Tag Archives: advent

Advent Reminder

Every year, I have to ask Doug to remind me what the weeks in advent stand for. Since I don’t have a handy notebook near, I’m posting this here to remind me throughout the season, and so that I can find it with a snappy little blog search next year.

Advent is four weeks long. The four weeks are:

  1. Hope – the Prophet
  2. Love – the Holy Family
  3. Joy – the Shepherds
  4. Peace – the Magi

On week 5, we celebrate the traditional “80-Proof Christmas” candle, wherein all music pastors pass out from exhaustion and slip into the numb embrace of Bookers.

15 Hymns: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

I have always loved this song, but it never seems to work for congregational singing. So, I built my own congregation, out of cloned replicas of myself. Oh man, that would be the greatest church ever. Wait … never mind. On second thought, that would be the worst church ever.

Let_Mortal.mp3

let all mortal flesh
photo by Automatt

Protest Songs: Advent Edition

Not long ago I started a series (which quickly fizzled out due to my burgeoning ADD) about protest songs. I may or may not get back to writing it regularly (Look! A bird…), but I thought it might be cool to highlight one very special song during this season of Advent. You can read the lyrics from the NIV here, as I have opted for the KJV (used in the Book of Common Prayer) for poetic reasons.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

This song is, of course, the Magnificat of Mary the Mother of Jesus. During her pregnancy, Mary left her hometown of Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth (herself pregnant with the baby who would become John the Baptist). When Mary arrived, John started turning somersaults in Betsy’s womb, and Mary burst into song. It was quite a scene!

The political climate in first century Judea was pretty messy: Herod “the Great” was king, but instead of being an advocate for his people, he collaborated with the Roman Empire to subjugate them. There was incredible discontent on the part of the people, both politically and spiritually — these being quite wrapped up in one another in the ancient understanding of “life.” What had happened to God’s promises to make Israel a great nation? Nothing but foreign rule for hundreds of years…what the heck? The prophecies about a coming Messiah had become the one glimmer of hope for many oppressed and downtrodden people.

Then along came this little girl from a no-name hick town, leagues away from the action and expectation. She received a startling message: she had been chosen by God to bear and raise His very own Son, who would be the long-awaited Savior. She wasn’t clear on the details, but she didn’t blink or stutter or equivocate when it was time to accept or reject the mission. “I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say” (The Message).

Fully cognizant of the political and spiritual reality of the times, Mary sang a song of protest, a song of joy.

“The disestablishment of unjust powers and the establishment of just powers is how God is being faithful to the Abrahamic promises…Mary’s friends undoubtedly lifted a toast when Mary sang this song. ‘It’s about time!’ they all said when their jugs hit the table” (Scot McKnight, “Christmas is About the Poor”, Dec. 10, 2006).

A Savior was about to be born — He who would establish true justice, scatter the proud, bring down rulers, send the rich away empty, lift the humble and fill the hungry with good things.

The Christmas Stories: Mark

From Rome, 20 years or so after the ascension of Christ, Mark set ink to paper and began to write down the stories of Jesus’ life, as told and retold by the apostles and evangelists. Relying on the conversations that he had with Peter, as well as on some already existing written and oral records of Christ’s years of ministry, Mark’s gospel holds the distinction of being the first written (… probably).

Mark leaves things out of his gospel that we would expect to see in there. It’s the shortest of the canonical gospels, and reading it leaves you with the sense that it’s more like a companion book than an exhaustive biography.p52 For example, in the most reliable manuscripts, the resurrection account in Mark gets 8 verses, and we see only the angel announcing his resurrection to three of the women among Jesus’ disciples. Huge portions of what we would think of as essential teaching material get left out.

The church that Mark is writing to is a story-telling group. Most of the local gatherings in cities throughout the empire have direct connections to one of the apostles, and would have received their knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus directly from the stories told by the men and women who walked with him. Mark seems to be writing his gospel as a supplement to this tradition of story-telling, as if to say, “You know the stories about Jesus and what he taught us, but here are some of the details that you may not have heard.” In particular, Mark seems to be interested in providing some of the political context for Jesus’ crucifixion.

In keeping with the character of the rest of his book, Mark’s Christmas story is brief. He doesn’t talk about the virgin birth, or Bethlehem, shepherds, or wise men. For Mark, the Advent is a much older story. His gospel is simply this, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came as the Messianic heir of the God’s covenant with Israel”. Here’s how he writes it:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

‘Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight.”’”

Setting aside the theological weight of the gospels for just a second, I am frequently struck by how good these guy were as authors, as word-smiths. Mark does two things in the opening of his gospel that are just plain good writing.

First, Mark uses a very cool turn of phrase in the first line. The closest parallel might be the famous JFK line, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” In JFK’s speech, the word “not” hangs in our ear, because it’s a swinging modifier. It might belong to “ask”, or it might belong to “what”.

ask_not.mp3

In Mark’s opening, the phrase “gospel of Jesus Christ” places both the words “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” in genitive, a case in Greek that is kind of like our possessive apostrophe “s”, but not quite. So, the result is a phrase where both “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” are swinging modifiers, and the reader isn’t sure if the phrase is “This is the gospel that Jesus brings”, or “This is the gospel about Jesus.” Mark probably intends both (called a plenary genitive), something we don’t have good tools to do in English. We might read it as something like this, “This is the good news that Jesus told us about himself.”

It’s clunky in English, but in the Greek it’s elegant, it’s poetic, and it’s deeply theological. For Mark, Jesus is both the source, and the demonstration, of the new truth of God’s covenant with his people.

The second literary technique that Mark uses is this: he sets up a massive historical parallel. The angel of God prepares the way for the nation of Israel to come out of Egypt, travel under the waters of the Red Sea, through the desert, into the covenant kingdom (the Old Testament quotes). John the Baptist prepares the way for the people of Israel to, again, leave their old country behind, be baptized in the Jordan, brought through the desert, and into … and then Mark introduces Jesus. All of the weight of the Old Testament covenant language, that Mark is dredging up with his quotes, comes to rest on the appearance of Jesus in the story.

Mark’s Christmas story, his Advent, is the coming of the hero into the old, old story.