Posts tagged #Christmas

Purposeful Praise: Making Sense of Congregational Singing

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What Child Is This: All Hail the … Baby?

It’s easy to forget just how incongruous Christ’s birth must have seemed at the time. The long-awaited Messiah, the son of David, the king with angel heralds—introduced as a helpless infant sleeping in a feeding trough! And of course that incongruity pales in comparison to the paradox that this human child was God himself.

The question-and-answer format used in “What Child Is This” serves to revive our sense of awe and wonder at Jesus’s identity. Each verse juxtaposes signs of Christ’s majesty with signs of his humble position. I’d like to focus on the carol’s second verse, which is packed with meaning.

Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?

Mean estate means a humble, lowly, or impoverished condition. This phrase brings to mind Mary’s hymn of praise (the Magnificat), in which she glorifies God for singling her out for blessing: “he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:48). It also brings to mind Paul’s meditation on Christ’s humility: Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). (More on this later.)

Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.

In normal syntax, this sentence might run something like this: “Fear, Good Christian, because the silent Word is pleading for sinners!” The Word refers to Christ, identified as the “ultimate truth” sought by Greek philosophers—though they conceived of the Word as an impersonal force. In his very personal role as the mediator between God and his people, Christ pleads our case before God’s judgment seat (Rom. 8:34). And what does Jesus plead? He pleads for God to show us mercy because he (Jesus) has satisfied God’s law on our behalf. This is why, even as a speechless baby, the then-silent Word was pleading for sinners by his righteous life.

Christ’s accomplishment should inspire fear, in the sense of reverential awe of God.

Nails, spear, shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you …

Going back to Philippians 2, “And being found in human form, [Christ] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). Becoming human wasn’t enough, becoming a helpless baby wasn’t enough, even becoming a poverty-stricken, homeless baby wasn’t enough. Jesus came to endure the most shameful death imaginable.

And now we come to the answer to the question posed in the first line of this verse: the reason for Christ’s “mean estate,” the explanation for the incongruity of God the Word as a human baby destined to be crucified, is that he bore all these things out of love “for me, for you.”

Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.

Our response is decreed by Philippians 2: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (v. 9–11). In the last line of the carol’s second verse, as in the last lines of the other two verses, we urge creation to join this chorus.

This blog was written by Corrie Schwab

Purposeful Praise: Making Sense of Congregational Singing

Purposeful Praise.png

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: Praising God for the Mystery of the Incarnation

Near the close of the fourth century, a distinguished Roman official named Aurelius Prudentius chose to leave public life and spend his time writing poetry on Christian themes. The hymn we know as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is derived from one of these poems.

In this poem Prudentius meditates on the mystery of the incarnation and calls all creation to join in praise of Christ as eternal God, creator, prophesied savior, healer and miracle-worker, effectual sacrifice, victor over death, judge, and king. The hymn as we sing it today dwells on the same theme, though it has been heavily edited (not to mention abridged) over the centuries.

The first verse of our hymn emphasizes Christ’s nature as eternal God. “Of the Father’s love begotten ere [before] the worlds [planets—the universe] began to be” identifies Christ as the eternally begotten Son of God. The hymn goes on to call Christ Alpha and Omega, echoing Revelation 22:13: “I [Jesus] am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” By associating himself with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Jesus is asserting his deity—the history of the world is his story. By alluding to this passage and to Christ’s work as creator and sustainer of all things, Prudentius was explicitly rejecting the beliefs of the Arians, who held that Christ is not himself God but was rather God’s first creation.

The second verse, fittingly, focuses on Christ’s human nature through the miracle and mystery of his birth. (In a religious context, a mystery is something that we can’t fully understand, at least not yet.) The reference to Jesus revealing his sacred face is reminiscent of 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This, in turn, makes me think of God’s self-revelation to Moses, after Moses begged to be allowed to see God’s glory. Do you remember what God said? “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. … Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:20–23). Through the incarnation we can now experience the glory of God in Christ’s face.

The third verse draws together these two truths, Christ’s divinity and his humanity, by emphasizing that we’re talking about one person—“this is he”—who was anticipated by the angels and the prophets and merits praise by all creation now and “evermore.”

The fourth verse expands on this call to worship. Note all the entities that we are calling upon to praise Christ: “heights of heaven,” “angel hosts,” “all dominions,” “every voice.” And note what we are urging them to do: adore him, sing his praises, bow to him, extol him—loudly and “in concert” (all together)! When we sing this as a congregation, we’re getting a foretaste of the eternal heavenly worship we are destined to be part of forever: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ ” (Rev. 5:13).

Finally, the hymn ends with a doxology to the Trinity, reaffirming Christ’s equality with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

This blog was written by Corrie Schwab

Posted on December 13, 2018 and filed under Devotions.

Purposeful Praise: Making Sense of Congregational Singing

Purposeful Praise.png

O Come, O Come Emmanuel: It’s All in the Name

Since (at latest) the eighth century, Christian churches have been using a set of call-and-response chants known as the “O Antiphons” during the Advent season. Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering whether the O Antiphons come after the N Antiphons. But “O” in this case doesn’t signify a letter of the alphabet; rather, it’s a one-letter word that indicates direct address. Each chant addresses Christ using a title related to an Old Testament prophesy of the Messiah’s coming. For instance, the final chant begins with “O Emmanuel.”

The original seven Latin chants are still recited in Catholic churches during Advent, but many centuries ago five of them were converted into the hymn we know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” with the verses rearranged to put Emmanuel first.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel” makes a great first line (and a great title) because it’s a play on words. Since Emmanuel means God with us, the first line is essentially calling on God-with-us to come to us: the answer is in the request. The name Emmanuel first appears in the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The hymn’s second verse begins “O come, O come, thou Lord of might” and goes on to highlight Christ’s identity as God the majestic lawgiver. Lord in English (and the corresponding dominus in Latin) is usually used to translate two of God’s names: his title Adonai, which indicates his sovereignty and power, and his name Yahweh, which declares his self-sufficiency. The Latin version of our hymn actually uses the word Adonai. The prophesy in view, however, seems to be Isaiah 33:22, where Lord is a translation of Yahweh: “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.”

The third verse calls Christ “Rod of Jesse.” Rod here means shoot or branch: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). But the English translation also lets us envision the rod as something that can physically beat down Satan’s tyranny. Jesse, of course, was King David’s father, so this title indicates that Christ is the heir of David, rightful king of God’s people. By referring to Jesse rather than David, though, Isaiah not only states that the Messiah will be David’s heir, but also suggests that he will be at least as important as David.

The fourth verse refers to Christ as Dayspring and highlights his role as comforter. Dayspring is a delightfully picturesque word for the dawn, and the rest of the verse reflects Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”

The fifth and final verse begins “O come, thou Key of David,” and asks Christ to bring us safely home. Key of David refers to Isaiah 22:22, where Isaiah prophesies about God’s servant, a man named Eliakim: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” A further reference to the key of David in Revelation 3:7 makes it clear, however, that Eliakim prefigures Christ, “the holy one, the true one,” who has ultimate authority over who enters God’s house.

The refrain at the end of each verse switches from addressing Christ to addressing Israel (i.e., God’s people): “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Again, calling Christ Emmanuel reminds us that he is already with us even as we ask him to come. Indeed, the season of Advent brings into sharp focus the already-not-yet state of our Christian life: we anticipate Christ’s second coming even while we remember how he already arrived and redeemed us, just as we long to fully experience God’s kingdom even while we know we’re already living in it.

And what gives us assurance that Christ will come again and fulfill all the promises about him? It’s in his nature—in his very name.

This blog was written by Corrie Schwab