This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name. Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.
As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.
Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.
In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.
Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite. Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.
But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.
I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.
Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
We don’t normally spend much time studying Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Yet the story of Hannah and Samuel begins with this man. Not only that, but it begins with a lesson in his genealogy and heritage. We learn that Elkanah was from Ramathaim (a town in the hill country of the tribal lands of Ephraim). As a Zuphite, however, Elkanah (and thus his son, Samuel) were also descended from the Kohathites, and were of the Levitical priestly line.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. We don’t know why Elkanah had two wives, but we know that the other wife, Peninnah, had children; likely several (see verse 4). Hannah, however, was barren– and this was “because the Lord had closed her womb.” There is nothing to indicate that this a result of any sin on the part of Hannah or Elkanah–there is no reason given for God’s decision to keep Hannah from becoming a mother. There is also no reason to believe that Elkanah was angry or disappointed or embarrassed by Hannah’s condition. In the society of that time, a man could divorce his wife for minor offenses; in this society, barrenness would be seen as a major defect, a stigma, and grounds for divorce. Hannah faced the possibility of rejection, abandonment, and condemnation from her husband. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah, and honored her with a double portion for their yearly offering.
Even with a loving and supportive husband, however, Hannah is inconsolable. And it is here that I think many of do a disservice to Elkanah. The Bible tells us that Peninnah taunted Hannah and drove her to tears. When she would not eat, Elkanah asked some basic questions. Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? and the one that always makes me cringe– Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?
These questions always bothered me. It seems to me that Elkanah is either clueless or in denial about the bitter rivalry going on under his very roof. And his questions seem to underline his ignorance.
A closer look at the context, however shows that Elkanah may be more a victim of our modern cultural understanding than a victim of his own deficiencies as a husband. It says on the day that Elkanah was to sacrifice– an indication that he was inside the tabernacle and on duty –that Peninnah was taunting Hannah. If Elkanah was ignorant of the torment Hannah faced, it may very well be that it was being kept from him by Hannah herself. As a woman, I’m also guilty of expecting that my husband will “pick up” on non-verbal clues, or otherwise intuitively “understand” why I am depressed, or tired, or angry. Husbands, as loving and attentive as they may be, are not mind readers, and I have been guilty of making mine play a frustrating guessing game as he seeks to offer help. Men are also more likely to start by asking questions to “get to the root” of the problem, when we are seeking comfort and understanding, before we seek a solution. Elkanah and Hannah are no different in this respect than most of us today. Hannah is not a superwoman–she cries at the party and won’t eat. Elkanah is not a superman–he can’t “fix” Hannah’s sadness, nor can he feel the total depth of her despair. Finally, Elkanah asks a question that gives us a window into his own secret anguish. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I want to rest here for a minute. I think we tend to get caught up in the words, and miss the heart of this plea. What is he really expressing? I don’t think Elkanah is trying to exaggerate his worth, nor is he trying to minimize Hannah’s desperation. But there is a heartfelt cry to be “enough.” So many times, when we face infertility, miscarriage, or the loss of a child, we focus on the mother’s feelings of loss and emptiness. In this story, we look at Hannah as being an outsider in her own family– the wife who “can’t”–the one who is in distress. Elkanah’s question may even seem insensitive and arrogant. Listen to it again, though, and you can hear the broken heart of a man who loves his wife, even as she is pulling away and allowing her grief to consume her. “Don’t I mean more to you?” “Am I not enough to keep you from despair?” Yes, Elkanah has children with Peninnah, but he longs for happiness and fulfillment in his relationship with Hannah. The Bible never says how many children Peninnah had, but it seems clear that in Elkanah’s eyes, Hannah was worth far more than “ten sons.”
I am broken as I think of times when I have been so consumed in my own grief and “neediness” that I have pushed away those who love me most, shutting them out, and making them question their own worth.
How many times have I done the same to the Lover of My Soul?
How many times do I focus on the one thing I don’t have, or the two annoying people in my life, and ignore the blessings God has poured out? When was the last time I made an extra effort to communicate to my husband how much he DOES mean to me, instead of leaving him to wonder? How many tears have I poured out with my face turned away from my Loving Father?
Hannah’s husband asks some leading questions– they lead Hannah to collapse before the only one who can bring healing and joy. Hannah’s prayer comes from a point of being broken– far more than needing a child, Hannah needs the love and understanding her husband longs to give her, and the joy and blessing her Heavenly Father has been waiting to offer.
We know the end of this story– God opens Hannah’s womb, giving her and her husband a son who will go on to play a key role in Israel’s history and God’s story of redemption. He continues to bless Hannah and Elkanah with other children, and, hopefully, a renewed relationship of joy and commitment.
May our prayer journey today lead us toward the Love of our Good Father– whether from a place of brokenness, need, confusion, joy, frustration, or victory.
