of modesty and vulnerability. He is not afraid to descend to the lowest and most humble estate to meet humanity where they are. This is something that Dix encountered himself. At the depths of his depression, he found that Jesus had no reservations about drawing near to him. There is no point so low that is beyond the reach of Christ.

Dix follows with this refrain,

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing

The meek and lowly child in the manger is the God of the universe, the King of cosmos, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the One who upholds everything by the power of His word. Yet He accommodates Himself to our weakness by becoming a man. It is as if God stooped down to look us in the eye. He comes to us to communicate forgiveness of sins and the call to repentance in a way that we can fathom in our finitude.

The psalmist writes,

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.

Psalm 40:2

In order for God to pull us out of the muck and the mire, He goes in after us. This is the incarnation, God becoming man. That is what Christmas is all about. It is the declaration that there is hope for each person, wherever they might be.

To continue diving further into “What Child Is This?” check out the sermon from this week of Advent.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

It’s the second week of Advent and there is a definite building crescendo of anticipation for Christmas day.  It seems as though the seasonal music tends to fuel the anticipation. It is hard to escape because anticipation is part of the human experience. Everyone is looking forward to something.

Last week we focused on the familiar Christmas song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This week, let’s look at “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” This hymn was written by Charles Wesley, and first published in 1744. Charles Wesley was an English leader in the Methodist movement, and the younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley. Charles lived from 1707 to 1788.

In the hymn, Wesley wrote phrases such as “dear desire of every nation” and “joy of every longing heart.” Wesley understood that within every person, there is a deep longing to cherish something highly. At Christmas time, I think this feeling becomes recognizably stronger and it brings us to a place where we begin to think about these longings meaningfully.

The world is full of different messages. Some will tell you to indulge these longings until you are the fulfillment of the higher meaning. Some will tell you that there is no higher meaning, that the longing is absurd. Some will tell you that your search is in vain and nothing more than an illusion will be achieved. How can this be? ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ promised that God will be with us. Emmanuel would bring Hope and satisfy our longings to be ransomed from all the “bad” in our lives, in the world. If there is no higher meaning in life, then everything that is in us saying there most certainly is...is a lie, an illusion. Who we are at the core is nothing more than an illusion.

But what if there is a higher meaning?

We long to know that our labors, toil, and suffering are not in vain. This is the call of Wesley’s hymn.

The longings are not only to know that life is not an aimless accident, but that on a practical and experiential level, there are daily anxieties that from which we wish to be free. Jesus came to give rest to the anxious, fortify the fearful, and set the captives free from bondage to sin.

In Jesus, we find rest from trying to validate ourselves. Wesley wrote: “Hope of all the earth thou art.” There is hope for all of the world because of who Jesus is. As we look to the God who is with us, we find God stepping into history as a man to make reconciliation between humanity and Himself, and we find hope for all people.

Advent is the season where we celebrate “God with us.” This is why we can all join together in singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” For a more in-depth study on “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” check out the second week in our Advent sermons series here.