Sing We Now of Christmas

Sing We Now of Christmas

One of my favorite parts about Christmas? The music. I love Christmas music. I love how it has this certain sound that labels it as such before you even hear the lyrics. It’s . . . bigger somehow. Fuller. Richer. Especially sacred Christmas music–I mean, I love “Rudolph” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” too, don’t get me wrong. But Christmas hymns are their own kind of beauty.

Which is why I laughed out loud when I learned the history behind our singing of them–a history that, fascinatingly enough, dates back to a rather famous heretic named Arius.

In the early centuries of the Church, there was a lot of debate, discussion, and outright war among Christians as they tried to wrap human minds around divine truth. I get it–we still have those same problems today. And one of the leading controversies centered around how it really worked that Jesus was both God and man.

Did He really exist eternally in heaven with God the Father? What does begotten mean? Was that baby born to Mary really God, or was it just the human nature born that day and the God-nature was imparted to Him later?

Trying to imagine GOD–the infinite, eternal, omnipotent God–being helpless chafes against how we otherwise understand Him. And this was a real stumbling block in those first centuries, when there was no single teaching on the matter.

Arius was the primary voice of a sect that believed Christ was not fully divine until His baptism, when the Spirit descended. That, they said, was the moment when He received a divine nature. Before that, He was just a man. They further believed that Jesus was not one with or equal to or co-eternal with the Father, but rather subordinate to Him like angels, a created being like we are.

At first, this argument was subtle and the differences more an interesting conversation than a cause for a rift. But it soon became a raging debate. Church leaders took sides. Politicians who had converted took sides. And as it was agreed that a council must be called to determine what the Church would teach, each side began their campaign to sway public opinion.

The Arians started writing songs. Hymns. Songs and hymns about how Jesus died as God but was not born as God. And guys, these songs were catchy. People started singing them as they went about their daily lives. Which meant that people were teaching that theology, whether they realized it or not. These songs were, quite simply, propaganda. And it was working.

So his opponents began doing the same. They began writing songs about how Jesus was born as God. Expounding on the miracles surrounding His birth. Emphasizing that He came to this earth as BOTH Son of God and Son of Mary.

Interesting side note–the man we now know as St. Nicholas, then Bishop of a town in modern day Turkey called Myra, was present at the council at which this was debated. There’s a story (whose truth can’t be verified) that he became so enraged at Arius’s argument that he actually struck him. Santa Claus hitting the anti-Christmas heretic. Too funny, right??

Anyway. Back to verifiable history. 😉

Up until this point in history (this debate raged in the early 300s until Arianism was eventually ruled a heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325), Christmas was celebrated as a holy day, but it was given no more special attention than days like His Baptism, Transfiguration, etc.  The highest of holy days was Easter, 100%. THAT was the day and week that Christians around the world really gave special attention to. But in order to emphasize this now-official understanding that Christ was fully human AND fully God from the moment His earthly life began, the holy day of Christmas was elevated to a level nearly as important as Easter. More songs were written to try to overwrite the catchy little ditties the Arians were still singing, and which were still pulling people away from the truth. It slowly began to move from being a solemn day of reflection to one of celebration, a grand feast.

It wasn’t long after the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas died, and he was soon named a saint. Stories began to emerge about people he had helped anonymously, money he had give secretly. Miracles were still happening as people asked him to intercede in prayer for them. His feast day was established on December 6, and to honor his memory, people began leaving anonymous gifts for each other and calling them “from St. Nicholas.” As time wore on, the feast day of St. Nicholas and the holy celebration of Christmas began to intertwine, thanks to their proximity, in part. But given how ardent St. Nick was about Christ’s birth signaling the coming of God among man, I imagine he smiled down from heaven over that.

And I like to think, too, that the angelic choirs continue to sing their own glorious songs of Christmas as the world celebrates this miracle. The one they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will!” must have been pretty catchy too. Have you stopped to wonder how we know what they sang to those shepherds?

