The Holly and the Ivy

IMG_7008.JPG

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown

O, the rising of the sun,

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom,

As white as lily flow'are,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To be our dear Saviour

The holly bears a berry,

As red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle,

As sharp as any thorn,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

On Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark,

As bitter as the gall,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

For to redeem us all

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11:1

These lyrics are almost too hard to sing with the simple melody we usually sing for this carol. But in those words are the reason for the season: Jesus came to save us. The majestic and beautiful holly comes with its blossoms, thorns, and bark all harkening to something yet to come. When the choir sang this as part of their Feast of Carols a few years ago, I was struck by the reminders every verse of Jesus’ Crucifixion through the parts of the tree. A baby came as a gift to us in the midst of a stable, a star lit night, in a place far from his parents’ home. Now that we know of the other end of this baby’s life (and Resurrection) can we fully feel the intertwined emotions in the lyrics. Let us all remember the life of Jesus whenever we see holly this Christmas season.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Holy God in this season of Advent we prepare our hearts for your coming. You are the vine, we are the branches. Come and tend us. Prune us. Clean us. Discard in us everything that does not bear fruit, Nourish in us everything that bears much fruit. Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever. Amen

—Diane Olin White

O Little Town of Bethlehem

IMG_7006.JPG

Monday December 17, 2018

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary

And gathered all above

While mortals sleep, the angels keep

Their watch of wondering love

O morning stars together

Proclaim the holy birth

And praises sing to God the King

And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may his His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel.

“As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12

The text is set in Bethlehem, the night of Jesus’ birth. Each of the four stanzas seem to embody the four words most associated with Advent: Peace, Joy, Hope and Love. The first stanza speaks of peace, found in sleep and starlight. It also promises that, even in oft war-torn regions like Bethlehem in Jerusalem, peace can prevail. This verse also speaks of the persistence of light, within us, and the light of Christ’s love. The second stanza is rooted in Joy, a proclamation of a new birth. And not just any birth, but the birth of our God and King, Jesus Christ. Further, it promises peace to the mortals of the earth. It is very interesting that this event occurs while mortals sleep, meaning that our salvation was a gift given to us, even as we lay safe and sleeping. But it also de- mands of us maturity as we grow from Christian children to our Christian adulthood. Love is the theme of the third stanza. In fact, the love of the smallest and meekest among us. The love that it took for God to send his Son to earth, to suffer and die for our sins. A love, and salvation, in the form of an adored child, that is offered to the even the least of these; the meekest. And, fittingly, it is Hope that rounds out the verses. The hope we live: that one day, the Lord will descend, much like on the very first Christmas Eve, and, until then, can be born in us for the world to witness each day of the year.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Holy creator and sustainer, may this Advent and Christmas be a time where we all embody and share the light of God’s love, and may that light lead, to harmony, honor, and peace, both in our homes and our nations. May the peace, joy, hope and love of our salvation be a light in the darkened places and lead others to the manger, to come and adore our Lord and our salvation, the infant Jesus Christ. Amen.

—Matthew Thomas

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!

“Joy to the world” by Erin Leeper

“Joy to the world” by Erin Leeper

Friday, December 14, 2018

Hark the herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

"Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Son of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings

Ris'n with healing in His wings

Mild He lays His glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Psalm 100: 1-2

When I was years old and in the 4th grade I loved to act and sing. I grew up in a small NJ town with an actual "Main Street" and one stop light. There were not a lot of opportunities for my exuberant desire for creative expression. Luckily, that year our Episcopal church got a new priest with new ideas and she started a children's choir and produced musicals.

The children's choir consisted of 8 kids and the laid-back choir director assigned vocal parts based on where you sat on the first day. If you sat by the window you were declared "Soprano" and if you sat by the wall you were dubbed "Alto."

l loved singing this song because it was so joyful and it told a biblical story that I could actually understand. "Hey, the angels are really happy and having a party, making noise because Jesus was born!"

Sitting through church as child I felt comfortable but never could get the meaning of the gospel readings or sermons. But the songs, they made sense!

Thinking back it was probably the first time I was really engaged in worship, its that good memory and comfort level with the church that brought me back to it as a young adult.

Click here to listen.

rayer: Dear God, thank you for the ways music and the arts bring us closer to you and your joyful exuberance. Bless our singing and rejoicing this holiday season and evermore. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

—Wednesday Lampinen

O Magnum Mysterium

 “Nativity I” by Rachel Christine Nowicki

 “Nativity I” by Rachel Christine Nowicki

Thursday, December 13, 2018

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Iesum Christum.

