Advent Reflection for Christmas Eve 24 December 2014

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Advent Reflection for Christmas Eve

24 December 2014

Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson

O Holy Night


I love Christmas music — all kinds of it — classical, sacred, jazz, country, gospel, pop. This year, I am dragging my sister-in-law and a friend to a Messiah sing-along. One of my spiritual practices during Advent is to fast from listening to news in my car and only listen to Christmas music, usually light classical. I hope it makes me a more kind and cheerful driver.


Probably my favorite Christmas carol is the one I always insisted we hear as a solo on Christmas Eve when I was a pastor, “O Holy Night,” or “Cantique de Noel’ in the original French. The wine merchant and poet Placide Cappeau composed it for his home church, though he was anticlerical and an atheist (!), in the mid-19th century. My theory is that some people say they are atheists in protest of abuses from the church and its bad theology.  Maybe that was true of Cappeau.


The carol is longer than we usually hear, as we often eliminate the second verse. There is much that is so dated and quaint in the carol, and yet there are some very 21st century themes. The gender language is mitigated a little for me by the refrain, “oh night divine,” that calls forth a more open, gender inclusive feeling. Let’s admit it, carols are harder to make inclusive because they are so familiar in the groove of our memories.


But with those limitations, I cannot hear it — with the very dramatic music, or even read the lyrics — without tearing up. Atheists who betray their profound love of Jesus or of the Divine always get to me. I guess he was “spiritual but not religious.” If I had a dime for every time someone told me that!

I thought I would share my own lectio divina of the lyrics with you. Maybe you will hear this carol yourself on Christmas Eve, or when you are in a mall, or driving, or just in your head…

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth…

The carol is filled with emotional, even sentimental piety. I treasure the experience I have had in MCC, when in reclaiming our faith, ordinary people will read the scriptures, familiar gospel stories, and choke up with feeling. My most profound experience of worship in MCC are those in which the Spirit welled up in us, together, in a moment of hearing truth and love, or prophesy. I know you know what I mean. What it means to call the Christ of history, “our dear Savior!” In stark contrast to a cruel, despotic, “Dear Leader,” Jesus’ vulnerability, compassion, and justice are the greatest gifts to all who are marginalized.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,

The weary world! Oh my, how I relate, more than a century and a half later. Weary in Pakistan and Ferguson. Weary in Bethlehem and Uganda. How we long for a new and glorious morn! How eager we are for signs of hope, for peace to break out!


Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices
O night divine, o night when Christ was born,
Oh night divine, oh night, oh night divine!


Aren’t we so ready to be swept spiritually off our feet and humbled enough to fall on our knees? I have powerful images, memories, of MCC Elders literally kneeling together and praying, during a crisis or in thanksgiving for some miracle or breakthrough. Times in my own life that have caused me to pray in a way that acquainted me with the floor.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by the light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here came the wise men from an Orient land

The King of Kings, lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials, born to be our friend…

Here, the outdated language may make us wince. But all is redeemed in this line: Jesus, born to be our friend, the friend of sinners, of people who fall short of justice and peace, of love and grace! For our MCC movement, these words ring out. In all our trials, there is One who was born to be our friend, to struggle alongside us, to comfort and empower us. I think of actual trials, the miscarriages of justice. And daily trials, like those for whom the minimum wage, working three jobs, still does not sustain a family. This week, I took a minute to smile at the boy who bagged my groceries, about age 16, African American, who smiled brightly back at me. On the way to the parking lot, I teared up thinking of his mother and her daily trial of sending him out the door, not knowing what he might face just walking down the street. Pray for her, and for us to fix this unnecessary pain.

He knows our need, to our weakness no stranger
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend! 

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love, and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease!


This is always the verse that gets me. Imagine! A Christmas carol that mentions the word “slave,” written in the time of abolitionist foment in the Western world. But friends, this verse is not dated or quaint — it is an indictment to me, that all these centuries later, there are more slaves than ever — who are our sisters and brothers, trafficked and exploited, beaten and imprisoned. Homeless youth. In our cities and neighborhoods, invisible and waiting for us to break every chain and to end this crime against humanity and against God.


Now, a little more inclusively,

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raising,
Let all within us praise your holy name
Christ is our God! Oh, praise Your name forever!
Your power and glory evermore proclaim
Oh night divine, oh night, oh night divine!

May the power of the One who grew up to turn over tables of injustice, heal every disease, and connect us to all that is divine, good and holy, this night.


Here’s one of my favorite versions:

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