It’s because the shepherds remembered. The shepherds followed Him. The shepherds were part of that earliest church, and they told Luke about that night. They told him the song the angels sang. That song has always, since those earliest days, been memorialized in the liturgy of the Church. All my life, I’ve sung Christmas songs that remember those words. And now my soul gets to soar with them nearly every week of the year, because the “Gloria” is part of every mass in the Catholic church, other than during Advent and Lent, when it’s removed…so that it strikes anew with all its glory when it’s brought out again on Christmas and Easter.

So sing of Christmas, my friends. Sing we now as those who fought for truth in the Church’s teaching sang then. Sing to teach the people who He is. Sing to remind your own heart. Sing to remember the glory.

Advent – The Savior Will Come

Advent – The Savior Will Come

Do you observe the season of Advent?

I grew up in a United Methodist church, which lights the candles on the Advent wreath every year; when we planted our own church in the Seventh Day Baptist denomination, my family kept that tradition. And now that my immediate family is Catholic, Advent isn’t just a part of our year, it’s the start of the Christian calendar. Advent, in this oldest tradition, is more than just four candles. It’s four weeks of preparing our hearts for the coming of the Savior anew. Of yearning for Him. Of longing for Him.

As my Patrons & Peers group celebrated Christmas together for the first time last year, discussion round about the end of November/ beginning of December touched on Advent…and the fact that at least half our members are only vaguely familiar with the tradition, since their churches don’t observe it. Which made me think that the same percentage is probably true of my general readership. So then, it sounded like fun to take some time to talk about what Advent is and why it’s become part of the Church calendar.

When Does Advent Begin?

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Much like Lent is 40 days, a Biblical significant number meant to mimic the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, Advent used to be 40 days as well, to encompass the “fullness” of history before Christ’s appearance on the scene. In the 9th century, that time was condensed to four weeks, and the Four Sundays of Advent began to be observed as we still see them now.

In traditional services, Advent, much like Lent, is a season of repentance and somberness. Celebratory songs like the “Gloria” are taken from the liturgy. The alter and vestments are clothed in purple cloth, because purple is the traditional color of repentance and penitence. Scripture readings during these four weeks focus not on Christmas, but on the state of the world before Christ came, and on John the Baptist preparing the way for Him–because Christmas and Easter have always been so closely linked in the Church that you don’t even try to separate one from the other. Christ was born for one purpose: to save us through His death. This is why we both celebrate and mourn. We celebrate because He loves us so much.

We mourn because our own sinful natures required this sacrifice of our Lord.

What Do the Four Weeks of Advent Represent?

As we focus on the state of the world so desperate for a Savior–a state our world is always in–we look too toward how good our God is to meet us as He’s done. And we recognize that we are the world before Christ. We are sinful. We are selfish. We have wronged God. We have disappointed him. We have hurt our neighbors. We have failed to be what He made us to be. We have chosen, again and again, our own way above His. Our own hearts, certainly before we accepted the salvation offered by Him but even now in some degree, are hard and barren.

And yet He not only came down to walk among us, He prepared the very world for His arrival with such care. He came at the perfect time in history. And His coming restarted history. It created a new era, a new epoch. This is why the traditional Church calendar begins with the anticipation of Christmas.

The first week of advent, marked by purple, is the week of Hope. From the earliest writings of the Old Testament, we see the faithful servants of God hoping for His salvation, whether in the very physical realm–hope that He’ll deliver them from oppression–to the purely spiritual sense. This hope, when the world is at its darkest, is one of the most amazing marks of faith. Faith hopes when logic says we shouldn’t. Faith hopes when all seems lost. Faith hopes, knowing that even if it seems like we’ve lost, we haven’t, because there is a world beyond what we perceive. This first week of Advent, we celebrate the Hope that Christ represents to the world…hope that we need because the world is otherwise so hopeless. We recognize that without Him, we are irrevocably separated from God, but we cling to the Hope of Reconciliation that He represents. Living as we do in the 21st century, we obviously know He has come already…but it’s still so important to reflect on what that hope means, for us and for all of mankind throughout all of history.

