Advent: The Time Is Now

RZIM’s Amy Orr-Ewing did a great series of videos last year for the Advent season. The main motif is the kairos, which is the Greek word for time. It’s different from chronos, which refers to the time on your watch. Kairos is qualitative, and refers to important points in time that are pregnant with meaning and significance. They are appointed times when God intervenes in our world and accomplishes a purpose. The best example is when He sent His son, Jesus, into our world to become Savior and King.

Is Sarah Palin A Christmas Tree Idolator?

This post isn’t about Sara Palin, it’s about biblical illiteracy. Joy Reid is filling in for Ed Schultz the day after Christmas and is calling Palin out for hypocrisy regarding Christmas trees. She (mistakenly) reads Jeremiah 10:10 and draws the conclusion that Christmas trees are unbiblical.

For one thing, that wasn’t Jeremiah 10:10, but 10:3-5. It seems as if she delegates the research to someone else. If you’re going to make a tongue-in-cheek attack on someone you should probably pay attention to detail so you don’t look dumb.

The main problem, though, is that her interpretation is flawed. God is encouraging His people not to be afraid of their idolatrous enemies. The false gods cannot do anything to them because they are not real and have no power.

There are Christians who object to the whole practice involving Christmas trees because of their pagan connections but it is impossible to connect the practice with the idol worship described in Jeremiah 10. The idolators in the text cut down the trees to get the wood which they would fashion into all kinds of idols and decorate it with gold, silver, etc. The Christmas tree is a symbol because it is green even in the winter. That’s the way God created it so Christians should have no problem using it to express biblical truths simply because pagans pour their own meaning into it.

My impression is that she is cherry-picking verses in order to criticize Palin. Whatever the reason, she is reading something foreign into the text, which is called eisegesis. We want to draw the meaning out of the text (exegesis) in order to understand what we are reading. We certainly don’t want to use the text as a pretext to advance an agenda or preserve our prejudices.

Those who abuse the scriptures, in my belief, will face an especially harsh judgment. It is a very severe responsibility to handle the word of God that brings with it accountability. We want to make sure that we have all the tools we need to use it effectively. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3 the proper understanding of the word will help us fulfill our ultimate purpose in life.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Virgin Birth: Believe It To See It

virgin birth

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

Isaiah gave this prophecy not as a word of encouragement but as a rebuke of unbelief. The context provided by the chapter is that the Assyrians are invading Israel and trying to take Jerusalem. The king and the people are afraid and God promises King Ahaz that they will not succeed.

10 Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying,

11 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.

12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.

Ahaz was trying to be clever and use God’s own word against much in the same way that Satan tried to twist scripture against Jesus during His temptation. I believe Ahaz knew better that asking for a sign as a condition of faith was prohibited but here the Lord was offering it to him and so it was okay. In spite of what Ahaz said he, in fact, was testing God’s patience.

Jumping forward to the ministry of Jesus we read that He was frustrated with the people because they wanted Him to perform miracles, saying,”Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe” (John 4:48). This was the proper application of the command that Ahaz was using as cover for not trusting God.

God requires us to trust and obey before we see a miracle. We want to see signs and wonders before we trust Him, maybe. Jesus said that the centurion had faith like no one in Israel because he did not need to see the healing to believe it.

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.

2 Peter 1:19

Peter saw the miracles of Jesus’ ministry and I don’t think they can be matched by anyone in the Bible or human history. Yet, it was the word that was a more solid foundation for faith. Miracles, signs, emotional experience, all of these will fail us. You have to decide at the outset that God is trustworthy and commit yourself.

The Story Behind “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”

Candlelight

“Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is also one of the more older of the carols. This song remains with us today because of two priests who were exiles in their respective times and too radical for their contemporaries.

Heinrich Suso was a German nobleman who decided to become a priest during the 14th century. He was a Dominican monk with mystic beliefs that brought him conflict with the church. He was a religious populist who wanted to help the common man understand more about God, this in a time when the church believed that the average person had no interest in theology. After writing a couple of works that were influenced by the teachings of Eckhart, who was condemned as a heretic, Suso was exiled to Switzerland.

One night, Suso found himself immersed in a dream so real that he became a part of it. In his dream, the priest saw countless angels not only singing, but dancing. He listened as they sang, and eventually joined with them in “an ecstatic dance.” When he awoke, he not only remembered the dream in vivid detail, but also recalled the words and the music. Feeling led by divine guidance, Suso picked up a quill and ink and recorded “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to paper. Until his death in 1366, he continued to reach the common man with this song and its message.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice” was as radical a hymn as Suso’s thinking was progressive. Christian music of that era was usually solemn, based totally on Scripture, and never written in the common language. Suso had broken all three rules. His song embraced the joy of being a believer and enjoined a spirit whose meaning any child could understand. Although it was not immediately accepted by the church itself, the German people quickly and enthusiastically took the song to heart. They believed that just as Suso had been a priest to the common people, his song was a song for them as well.