Alleluia!

O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

was worthy to bear

the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Alleluia!

“I [Paul] have become [the church’s] servant by the commission God gave me to prsent to you the Word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” Colossians 1:25-26

I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of this whole faith thing being full of mysteries. I do have lots of questions that I’d like answered, don’t get me wrong. Yet the fact that all of it is not clear at this moment; well, makes it more palpable to me, somehow. Almost like a bridge—sturdy, but made with the flexibility needed to blow in the wind—there are things we cannot understand, and I’m ok with that. I think it would almost be harder to believe, if the Bible was like a Magic 8 Ball or Google.

Every Advent I find myself with a healthy sense of wonder and doubt at the great mysteries, as the carol says. How did a woman get pregnant by the Holy Spirit? Was the star everyone was following just a coincidental astrological phenomenon? How did the shepherds really hear angels singing? Why did God decide to come as a baby?

As Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians, Jesus (the Word of God) is a mystery hidden for ages and in His fullness broke into this realm at Christmas. Along with Paul, the church today is commissioned or called to be the messenger of these mysteries, even though we don’t totally understand them yet. God trusts us to love these mysteries and through that love, open our hearts to love one another. Mysterious as it may be, I am grateful for the gift of Christ, now and always.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: O keeper of all mysteries, reveal yourself to us this Christmas. Help us have faith, even when we do not have all the answers to our questions. Commission us again to love these questions enough to present to others the Word of God in Jesus. Humble us with your wisdom, knowledge and mercy. In Christ’s name, Amen.

—Merideth Hite Estevez

O Little Town of Bethlehem

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Carol Sheli Cantrell

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Carol Sheli Cantrell

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”

—Phillips Brooks

“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Micah 5:2

Not far from here in 1868 - at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia - Phillips Brooks penned the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for the Sunday School of his parish. The carol text moves from describing Christ’s birth (which in itself is certainly a “blessing of his heaven”) to the implications of “the meaning of Christmas: first in its encouragement of charity and faith, and then into the coming of Christ into the human heart”, as hymnologist Richard Watson has stated.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Lord, especially at this Advent season, may we receive with understanding and commitment the gifts of the Christ Child with the challenge to use these blessings to further our on-going Christian journey.

Prayer: Lord, especially at this Advent season, may we receive with understanding and commitment the gifts of the Christ Child with the challenge to use these blessings to further our on-going Christian journey. Amen.

—Lee Dettra

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

“Go, tell it on the mountain

Over the hills and everywhere

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!” —John W. Work, Jr. (1907)

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the herald, who proclaims peace, who brings news of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7

During a calming and reflective Christmas Eve service, a peace washes over me. I am in awe of the warmth and joy of being with family and friends who have known me for a long time. I think about how awesome it is that God sent His only Son to Earth. While He could’ve been safe in Heaven, God knew a life with pain and hard tasks would come against Jesus, but it would be worth it in the end. A relationship with us is worth all of that. A relationship with just me is worth all of that. A relationship with just you is worth all of that.

I’m jolted back into reality with the final hymn as we leave, ‘Go tell it on the mountain...’ While I can rest in the peace of God’s presence, the reality is that we are called out of that. We are called out of our homes, away from the warm fires, away from the gifts, and even away from the food to tell it from the mountain top! Jesus, the Christ, is born!

Click here to listen.

Prayer: God, you do it again and again. You put yourself in our path to know us and to be known by us. This Christmas, help us not to be content with our rest, but to share that gift with others. Help us not to be afraid to wish other’s a ‘Merry Christmas’ and to share the joy of this season. Thank you for this season of joy! Amen.

—Deborah Holcombe

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

IMG_0521.JPG

Monday, December 10, 2018

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men." —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807–1882

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “ Lamentations 3: 22-23

The poem and it’s musical renderings convey the struggle for humanity in the face of the horrors of war. Peaceful cries are drowned out by canon fire. At the nadir of despair, fresh hope is found in faith. This progression from apparent joy down to hellish collapse roughly parallels my journey of faith from a false sense of knowledge to hopelessness in a daily suffering without relent. Then, I found a church, found new truth and found my way home to deeper understanding.

