CAROL:   O Come, O Come Emmanuel

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH    Advent.  It’s a Latin word that means “Coming.” Different people from different cultures have waited for the coming of the Christ Child, each with eager hearts, each giving meaning to the coming of Christ with different legends and stories. All of them preparing the way, for the Christ is coming.

CAROL:  What Child Is This?

When all the earth is brown, when the leaves have departed the trees, evergreens stand in lonely vigil until the earth again is green. Evergreens shout to us about the coming of green again.  Evergreens stand ever ready to remind us of joyous hope.  The joyous reality of the eternal presence of the Christ Child; the eternal presence in all the world. Legend tells us that long ago, the evergreens were not forever colored with verdant needles.  Before the birth of the Eternal One, before the coming, the evergreen was bare like other trees around. Let us begin this legend that takes its start from the Gospel of Matthew.

Scripture says that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. And the angel said to him:  “Rise up and take the Infant Jesus and his mother and escape with them to Egypt.  Stay in Egypt until I bid you return.  You are no longer safe.  Go, for Herod sends his soldiers to seek out the Child and destroy Him.”  So Mary and Joseph and their Infant Child left the warmth and security of their land and journeyed into Egypt.

Now begins the legend: Hastily, they gather their meager belongings.  Into the dark of night they steal away. Escape, they must, from the jealous wrath of Herod and his men. Escape, they must, from the death decree handed down by Herod.  No word could be said of their hasty departure; no notice of a planned destination.  Friends and family could not know of their going, lest they too come under the decree of death. Over rocky hills and dusty roads, they traveled wearily; Mary and the Infant on the back of a donkey; Joseph, alert and watchful, walking beside them. With heavy saddened hearts and fearful weary bodies, they made their way all night long and into the following long day. Mid-afternoon, dust in the distance behind them came. Fast riding soldiers came, soldiers sent from Herod, sent to carry out Herod’s dreadful mission. Where could they hide?  Where could the Holy Family find protection?  The hillside was barren, offering no shield. Quickly, a frightened Joseph guided Mary and her child into a clump of cedars on a hill. Immediately, the bare cedar twigs greened with color, thickened with growth to shield the Holy Family. The white berries of the cedar tree turned to sapphire blue to match the robe that Mary wore that day.  So Mary, mother of Jesus in a robe of sapphire blue could blend with cedar trees, and go unnoticed by passing, hunting soldiers. Past the Holy family, went the band of Herod’s men; never seeing, never knowing Mary, Joseph, and Infant Jesus were safely hidden in a clump of green cedars with berries of sapphire blue. Since that day, cedars and evergreens have never shed their needles and never lost their green, for they sheltered the Holy Family.  Forever green, to honor the day they received the Infant Christ Child. Evergreen, everlasting, eternal, green branches are a symbol of the eternal promise of renewal, a symbol of the eternal and everlasting God.

CAROL:  O Christmas Tree

There is a legend, a story, about the first Christmas tree. Seven hundred years after the birth of Christ,

Pope Gregory wanted to send a Christian missionary to the pagan tribes of Northern Germany.

He called on Winfred of England (later known as Saint Boniface) to go to Germany for a three-year period to teach Christian ways to the pagan tribes who lived there.

One day, as Winfred was traveling among the people there, he came upon a gathering for a pagan ceremony in the forest.  With the ritual about to take place, the spirit of the forest was being worshiped with a human sacrifice.  The ceremony involved the blood of an innocent child sprinkled around an oak tree to placate the god of the forest.  Winfred begged that the ceremony be stopped, but his words were ignored.

In a desperate act to stop the ritual, Winfred grabbed the ceremonial ax and, with a mighty swing, cut down the oak tree.  The people were furious, but their anger turned to amazement as they saw a small fir tree spring up to replace the fallen oak. A shaft of light caused each twig on the fir tree to glisten and the people listened and believed when Winfred told them the tree was a symbol of the renewal of life through the eternally innocent Christ.

It was another seven hundred years before Martin Luther put lighted candles on his tree to recapture the glistening twigs of the tree in the forest which Winfred had seen.  He also topped his tree with a star to commemorate that star which was in the Bethlehem sky as recorded in scriptures: “Behold, there came wise-men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He that is born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship Him.'”

CAROL:  The Snow Lay On The Ground (Venite Adoremus) 

The Italian sunshine was warm and bright as St. Francis walked in the woods near the village of Greccio. It was December in the year 1223. St. Francis walked slowly, head bowed. “It’s almost here, the birth of Jesus. But the people here in Greccio seem to have forgotten Jesus. They constantly hurt each other with their cruel and selfish ways. If only I could help them think about that first Christmas night and about the baby Jesus who, when He grew up, went about doing good.”