Our second character in this story is John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who was thought to be a crypto-Catholic. He translated many old Roman and Greek hymns into English. He founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret to minister to the poor and that ruffled some feathers among his colleagues who caught a whiff of popery in the Roman practices he was adopting.

He was exiled to a pastorate far from his native England and even stoned and beaten by a crowd once for his beliefs. Although ridiculed by the leadership of his own denomination, Neale still sought out ways to reach the lost and forgotten. In a radical move for a priest in the Church of England, and over the objections of his superiors, Neale began an order of women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, to feed the poor, take care of orphaned children, and minister to prostitutes. Though this group would touch tens of thousands, it brought death threats to Neale and the women who served in the Sisterhood. Nevertheless, in 1853 an English publisher released Neale’s English translation of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in Carols for Christmastide. This book would pave the way for the song to be taken to the world.

The verses of the carol are a reminder of the description of heaven in Revelations where angels, elders, and creatures are worshiping and singing at the throne of God. Christians can look forward to the time when this sight will be the real thing and not just a dream.

The Story Behind “The First Noel”

the-first-noel

Like so many other Christmas songs “The First Noel” has mysterious beginnings in either France or England. It was a folk song that was written by and for the peasants hundreds of years ago. By the 19th century it made its way into the church, where so many of the carols that we sing today were banned and frowned upon, and became mainstream and popular.

The First Noel” is one of the few surviving early Christmas standards that can genuinely be earmarked as a folk song. Whoever was responsible for writing this carol was obviously incredibly enthusiastic about Christmas and fully understood the wonder of Christ’s birth, but didn’t have a full grasp on the Scriptures that told the story of that birth. During the Middle Ages, this was often the rule rather than the exception. When “The First Noel” was written, there were very few Bibles in circulation. Most were either in churches or monasteries and were written in Latin. Common people rarely saw a Bible in person, and even if they would have, they probably wouldn’t have been able to read the words in the sacred book, since most people living in those times were illiterate.

This was probably the case with the composer of “The First Noel.” With no ready Bible to guide him, the writer drew from the stories he had been told about the events of Christ’s birth. Most he recounted accurately, but he erred when he depicted the shepherds following the star to Christ’s birthplace. The Bible does not mention the star with the shepherds, only with the wise men.

During the middle ages the Viking custom of the Yule log became commonplace in England. It was basically the trunk of a tree that was hollowed out and filled with various spices and lit in the fireplace every year for good luck. Christians “baptized” this custom by reinterpreting the symbols from a biblical perspective.

In England, “The First Noel” was sung each year by many peasants as they lit the Yule log. Therefore, this became the song that started the entire Christmas season. Especially for children, this carol meant the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. Down through the ages, the tradition of the Yule log carried with it the music of this folk carol. Though its words and music were not written down, “The First Noel” survived…

“The First Noel” finally was published by William Sandys in 1833. A lawyer by trade, Sandys loved music and spent his spare time collecting both French and English folk songs. In his book on Christmas folk songs he included “The First Noel.” Already a favorite with the peasant class, by the mid–1800s, when the Church of England began to use new songs during services, “The First Noel” found universal acclaim.

One other thing I wanted to mention about the song is the meaning of Noel. I imagine most people don’t know it and have often wondered. It simply means “Christmas” and, unfortunately, I have no interesting story to mention about its origins.

The Story Behind “O Holy Night”

o holy night

The interesting thing about “O Holy Night” is that it was not created by anyone who was a genuine Christian. It began as a poem written by a Frenchman who was a commissionaire of wine in response to a request by his parish priest for a poem to be used at midnight mass on Christmas. Placide Cappeau used the text of Luke to imagine what it would have been like to be in the manger when Jesus was born. After he complete the poem Cappeau asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, a Jew, to help him turn the poem into a song.

As Adolphe studied “Cantique de Noel,” he couldn’t help but note its overtly spiritual lyrics embracing the birth of a Savior. A man of Jewish ancestry, these words represented a holiday he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. Nevertheless, moved by more than friendship, Adams quickly and diligently went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’s finished work pleased both poet and priest. It was performed just three weeks later at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Neither the wine commissionaire nor the composer was prepared for what happened next.

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song—which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France—was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist, translated the song into English and brought it to the U.S. by publishing it in his magazine and multiple songbooks. For Dwight the song spoke to the issue of slavery and taught us that Christ came to liberate all men from the bondage of sin. Naturally, the song became popular in the North during the Civil War.