The Bible is an amazing book. It is a single narrative, but it is made up of several stories; even several different types of literature. There are stories that seem straightforward; others are clearly meant as parables or metaphors; still others are prophetic visions. Hannah’s story fits the first category. Hannah is to be understood as a real person living in a real time and place in history. She is also representative of a particular situation–she is childless in a society where a woman’s value is measured in her ability to bear children. She is loved by her husband, but taunted and harassed by her husband’s other wife. She is consumed by grief and frustration. In our own time, she would likely be diagnosed as clinically depressed.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a tendency to see Hannah through the rosy lenses of her eventual triumph. I know the end of the story. I indulge her grief, because she “prays her way through it”, and gets the happy ending I think we all long for.
But Hannah’s story isn’t just about the outcome, and it isn’t a parable meant to show that earnest prayer will always result in getting what we desire. Hannah’s happy ending is not a guarantee or a promise for anyone else who suffers from grief or infertility (or both).
So, I’d like to take a closer look at Hannah– not as one of the “heroines” of the Bible, but as a woman in distress. And I’d like to focus on the others in her story. God doesn’t waste details, even if we don’t always understand why they are included. I think there are several hidden lessons in this story, and they reside in details we often skim or throw aside in the pursuit of the very real truth that God answers prayer.
So, to prepare for this journey, here is the text of Hannah’s tale:
1 Samuel 1 New International Version (NIV) The Birth of Samuel 1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. 3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” 9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” 12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” 15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” 17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” 18 She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. 19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
Taken from biblegateway.com
Lord, help us to read this story with new eyes. Help us to see how you work even in difficult circumstances and with imperfect people to bring hope and wisdom and salvation to a fallen world.
It has been several months since I’ve posted. Much of that time has been spent praying about a new direction for this site. I have written a lot about how, why, when, and even what we can pray. I’ve written prose and poetry, parables, and “probables”. But in writing, I was pouring myself into the process of writing, and not necessarily into the primary pursuit. Part of the pursuit of prayer is putting it into practice! I want to try a new approach over the next few months– I won’t be publishing as often, but I will be taking a focused look at some of the “pray-ers” of the Bible–not just the prayers they prayed, but the context of their prayers. What can I learn by taking a closer look at these men and women– their circumstances, their approach to God, and their response to His answers (or seeming failure to answer).
Stay tuned as we take a closer look at Hannah in the coming weeks.
I wanted to cap off this week of Christmas carols with this line from “O, Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)”
Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, Oh, come ye, oh, come ye, to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;
Refrain: Oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him, Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation; Oh, sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above! Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O Come, All Ye Faithful– Words by John F. Wade (Latin); translation by Frederick Oakeley.
The words of this hymn sum up an important pattern running through this week’s group of song lyrics. Worship, praise, obedience, wonder, joy– all come by way of invitation. Christmas compels us, not by force of law, or a show of superior power, but by beauty, generosity, humility, and Love. God gives the invitation; He draws close to the lowly and the broken-hearted; He dispels the darkness with starlight, and breaks through the silence with angelic choirs; He cries quietly from a borrowed stable. Shepherds leave their flocks to see him, Magi travel with treasures to worship him– but the rest of the world passes by, unaware and untouched. As this child grows, he continues to issue invitations– “Come unto me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest!” “Whosoever believes in me shall have everlasting life.” “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry. (John 6:35 a)” Jesus didn’t use threats and judgment to attract angry followers. In fact, when he spoke harsh truth, the religious and political leaders of the day plotted to kill him– and he knew of their plans but did nothing to stop them! Those who followed Jesus did so because he asked.
It is the same for us today. The invitation still exists– it is still valid. It is possible to ignore Jesus, to say, “No;” even to deny Him. Christmas is not a command. It is a communion. The wonder of Christmas– the miracle– is that God has not ignored us or denied us; He has not bound us in chains and forced our obedience or our worship; He has not abandoned us to the darkness. He reached out, He pursued us, wooed us, sharing our burdens and our woes, and promising us fullness of life and joy– IF we will accept the invitation.
Let us come. Let us worship and adore Him. Let no tongue on Earth be silent or sullen. Let nothing keep us in dismay and fear. Let our hearts prepare to receive this matchless gift of Grace. Let all that is within us praise His Holy Name!
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Refrain: Fall on your knees O hear the angel voices O night divine O night when Christ was born O night divine O night, O night divine Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming Here come the wise men from Orient land The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger In all our trials born to be our friend. Refrain 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 Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name. Refrain
To the untrained eye, it was not a Holy Night– The streets of Bethlehem were crowded and dusty. The night, even if the stars were shining, was filled with noises and smells that fell far short of anything sacred or glorious. There were strangers clogging the city’s streets and inns and homes– extra animals to shelter, extra mouths to feed, extra waste everywhere. It was a weary world, it was in error and it was pining– but it was also noisy, angry, distracted by petty inconveniences and worried by chaos and upheaval and oppression.