St. Francis pondered and pondered, and then stopped short. “I know! I know what I can do!” And he ran to the home of his friend Giovanni. The next afternoon, there was a procession of Giovanni’s servants making their way to a big cave. Some carried boughs of pine and cypress, others lumber and bales of straw and hay. A neighboring farmer came with three white cows, sheep and lambs. Meanwhile, word had spread around the village that Francis was inviting everyone to come to the cave that night.

When it grew dark, men, women and children all approached the cave bearing torches and candles. They stood in awe when they entered, for there, before their very eyes, they saw the Christmas story: the stable spread with straw, the cows chewing their cud, and a little gray donkey looking quietly into the hay-filled manger while the sheep and lambs lay close by.

At the appointed time, a young mother and father came forward and gently laid their sleeping baby in the manger. And Francis stepped out of the shadows where he had been standing, and started telling the story of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds and wise men, of the Baby Jesus, and the man He grew up to be. He spoke to his neighbor’s hearts, calling them to treat each other with lovingkindness, as Jesus showed us.

Later that evening when the villagers left the cave to return to their homes, the winter stars were shining brightly in the dark sky. “Look!” exclaimed a child, pointing to one star which was especially large and bright. “It’s the star of Bethlehem!” St. Francis heard the child and his heart sang with joy. For he knew that that Christmas, Christ was there in his own village of Greccio.

HYMN:  Lo. How A Rose E’er Blooming

In 1828, the United States ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett (where we get the word “poinsettia”) spent a tour of duty in Mexico.  He admired the dramatic beauty of the bright red poinsettia that grew rooftop high and bloomed profusely at Christmas.  He was awed when Mexican Christians told him why the bright red poinsettias were a part of their celebration of the birth and life of Christ.

In Mexico, the story goes like this:  There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked sadly to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita’, he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy.” Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus.

As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.

CAROL:  Good King Wenceslas 

For many Americans, Christmas is Santa Claus. But where does Santa Claus fit in the Christmas story? Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas’s Day, and that’s a good place to start. Saint Nicholas was born in the area where Jesus was born, and bishop of Myra while still a young man. Stories about him arose the 300’s and 400’s.

He calmed a stormy sea and became the patron saint of sailors. He saved three boys from death and became the patron saint of children.  He gave a dowry to three young women and became the patron saint of the poor. He convinced the captain of three grain ships to give part of their cargo to the poor.  They gave and gave to feed the hungry- and their ships remained full.  He became the patron saint of the hungry. St. Nicholas became the symbol of giving, especially giving to the poor and vulnerable. Dec. 6 marked St. Nicholas’s day, the day he was martyred.

Now, Santa Claus came to be on Dec. 6, 1508 in Holland. The Dutch were at war with Spain, fighting a long hard war for their independence. The Spanish blocked their seaports and destroyed their fields. The people were hungry, the people were starving, a terrible famine was over the land.

Bishop Nicholas- another Bishop Nicholas, this one the Bishop of Spain- came to Holland on a boat. Leaving his boat at the dock, he rode over the countryside on a white horse, directing his servants to give potatoes to the people- to the enemies of his nation.  He gave potatoes to the starving Dutch.  He gave figs and raisins to the children.

In the Dutch language, Saint Nicholas is Sinterklass. Each year since that day, December 6 is Sinterklass Day; a day for giving, to meet all human needs.  Sinterklass comes again on a boat from Spain, and rides his white horse to every home with embellished potatoes and gifts. When Dutch settlers came to the United States, they brought Sinterklass with them- another saintly St. Nicholas who brought hope to the poor and hungry.

Saint Nicholas, from Myra, to Spain, to Holland, to America… every Christmas for eighteen hundred years.  The spirit of Saint Nicholas lives when we give of ourselves to meet to the needs of others.

CAROL:  1Joy To The World        

It started out as a straight white sugar stick. In 1670, almost 350 years ago, a choirmaster was worried about the children sitting quietly all through the long Christmas nativity service. So he gave them something sweet to eat to keep them quiet! He wanted to remind them of Christmas, so he made them into a J shape, like the first letter of Jesus’ name,  like a shepherd’s hook to remind them of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus at the first Christmas. Then, around 1900, another candy maker started adding red stripes flavored with peppermint. The red stripes remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus; the white stripes remind us of the purity and joy of Jesus. And the sweet sugar reminds us of how sweet it is to be a child of God!

CAROL:  Joy To The World  vs. 3