In France, the song remained in a condemned status until an American performed what some people thought was a miracle using the song.

Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden—a thirty-three-year-old university professor in Pittsburgh and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison—did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle—hearing a voice somehow turned into electrical waves and transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.

Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t know that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. Yet after finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast—but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

“O Holy Night” has gone on to become one of the most popular Christmas songs, with sales copies in the tens of millions. It took a very strange and circuitous religious journey from its inauspicious beginnings to its current status. Its lyrics do a good job of capturing the hope of the gospel. “And in His Name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy Name.”

 

 

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire: Christmas in July

roasting chestnuts

The background of “The Christmas Song” is probably the most amusing story of all Christmas music because it was written in the intense heat of a July in Southern California. We have the song today because of two men, Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Mel was a famous entertainer who grew up in show business and became an actor and songwriter. Robert was also a songwriter and good friend of Mel’s.

Mel tells the story:

I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil. They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off.”

Ace Collins gives us the rest of the story:

It had been chestnuts that started Wells’s strange train of thought. He had seen his mother bring in a bag of them to stuff a turkey for dinner. Wells was thrown back to the days when he saw vendors selling chestnuts on New York City street corners. Yet while Wells was after nothing more than an attempt to “think cold,” Mel caught a glimpse of a song in the phrases he had written. With the temperature in the nineties and both men sweating through their clothes, they got to work on what was to become a Christmas classic. It took just forty minutes. The assigned movie title songs were pushed aside as Wells and Torme climbed into a car and drove away to show off their latest song…

From the moment Torme stopped in at Cole’s Los Angeles home and played “The Christmas Song” on his piano, Nat loved it. Sensing the song was a classic, he wanted to record it before Torme could offer it to anyone else. Within days, Cole had rearranged the song to suit his voice and pacing, and cut it for Capitol Records. His instincts about the song’s potential were right. Released in October of 1946, the song stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. Nat’s hit charted again in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. Though “The Christmas Song” would ultimately be recorded by more than a hundred other artists—including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and even Mel Torme himself—none could ever break Cole’s “ownership rights.” The song was instantly and forevermore a Nat King Cole classic.

No one thought about it at the time, but Cole’s cut of Torme’s song became the first American Christmas standard introduced by an African American. The success of that cut helped open the door for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Ethel Waters to put their own spins on holiday classics. It gave black audiences a chance to hear their favorite stars sing the carols that they loved as deeply as all other Christians. Thanks to “The Christmas Song,” for the first time in the commercial marketplace, Christmas was not reserved for “whites only.”

The story is that Cole wanted to record the song before Bing Crosby had a chance to make it into another hit following “White Christmas.” Crosby had already done that to Bob Hope when he tried to make a hit Christmas song. Although this song was written to help Wells think about winter whenever I hear this song I always imagine the hot weather of SoCal in July.

The Story Behind “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

ocomeocomeemmanuel

This hymn has become one of my favorites over the last few years. Since I was studying Latin during that time I am partial to this song because of its Latin roots. This song was originally song in Latin masses and eventually made its way to a wider audience.

In its original form, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was known as a song of the “Great Antiphons” or “Great O’s.” The initial Latin text, framed in the original seven different verses, represented the different biblical views of the Messiah. One verse per day was sung or chanted during the last seven days before Christmas.

For the people of the Dark Ages—few of whom read or had access to the Bible—the song was one of the few examples of the full story of how the New and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in the birth and life of Jesus. Because it brought the story of Christ the Savior to life during hundreds of years of ignorance and darkness, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ranks as one of the most important songs in the history of the Christian faith.

The song owes its worldwide acceptance to a man named John Mason Neale. Born on January 24, 1818, this Anglican priest was educated at Trinity College in Cambridge. Brilliant, a man who could write and speak more than twenty languages, he should have been destined for greatness. Yet many feared his intelligence and insight. At the time, church leaders thought he was too evangelical, too progressive, and too much a freethinker to be allowed to influence the masses. So rather than get a pastorate in London, Neale was sent by the church to the Madiera Islands off the northwest coast of Africa…

Neale was an avid reader of anything related to the scriptures and came across the song in a Latin songbook. He translated it into English with the lyrics beginning with “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel.”

candle

The tune that went with Neale’s translation had been used for some years in Latin text versions of the song. “Veni Emmanuel” was a fifteenth century processional that originated in a community of French Franciscan nuns living in Lisbon, Portugal. Neale’s translation of the lyrics coupled with “Veni Emmanuel” was first published in the 1850s in England. Within twenty-five years, Neale’s work, later cut to five verses and called “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” grew in popularity throughout Europe and America.

The first verse comes from Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Isaiah 11 is the inspiration for the verse describing Jesus as the rod of Jesse. Malachi 4:2 tells us that Jesus is the “sun of righteousness,” the Dayspring. The “Key of David” is found in Isaiah 22:22.