Because at some point in our lives, He hadn’t yet come to us…or rather, we hadn’t yet turned to Him. For us, as for every Christian before us, we need to experience our own Advent of Christ, His coming into our hearts. Remembering that coming every year, remembering that hope, keeps it fresh and new and beautiful.

The second week of advent, also marked by purple, is the week of peace. In Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah, he calls Christ the “prince of peace.” In an age where power and royalty were only ever achieved through war, this would have seemed like a strange thing. A prince could only be one of peace if he was born into an established kingdom strong enough that it didn’t need to fight. David, we know, was a king of war, and Solomon of peace…and that was when God permitted the Temple to be built, by hands not stained by blood.

Christ, however, entered into a world of strife. The peace between Israel and the Greeks and Romans had been won through political maneuvering in the centuries preceding His arrival, but it had cracked and broken. Israel was occupied by Romans. Israel was restless and ready for a Savior to lead them out of bondage. Israel wanted a king like the ones of old, that would lead them from captivity by crushing their enemy.

Instead we get a Savior who comes not to offer this shaky peace to a nation, but to offer something no king ever dared to promise before–peace of the spirit. Peace of the soul. Peace not between men and kingdoms, but between each person and God. This is a peace no mortal man can offer, but what we all long for at the most primal level. Why do we war with each other? Because part of us in rebellion against God. If we were perfectly aligned with Him, all of us, then we would be at perfect peace together too. This is the kingdom of which Christ is the Prince of Peace. Not a kingdom of earth, but the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom began the moment He was born, was anticipated for hundreds of years before His arrival, and still reigns today.

The third week of advent, marked by pink, is the week of joy. Do you have children? Do you remember how, when your abdomen grows large and you feel the baby moving around in there, you have those moments when fear and discomfort and uncertainty are forgotten, and you just marvel at the life within? Do you remember those bubbles of joy that come surging up?

This is the joy of all of creation at the coming of our Lord. Scripture tells us that all of creation yearned and groaned like a women in childbirth, ready for the coming of the Savior. We know the joy that all of heaven and earth proclaimed at His birth, but that joy didn’t start there. The joy begins in the expectation.

Because faith, the knowing that God will make a way, breeds not only peace as we trust Him, but joy in the knowing.

We know that God yearns for us as we yearn for Him. We know that He has made a way back into His arms. We know that when we view the world through His eyes, we’ll see not just what’s broken but what He will heal.

We may still be unhappy here in this world. We may be persecuted. We may be neglected. We may be hated. We may be misunderstood. But when we truly trust in God and let His peace reign in our hearts, joy follows. A joy that we remember and anticipate anew as we draw ever nearer to the celebration of Christ’s arrival. Because He is the ultimate joy.

The fourth week of advent, marked again by purple, is the week of love. Why would God do this for us? Why would Christ leave His heavenly abode? Why would He not only become human, but become human in the most helpless of ways, coming as a newborn baby? He could have been formed like Adam, full grown. But instead, He put Himself in the arms of a human woman. He entrusted His life to the protection of a human man. He became fully part of the human family.

Because He loves us. He loves us so much that He agreed to let His divine radiance be swaddled in eight pounds of human flesh and blood and bone. He loves us so much that He set aside immortality so that He could die for us. Save us. Love us in the fullest of ways, by giving Himself totally for us. And that started not when He died, but when He first let His being be planted in His mother’s womb. He started, as we all do, as mere cells. A God more vast than the universe, shrunken down to such a size! Only love would inspire that. The most perfect love.

What About Advent Wreaths?

The traditional Advent wreath has four candles in it, which mirror the liturgical colors of each week: purple, purple, pink, and purple. Sometimes a white candle will be situated in the middle and lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, which is called the Christ candle.

