Isaiah 63: 7-9 & Luke 2: 21-40
First Sunday after Christmas/ 29th December 2013
This isn't a meditation or sermon, but an account of what took place in worship on December 29th. And it’s an invitation: an invitation to reflect back upon 2013 and look forward toward 2014, an invitation to reflect upon things we hope for and fear and worry about and in order to offer them up to the Lord.
The title for this invitation is taken from the first stanza of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:
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.
During worship we sang the familiar carol to a different tune, FOREST GREEN. There are two tunes associated with this carol. In the United States, we generally sing it to the tune ST. LOUIS, written by Lewis Redner (1831-1908). In the United Kingdom, the carol is sung to FOREST GREEN. FOREST GREEN was written by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Actually Vaughan Williams arranged this tune after first hearing it sung by a farm laborer in Forest Green, near Ockley in Surrey. He paired the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with the tune for The English Hymnal of 1906, which Vaughan Williams edited.
It’s sometime useful to sing familiar words to a different tune. A different tune allows us to focus on the words, to hear a phrase or notice an image in a new way, to listen for the theological vision cast by the carol.
Phillips Brooks, who was a highly accomplished scholar and Episcopalian priest, wrote the text. Born in 1835, Brooks was a graduate of Harvard College, attended Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA, and was ordained in 1859. He was the rector of the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia, Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, and Trinity Church, Boston. Brooks gave the prestigious Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale in 1877, which are still studied and read today. He turned down several offers to be a professor and bishop. Finally, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891. He died eighteen months later in 1893.
In the summer of 1865, Brooks took a leave of absence for one year and travelled to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, 1865, he rode on horseback from the heights of Jerusalem down to Bethlehem, which is about six miles away. On the way he stopped in Shepherds’ Field and made his way to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. He worshipped in the church and had something of a religious experience.
|Interior, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem|
Several years later, in 1868, Brooks drew upon his experience and wrote the text in order to have a new Christmas hymn for his Sunday School to sing.
Brooks asked his organist at Holy Trinity, Lewis Redner, to compose a tune. After several weeks struggling to come up with one, Redner awoke on Christmas Day 1868 “with the melody ringing in his ears, fully formed and harmonized.” It was “sung for the first time at a service two days later.”
This was the phrase that spoke to me this season: “…all our hopes and fears are met in thee tonight.” All our hopes and fears are met in him, the child born in Bethlehem. He’s the one who knows our hopes and fears, the one who bears us through our hopes and fears.
At this point in the service I invited the congregation to reflect back upon 2013 and look toward 2014. I asked: What are your hopes and fears looking into 2014? In each bulletin there was a yellow Post-It note in the shape of star. I invited folks to write down what they’re thankful for and what they’re hopeful for, fearful about, anxious about going into 2014, in order to lift it up to the Lord.
A ritual of response then followed. While Doug Heist softly played ST. LOUIS on the organ, I invited the congregation to offer up their hopes and fears by placing the star anywhere in the sanctuary: on a window pane, on the walls of the sanctuary, on a hymnal, the baptismal font, the pulpit, the Communion table, the cross, the piano, the organ, the crèche—wherever was most meaningful.
And then, gradually, many got up out of the pews and moved through the sanctuary, placing their stars in a meaningful place, offering up their hopes and fear to the Lord.
We finished the ritual by singing again the fourth verse, this time to ST. LOUIS:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us; abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
It was a very moving experience.
Looking back upon 2013, what are you most thankful to God for?
Looking into the New Year, what hope and/or fear or anxiety do you wish to offer up to the Lord?
As we enter into 2014, may we know the promise and peace of Emmanuel—God is with us! Amen.