This hymn is a great musical source of biblical teaching. It condenses what the Old Testament tells us of the purpose of Jesus’ advent and ministry into seven verses. Just like how Jesus revealed to His disciples what the Law and the Prophets said about Him as they walked on the road to Emmaus so this hymn reveals Jesus’ manifold fulfillment of prophecy. He is truly Christ the Lord.

The Story Behind “Away In A Manger”

Nativity

“Away In A Manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols and its history has been obscured behind false information for a long time. Our story begins in the post-Civil War era:

In 1887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune to “Away in a Manger” as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Murray further stated in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, that Martin Luther had not only written “Away in a Manger,” but had sung it to his children each night before bed. As the song spread across a growing America and people began to sing it at home, in churches, and at schools, they often envisioned legions of German mothers rocking their babies to sleep each night with the strains of “Away in a Manger.” As the song became more popular, some news reports even trumpeted the song’s Teutonic heritage and the powerful inspiration that obviously could come from only the great Luther himself.

Ironically, not only did German mothers of this era not sing “Away in a Manger,” they had never heard it until the song arrived in Europe from its country of origin, the United States. Where Murray got his misinformation on Luther remains a mystery, yet because of his outstanding reputation as a writer and publisher, the story stuck.

Collins goes on to write that the song was probably written in the mid-1800s by an anonymous American. The tune was composed by a J. E. Clark. A man named Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, music director for Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, published a new version of the hymn that included the third verse. The legend of the song being written by Luther continued to grow as passing decades brought in the new century.

In 1945, as Americans again battled Germany in a world war, American writer Richard S. Hill sorted through the now seventy-year-old mystery concerning the carol’s origin. He determined that James R. Murray himself probably wrote the music long coupled with “Away in a Manger.” Yet as Murray always took credit when he composed a song, it is doubtful that he would have deflected the credit to Martin Luther. It’s more likely that Murray was given the song and simply adapted the existing German-influenced melody into four-part harmony for his book. It also seems likely that Murray received the story of Martin Luther writing the piece from the person who originally gave him the song.

Although we may never know who wrote the song we can still find inspiration in the story of the song itself. It tells us of the incredible humble birth of the greatest man who ever lived and the more I think of it the deeper in awe I fall. This song for children also reminds me of Jesus’ words teaching us that to such belong the kingdom of heaven. We must learn to become like children in order to commune with God.

The Story Behind “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”

I have to admit that I’ve never been familiar with this song. Upon re-reading this chapter from Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas that it reminds me of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” which was also written under painful circumstances.

Longfellow tragically lost his wife to an accidental death in which she burned herself alive while lighting a match. A few years later the Civil War begins and his son is wounded. His family had played a significant role in the founding of the nation and so he felt the war was unraveling the sacrifices his forebears had made. From Ace Collins’ book:

Longfellow hated the Civil War. It tore at the very fiber of his being to see the United States of America—a nation his family had fought to create and help build divided by the greed and sinful nature of man. An ardent believer in the power of God to move on earth, the poet all but pleaded with his Lord to end the madness of the war. When his oldest son, nineteen-year-old Charles, was wounded in battle and sent home to recover, the poet’s prayers turned to rage.

As Henry tended his son’s injuries, saw other wounded soldiers on Cambridge’s streets, and visited with families who had lost sons in battle, he asked his friends and his God, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up his pen and paper, he tried to answer that haunting question. It was the ringing of Christmas bells that probably inspired the cadence found in his writing on December 25, 1863. That day Longfellow hung his whole message on the tolling of the church bells. Yet while most Christmas verse is light and uplifting, America’s greatest poet set his lyrical ode in tones that were largely dark and solemn.

In the original seven stanzas of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow focused on Christmas during the Civil War. In his lines one can easily sense the writer’s views of slavery and secession; his words divide the war into an effort of God’s love and understanding against the devil’s hate and anger. It would have been a poem completely void of hope, a testament to the power of Satan, if Henry hadn’t finished his work with two verses that embraced the thought, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.” This was a poem that would inspire not only the Union, but soon the whole world.

Almost ten years later, in 1872, an Englishman named John Baptiste Calkin decided to marry music to Longfellow’s Christmas poem. The organist and music teacher wrote a soaring melody that contained the power to not only convey the bleak imagery of Longfellow’s sadness in the poem’s tormented first few verses, but the poet’s deep and abiding faith in the ode’s exhilarating conclusion. When published, this combination of British music and American lyrics quickly made “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” one of the most popular carols in both Europe and the United States. Except for the deletion of the two verses that dwelled on the poet’s view of the Civil War, the song remains the same today as it was when first published.