There was nothing special about the night itself. It was NOT a Holy Night until Holiness arrived in the form of a squalling infant born to a teenage mother and a carpenter/stepfather who were compelled to beg for shelter in an unfamiliar city full of squalor and resentment. People had come from all over to be nothing more than numbers in an unpopular bureaucratic nightmare. This child might have been no more than a number to the governor of the region, or to the Roman Empire, or to the Herod, the hamstrung pseudo-ruler of Judea–but His coming split history in two; it redefined the value of a single, simple soul! This was the night when the creator entered His creation AS a member of the creation– a child among other children; a helpless baby in a fallen and depraved world, vulnerable to disease, cruelty, abuse, starvation, exposure and exploitation. This God/Man would see and hear, and smell and feel the ugliness of leprosy, poverty, hunger, homelessness, despair, grief, madness, war, slavery, loneliness, betrayal, and death.
In His lifetime, He had no home of his own. He built no monument, founded no schools or hospitals, fought no (physical) battle, and toppled no governments. But, in the years since that otherwise ordinary night, majestic cathedrals have been built and have stood for hundreds of years; nations and governments have been transformed; hospitals, clinics, shelters, sanctuaries, universities, and institutions have served the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the weary, the forgotten, and the lost. The world is still fallen– there is still injustice, slavery, weariness, sickness and sin around us. But, because of that night, we are not waiting in utter darkness–as the Apostle John writes:
16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life… 19 This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. 21 But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.
John 3:16, 19-21 Christian Standard Bible
We live on the other side of that ordinary, Holy Night– we will never know the darkness of a time without a Gospel of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men–we are witnesses to the power of Divine Love in human flesh. We have reason to “fall on (our) knees” and “let all within us praise His Holy Name!”
My prayer is that we would all “hear the angel voices” this season and be able to worship in the fullness of joy this Christmas.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ; While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy. No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as, the curse is found. He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love, And wonders, wonders, of His love.
Joy to the World– words by Isaac Watts
Advent is a time of preparation– joyful preparation. It is an oxymoron to say it, but it is a time when we remember with anticipation. It is a time to once again prepare our hearts for the arrival of an event that happened over two thousand years ago. Each year, we look backward to look forward! And we prepare as though it were all happening anew– the announcement of the angels, the travels of Mary and Joseph and their arrival in Bethlehem, the wise men following a star..
And we prepare for this year’s festivities– the gifts, the food, the decorations, the invitations and greeting cards, programs and parties, caroling and shopping…But in the midst of it all, hopefully, we prepare our hearts to be rekindled, reawakened to the wonder– beyond the star and angels and virgin birth–the wonder that God would ransom the lost, break the chains of sin and death, redeem the fallen and weary world, and pour all of his Glory into the frail cries of a newborn baby. All the rest of the preparation is meaningless if we don’t prepare to be overwhelmed again by the “glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.”
“Lord, may our hearts be prepared to accept the wonder and joy of this season. May we have new hearts for the wonders of your great Love for us– that you would humble yourself to live among fallen men and women, and die to set them free. That you would rise triumphant, so that we need not fear death. Thank you for this indescribable gift. Once again, let Earth receive her King with joy as all of heaven and nature sing!”
We celebrate Christmas–we play music, dance, laugh, hang up festive decorations, feast, and exchange gifts. But for many years, Christmas was a holiday overshadowed by Advent. Advent is all about preparing for the coming of Messiah, much as Lent is about preparing for the crucifixion and resurrection of Good Friday and Easter. Advent can be a joyful time, but it can also be a time of fear, darkness, and atonement. Added to that, Advent comes during the darkest months of the year for the northern hemisphere; the farther north, the darker it gets in December.
The early Protestants, especially the Puritans, feared the admixture of Christian teachings with pagan rituals associated with the Winter Solstice, and in doing so, they smothered much of the joy and celebration that had come to be associated with Christmas. However, certain songs and carols survived. Among these was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” The title and many of the lyrics seem strange to our modern ears, but the title simply means, “may God keep you merry (or happy, blessed, joyful, even hearty or healthy), Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies).” It was a blessing sung by peasants (or the local watchman) to their local lords and ladies, but it was also an excellent and joyful summation of all that the season really means. (See more explanation of the origins and meaning of the song here.. https://www.carols.org.uk/god_rest_ye_merry_gentlemen.htm www.acecollins.com/books/storiesbehindchr.html )
Advent IS a good time for reflection and preparation, but it should also be full of joyful anticipation. Christmas, and all that follows, is all that the angels heralded– good news of great tidings. And the Gospel is news of comfort and joy! Not the temporary comfort of a warm fire or the fleeting joy of a delicious feast in the company of merry men and women. Christmas offers the comfort of knowing that Christ has fulfilled the ancient promises– He has come; he has lived among his own; he has defeated death and the grave; he has risen and ascended! There is nothing left to fill the Christian with dismay or terror. It is fear and pain that are temporary–life and peace are eternally promised for those who accept the good tidings!