This progression from ignorant happiness to the depths of doubt reminds me of Old Testament trials, God’s testing of man’s beliefs. The New Testament words of our Lord, as portrayed by His disciples, show the same redemption after doubt. As Jesus bids farewell to his human followers, He is alone with his doubts and fears. Then, just as in the last two stanzas of Bells, faith is restored as the sun begins to rise after a miserable lonely night. Hope is born in witness of the Living God who never sleeps.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for Jesus. In His holy name, Amen.

—Al Taylor

I wander as I wander

IMG_0520.JPG

Friday, December 7, 2018

I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Savior did come for to die. For poor on'ry people like you and like I... I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall, With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all. But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall, And the promise of ages it then did recall.

—Annie Morgan 1933

And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them con- cerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. Luke 2:16-18 (KJV)

In 1963, thirty years after this Christmas carol was written by an Appalachian evangelist, I was put in charge of a youth-led Christmas Eve service and selected, “I wander as I wander,” to follow the reading of the scripture above.

The sound of this piece as rendered by clear first soprano voice while those shepherds processed up our church aisle filled me with awe. Just glorious. It became one of my very favorite carols that night.

But a few years passed before the impact of that second line hit me - How Jesus the Savior did come for to die. Hearing it, I always wonder if I can hold the enormity of the lenten end in mind during this expectantly joyful season of beginning.

This carol is my reminder.

Click to listen here.

Prayer - Heavenly Father, please illuminate our wondering and guide our wandering this Advent season. Amen

—Linda Emerick

Mary did you know?

“Madonna of the dispossessed” by Mary C Farrenkopf

“Madonna of the dispossessed” by Mary C Farrenkopf

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?

That sleeping child you're holding is the great I am

Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know? —Mark Lowry

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" 1 John 3:1a

Whenever I hear this song, tears spring to my eyes. Can you imagine the immediate reaction of a single, adolescent girl being told that she is pregnant, and that she is carrying the savior of the world? In today’s world, that means lots of counseling, possible termination of the pregnancy and a very questionable reaction from her family. In her day? I doubt anyone can truly appreciate the terror she must have experienced. And Joseph, what about his reaction?

There is no explaining who he chooses to carry out his wishes. God has all kinds of gifts for us, some presented as outright blessings, others hidden in challenges and hurtful losses. Our attitudes determine how we deal with and understand these life events. When facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one can succumb to despair or can depend on our Lord’s faith in us and find a way to turn it around to a crowning achievement.

No matter what the challenge or the blessing, we can only hope to face them and appreciate them with the strength Mary was able to manifest. We all need to strive to make God proud of us in our daily lives, through our thoughts and our actions.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Lord, please keep our eyes open and give us the strength and perceptions to see the gifts you have provided. Let us have the courage to overcome and grow in your love through the challenges, large and small, that you send our way. Let us know that we all have the power to make the world a much better place through our faith in your ultimate sacrifice. Amen.

—Andree Tyagi

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse's lineage coming,

As men of old have sung;

It came, a flow'ret bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half spent was the night.” —Anonymous, 15th Century

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11:1

As a musician, “Lo, How a Rose,” is always so satisfying to play or sing. It’s all about the chords, really. I’ve likely heard hundreds of versions by now, and yet it occurred to me: all of them keep the harmonization more or less the same—the harmonization from 1609! There is something about certain carols that just feel sacred; some of them feel old, as if they were sung by the angels themselves. This carol encapsulates the timelessness of good music, but also the timelessness of a good God. I remember reading the book of Isaiah as an adult and realizing that it was written way before the birth of Jesus. This knowledge made hope spring up in me and I remember thinking: “Maybe it was true...”. Suddenly the whole Bible seemed to glow with Jesus. This carol reminds me of the way our faith transcends time and place, from Jesse to Jesus, even to this moment here, as we sing again of His coming.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: God of all times and all places, bless us as we remember your Son’s birth again. Make this Christ- mas different; help us to more truly understand all that Isaiah foretold. Help it become real to us, like a bright flower blossoming in the winter of our hearts. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

—Merideth Hite Estevez

In the Bleak Midwinter

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”

—Christiana Rossetti

“He did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Romans 8:32

“In the Bleak Midwinter” means Christmas to me. I grew up in upstate NY where Christmas day often was white and cold and rather bleak. Gone were the leaves of summer, the crops in the field, and the rushing waters of the Susquehanna River. In their places was a monotone landscape waiting for the warmth of spring and the hope of new life. Verse four especially hits home. When I was a child, I loved opening my gifts, the favorite of which was one from a friend of my grandparents who gave each of us siblings a gift. She always seemed to choose special things for each of us, even though we saw her only a couple times a year. She was generous even without being present for the day. After the gifts were opened and we moved on to eat Christmas dinner with extended family, the little gift remained in my thoughts. They were small, unexpected, and lasting. Isn’t that how Jesus came? A baby. Tiny. A gift to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. Unexpected. We don’t have to be wealthy with brightly colored gifts piled under the tree and large post-Christmas bills to celebrate Christmas. Listen to Jesus’ words and give him your heart and time. This doesn’t cost money but promises a never-ending gift for the rest of time.