In addition to hope, peace, joy, and love, each candle has an additional reminder. The week of hope, we call it the Prophecy Candle, because those prophecies are what assure us that we have hope of One to come. The week of peace, we call it the Bethlehem candle, to remember the small hamlet in which Christ chose to be born–not a capital won by war, but a tiny little town about family, not royalty. The week of joy, we call it the Shepherd’s Candle to recall not only the shepherds there to receive that blessed news of His coming, but how He is our shepherd, just as Moses was shepherd for Israel so long ago too, as David was, as so many others were. The fourth candle is then the Angel Candle, because they are the messengers who proclaimed Him every step of the way, from conception to His triumphant birth, from ministering in the garden to proclaiming His resurrection.

Why Advent?

In a world that begins celebrating Christmas so early, moderns might wonder, “Why even bother with Advent? We’re already focused on Christmas!”

We are, yes. And yes, the world needs all the joy it can get. But one could argue that you can’t understand the celebration if you don’t focus on what led to it. One can’t fully appreciate the hope and peace and joy and love if one doesn’t pause to consider how much we NEED those things, even today. Only when we pause to recognize that we are still, even now, even as Christians, so desperately yearning for Him can we appreciate what His coming truly means.

I think the thing I love most about the Church calendar is that it isn’t about the past. It’s about living it out now, every year. Not just remembering what came before, but becoming a part of it.

In these next four weeks, we aren’t just resting in the knowledge that Jesus came to earth and was born in a stable. We are reliving the centuries leading up to His arrival. We are anticipating it for ourselves. We are pausing to recognize how much we still need Him. How He is our hope. He is our peace. He is our joy. He is our love.

In four weeks, we’ll set aside the sober reflections. We’ll hopefully have examined our hearts and laid them bare before God, just as His people have always needed to do when we want to draw near to Him. We should have removed what stands between us, confessed it and renounced it. We should then come, pure as that newborn, to Bethlehem’s stable. We should kneel before this Prince of Peace with the full measure of awe.

Then, my friends, we celebrate Christmas. Then we sing that “Gloria” again, just as the angels sang it to the shepherds. Then we’re ready for the Christmas season, which begins when He was born and stretches out long past when the world tucks it all into boxes again and moves on.

We’re still celebrating. Because Christ’s coming is one to be anticipated. And it’s one to then be upheld with every joyful celebration we can dream up.

Remember When . . .Christmas Was in the Air?

Remember When . . .Christmas Was in the Air?

Since I did a bit of a round-up in this week’s Word of the Week post, I thought I’d continue that trend today. 😀 Here you’ll find a list of all my past Christmas-themed posts throughout the years (or all the ones my search turned up, anyway, LOL). Have you missed one? Now’s the perfect time to catch up!

Christmas should be about Who is in our hearts, not about what’s under the tree…or even what family is around us.
We hear so much about the spirit of Christmas…but what about the Spirit this Christmas season?
A quick look at the very different appearances of Christmas on the pages of A Heart’s Revolution (formerly Love Finds You in Annapolis) and Ring of Secrets
How the Pilgrims and their descendants viewed Christmas
The reasons behind the red and green tradition
The real St. Nick and what he stood for(the inspiration for Giver of Wonders)
Commercial hoax or a real story?
Reflecting on the best gifts God has given 
A guest post on Colonial Quills about the Yule Log tradition
The histories of some of our favorite Christmas songs
A bit about the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, and the history of the Christmas Star
It wasn’t Constantine! LOL Christians had a real, beautiful (if odd by today’s thoughts) reason for naming December 25 as Christmas!
Why are we so upset when the non-Christian world doesn’t understand Christmas?
Behind the scenes as I designed the cover for my one and only Christmas novel

Remember When . . . the Date of Christmas Was Chosen?

Remember When . . . the Date of Christmas Was Chosen?