This life will still hold pain, grief, injustice, and darkness– but it is not inevitable and it will not prevail! God is greater than our most pressing problem, deeper than our grief, wider than our capacity to stray, and more powerful than Satan’s thorniest snares. Christmas Day reminds us of these truths, and allows us to live in true love and brotherhood with those around us, no matter our current circumstances.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413, cento Translated by John. M. Neale, 1818-1866 and Henry W. Baker, 1821-1977
1. Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.
2. Oh, that birth forever blessed When the Virgin, full of grace, By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race, And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face Evermore and evermore.
3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing; Powers, dominions, bow before Him And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring Evermore and evermore.
4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers Sang of old with one accord; Whom the Scriptures of the prophets Promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the Long-expected; Let creation praise its Lord Evermore and evermore.
5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unending praises be, Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory Evermore and evermore.
Christ’s Humility and Exaltation 5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.[a 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11 (Christian Standard Bible–CSB)
An early Christian poet penned the words for this Christmas Hymn over 1500 years ago. He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul from 400 years before that. Paul’s “hymn” was expressing truths penned by prophets and songmakers stretching back centuries before his time. From the earliest recorded writings of Moses we see the same themes: God is eternal–eternal in existence, eternal in power, eternal in glory; God extends himself on behalf of his creation–giving, sacrificing, inviting, forgiving; God exalts the humble–he notices the overlooked, elevates the lowly, honors the meek.
These themes have not changed in centuries, but our interpretation and usage of them has. I still love this old hymn, and the passage from Philippians, but I see people, Christians and non-Christians alike, using phrases like, “Let no tongue on earth be silent,” and “Every knee shall bow” not as invitations or extensions of God’s glory and sacrifice, but as threats. I find this understandable, but not defensible– especially coming from Christians.
I think our modern world has lost much of its wonder and ability to see “honor, glory and dominion.” We spend our days “debunking” any idea or person who might seem worthy of respect or honor, but we replace them with ideas and people who are less worthy of respect, because they make us feel superior and smug in our own complacent, convenient lives. We are satisfied by glitter, instead of seeking glory. We have given the word “dominion” the same negative connotation as “colonialism” or “conquest”. We do not choose to honor humility or service– we celebrate what is brash, flashy, loud, and self-serving.
Some of our modern churches and worship services fall into the same trap. We give more honor to the worship band and the comfortable seats than we do to the creator of the heavens. We spend our money on t-shirts and CDs proclaiming the wonders of OUR faith, but we don’t have any money to share with those in need just two streets away. I am not saying that this is unique to our time, or that the early Church was without fault. But there is a very different feeling one gets in entering a medieval church or cathedral–they were not built for human comfort, but to inspire the sort of knee-bowing, tongue-confessing awe found in the ancient hymns. Jesus grabbing a cup of Joe and plopping down next to us in a climate-controlled, renovated movie theater does not have the same effect. We are sometimes left with the impression that Glory is ephemeral and glittery, and God is more interested in our comfort than in our transformation.
So when we read that God is eternally glorious and that every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– we see this as coming from a self-important little-g “god” who compels his creation to worship him out of a vain desire for imputed glory. In contrast, the Bible presents a God whose very nature IS Glorious. We worship him when we see him as he is. When we choose in this life to exalt ourselves and ignore God’s invitation, and the ways in which he reveals his glory here on earth, it doesn’t diminish his glory or change his nature.
Consider a beautiful sunset. There was a glorious sunset in our area last Saturday night. Several of my friends posted pictures of it– it was awe-inspiring! That was its very nature. But many people missed seeing it, or recognizing its beauty. After all, the sun sets every day. This sunset came and went like all the others. The sky didn’t force anyone to look at it, but it was visible to anyone who would see it. God’s presence, when fully revealed, will be stunning in its Glory and impossible to ignore. Every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– simply in awe of it. God invites us to open our eyes, to catch glimpses (like Saturday’s sunset) of the glory he imputes to even the most ordinary and humble things in life.
And so it was in the incarnation. God’s glory arrived in the form of a baby– one among thousands in Judea, His divine nature wrapped in the ordinariness of arms and legs, cooing and crying like any other baby, born in obscurity, yet announced from the beginning and heralded by the very hosts of heaven– Here HE is! Come and behold Him! Worship and adore Him! Evermore and Evermore!