Click here to listen.

Prayer: Lord God, we give you thanks and praise for the little gifts we receive daily. Help us to see each as special and worth sharing with others. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

—Diane Olin White

Don’t forget to check out our specially curated Lumina Arts @ Grace Advent Playlist with each day’s selection and bonus tracks. Sign up here to receive this devotional daily in your inbox.


The Holly and the Ivy

“The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown.

The rising of the sun

And the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a berry,

As red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ For to do us sinners good...

The holly bears a prickle,

As sharp as any thorn...”

—Traditional British Carol, 19th Century

“Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him...and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head...then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27; adapted from verses 27-31)

It seems strange to begin a the season of Advent with a passage at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, dealing with Jesus’ crucifixion, but this harkens back to at least the 4th Century. In Europe, where this carol originates, the holly played an important symbolic and practical purpose even before Christianity—in the dead of winter, the evergreen reminded people of the good times to come—spring—and its colorful berries hold through the winter, showing vitality. As pagans became Christians, they took meaningful symbols like the holly and saw them through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The holly’s berries came to remind them of the blood shed by Jesus, to save them from the “winter of sin” and get them through to the “spring of resurrection.” The holly’s pointy leaves lent its name, “Christ’s Thorn,” referring to the crown of thorns placed on Jesus. Early Christians viewed Christmas through the lens of the cross, the mystery of Emmanuel—God with us—born at Christmas, born to die, so that sinners might live, redeemed as the saints of God. At Christmas, we see the gentle child, who is also prophet, priest and king. And the world would never be the same. This carol connects this story in a sweet manner, rich with deep and ancient meaning—the mystery of a God made flesh.

Click here to listen on Spotify.

Prayer: God of holly, ivy and the whole world, this Christmas, help me to welcome the Christ Child into my heart, that I may reflect in wonder on the mystery of Christmas, and the joy of my salvation and hope for new life, through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.

—Rev Edwin Estevez

(Don’t forget to check out our specially curated Lumina Arts @ Grace Advent Playlist with each day’s selection and bonus tracks. Sign up here to receive this devotional daily in your inbox.)

Hurry up and wait

Sing we now of Christmas

Advent is a time of waiting. In the mania of all that the Christmas season has become, it seems impossible to make time for anything, much less to practice this waiting for Jesus’ birth. This advent Grace Church UMC and Lumina Arts Incubator have created a special interactive devotional to help us make space and time for the spiritual practices of prayer, scripture study, and general quiet time with God during the most wonderful (i.e. hectic) time of the year.  

I’ve written about it a lot— through Lumina Arts Incubator, a ministry of Grace Church, I have spent time working with artists from all different walks of life, who identify all over the spiritual-religious spectrum. What I love most about this work is watching people connect with their creativity, and exploring together how that intersects with spirituality. We hold weekly small group workshops around Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” that posits God as an artist and, poignantly, that God loves artists. This devotional brings together beloved carols with Scripture, a celebration of how artists call us closer to Christ through poetry and music, and is written by the faith community of Grace Church, including our Artist’s Way groups.

Starting on tomorrow, the first day of Advent, I will be sharing a post each day. I encourage you to join me and our community, as we find time each day to spend in quiet solitude. Each entry will include a carol and scripture excerpt for each day, followed by the short devotional. Click the “listen here” link to listen to a specially curated recording of each carol on spotify. You can follow the Lumina Arts @ Grace Playlist on Spotify here for bonus music.

Following the listening session, close with a prayer, either the one printed at the bottom of each day’s entry or a prayer of your own.

As the little-known Wexford Carol says: “Good people all this Christmas time/consider well and bear in mind/what our good God for us has done/in sending His beloved son.” It is my prayer that this devotional will help us all do that, to create space for the tiny child, born again in our hearts, here to save the world. What have we been waiting for?