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard over the years that Constantine is the one who decided Christmas would be celebrated on December 25, because it was already a pagan holiday, and this would make it easier on his people to convert to Christianity. I pretty much believed this for years . . . until I looked it up for myself.
I had to look into this when I began my research for Giver of Wonders. There are two different major holidays celebrated by Rome, which Constantine is accused of trying to integrate into Christmas, or vice versa. One of these holidays actually wasn’t even celebrated until after the days of Constantine, when the date of Christmas was definitely set. So that rules that one out.
The other is Saturnalia, which had been celebrated in Roman culture for centuries. It was a festival of lights (does sound familiar…) and one of gift-giving (also familiar). So is there truth to that accusation? Did Constantine choose that date for Christmas and then integrate our holy day into a pagan festival?
In reality, Constantine didn’t do anything but legalize what was already custom. The church had been observing the birth of Christ on December 25 for many years already by the time the emperor converted, and even by the time that date was canonized by the Council.
Why December 25th then? Those who study history and the Jewish calendar are pretty sure Christ could not have been born in winter. There were shepherds in the hills, after all, which wouldn’t have been the case in December. So what gives?
Well, I don’t know why those in the know ignored some very sound logic when determining the date. But here’s what I do know: they had a reason for selecting December 25 that had nothing to do with any pagan holidays. See, at that time in history, Dec 25 was the winter solstice (did you know the date of the solstice had moved??). That’s why the pagans celebrated on that day–it’s why pretty much every religion had a celebration on that day.
But Christians? Why did we?
Well, it’s because the Christian scholars and priests of that era (educated, it may be worth noting, in Greek and Roman schools–there were no Christian-only schools at the time) believed that the God who created the universe created it with order and symmetry. They believed, for example (as did their Greek and Roman compatriots) that important men had a star appear to herald their birth. (So it would have been odd if the Gospels hadn’t included this for Jesus!) They believed their lives and births were written in the very cosmos–which is pretty cool, really. Right?
Well they also believed that this symmetry extended to the length of their life as well, and that the best and most important men in history lived in a full number of years.
Um . . . huh?
It’s weird. I know. This belief certainly didn’t survive the millennia, LOL. But that’s honestly what they thought. That Jesus, as the greatest man ever, would have lived a whole number of years, no random months and days added on.
So that would mean born and died on the same day, right? And we know he died on Passover–which was, as it happened, the Spring Equinox. So he must have been born on it . . . right?
Wrong. Life was not counted from the date of birth–it was counted from the supposed date of conception. So the belief was that the Holy Spirit must have conceived Jesus in Mary on the Spring Equinox (March 25). Which meant that He would have been born 9 months later.
So our quick math scrolls that calendar ahead 9 months to . . . voila! December 25.
This, my friends, is the honest-to-goodness reason why Christmas was set on December 25, way back in the 200s, well before Constantine took power and converted to Christianity.
Now, did some of the pagan traditions–candlelight and gift-giving–work their way into the day? Perhaps. Though gift-giving on Christmas wasn’t actually that prevalent until centuries later. Gift-giving, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, was actually done on Dec 6–the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (yesterday!), to remember the saint who gave so generously of his wealth, and anonymously. Dec 6 was a day to give and have no one know who gave. But it was close to Christmas. And over the years, the traditions blurred together. Especially, honestly, after the Protestant Revolution, when Luther declared “No more feast days of saints!” The people weren’t willing to give up their St. Nicholas Day . . . so they began saying it was the Christ Child who gave gifts on his birthday instead (Christ-kindl in German, which is where Kris Kringle came from!).
So there we have it. It may not be the actual date on which Jesus was born–probably isn’t–but it was a date selected because the people doing the selecting believed that the greatest Man in history would have been conceived and died on the same day.
Remember When . . . Christmas Traditions

Remember When . . . Christmas Traditions

I’ve blogged many times over the years about different Christmas traditions throughout history, and how we apply it to our lives.

There are probably more my search just isn’t finding, because I distinctly recall reflecting on the differences in New England versus mid-Atlantic or southern American traditions in Colonial days, and I’m sure that’s in any of those links. 😉

But today I wanted to talk a bit about our traditions. Here are a few that my kids love.

  • Every year, their grandmother takes them out shopping for a new ornament, and they pick out our (real) tree.
  • Making gingerbread cookies. We could make nothing else, and they’d be happy.
  • Decorating. In my life, I think I’ve spent a total of about $20 on Christmas decorations–everything else has been given to us by family. And let me assure you I have PLENTY of decorations. Every year, I resist getting them out (because it’s work, man, LOL), but every year, when I have those evergreen garlands hanging from windows and doorways, I’m utterly charmed.
  • The Christmas train under the tree. No, this isn’t an electric one that chuffs around. It’s just Rowyn’s wooden track, but he and Xoe build it around the tree every year as soon as it’s is up and decorated.
  • Going to church. The Christmas Eve candlelight service is well loved, and Xoe has declared that “Christmas on church day would be the coolest thing ever.”
  • Our countdown chain. We did it the first year as an art project for school, cutting and coloring strips of construction paper and taking one link from the chain each day. Now Xoe also counts down the days until December so she can make it. =)
  • The music! While Rowyn will occasionally groan when I turn a Christmas station on, he also loves the ones we sing in church, especially one of the praise and worship songs called “Born Is the King (It’s Christmas)” (or as he refers to it, “The du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du song.”)
  • The pickle. Even if it was a department store hoax (it’s kinda shocking how many traditions were started by stores!), my kiddos love trying to find the pickle ornament on the tree.

I know there are more, but I won’t bore you. Instead, I’d love to hear about a tradition your family makes sure never to miss!

Then brace yourself, because tomorrow I’m getting thoughtful about why Christmas is depressing for so many people…and how maybe we can adjust our mindset.

Remember When . . . Easter Traditions Began?

Remember When . . . Easter Traditions Began?

So, this past winter I looked up the start of some of our most long-lasting Christmas traditions–namely, Santa Claus. And what I learned made me determined to revive the roots of the tradition, not abandon them altogether as I’d been tempted to do.

The Easter Bunny, on the other hand…I think I’m pulling the plug on him.

I actually made Xoe look up the history of the Easter Bunny last year and write a report on it for school, LOL. She was totally confused by what she found–or rather, by what it has to do with Jesus’s resurrection. Good question, my girl. Good question.

Easter is actually from the Roman goddess of spring, Estre. She was a magician, a trickster, and her most famous trick was when she turned a chicken into a rabbit–but which still laid eggs. The Easter egg, then, was an ancient memorial to this goddess and her magic. The egg laid by a rabbit. The Easter Bunny was the product of this magic. Easter, in ancient mythology, was the celebration of the arrival of spring.

It just so happens that the date coincides with the Jewish Passover, which is, of course, when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. And so, the traditions of the Romans merged with Christianity when it was brought to Rome. But unlike Santa Claus, this was no saint who gave selflessly in honor of Christ, and in whose name other gave so their gifts could be anonymous, as Jesus commanded. No, this is pure paganism.

Do I have a problem with searching for colorful plastic eggs? No, not really. It’s a scavenger hunt, which is totally fine. But I do wonder why we call it Easter instead of Resurrection Day. (Actually, my piano teacher growing up thoroughly objected to this and always, always called it Resurrection Day.) I do wonder why the Easter Bunny still shows up. I love celebrating the resurrection, and I’m happy to do it with food, with treats, with things that bring Joy–because it should bring joy!

But I’m all done with the word “Easter.” I’m all done with the traditions that have absolutely no tie to what I’m really celebrating. Resurrection Day, even more than Christmas (in my opinion, LOL), is the foundational day of my Christian faith. Without this day, my hope would be naught. Oh, Jesus still would have paid the price for my sin had He not risen–but if He had not defeated death, then I wouldn’t have hope in life eternal with Him.

This Sunday, my friends, is the anniversary of the absolute best day in human history. And I’m tired of calling it by something that cheapens it. This isn’t the day of spring, of the rebirth of the year, of magical bunnies who lay eggs. This is the day of Resurrection–of the rebirth of my soul. The day Jesus defeated sin and the grave.

Way better than a chicken-rabbit. Just sayin’.