Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Lutheran Christmas Pageant in 1659

Last Sunday we contemplated the dreamy struggles of Joseph as he sought to come to terms with Mary bearing the Christ-Child. That sermon can be found here.  This coming Sunday our youth and children present their Christmas program. The tradition of Christmas services involving children has a long history. Paul Gerhardt, Lutheran deacon at the Nikolairkirche in Berlin in 1659, gives a vivid description of their Christmas service. Here is an excerpt...

The church is cold. Candles are lit as people take their places. There are musicians with violins and woodwind instruments gathered around a small movable organ. Also a male quartet, and a military band with trombones, drums and kettle drums. After the organ prelude a hymn is sung and three clergymen appear at the altar. The entire liturgy is sung by the choirs and the schoolchildren.

Next, a college student, dressed as an angel with large white wings sings from the pulpit an Old Testament prophecy. More chanting from the choir and then the principal door of the church opens, and in comes a procession of girls, beaded by their teacher, all dressed as angels. They proceed to the high altar, and sing in two part counterpoint. After the sermon the instrumentalists play a boisterous 'Te Deum'.

Things now begin to happen in the organ loft; over the railing is raised a cradle with a doll, while small boys with incessant mooing imitate the animals in the Bethlehem stable. The choir and congregation sing a hymn, and at this point high up on the organ facade a Bethlehem Star, illuminated and supplied with small bells, is turned around and around, operated by an organ stop.

Three wooden images, representing the three wise men, with their traditional attributes, solemnly move forward and bow before the doll in the cradle. At the same time we notice two puppets, representing Moors, standing on each side of the central group. One blows a trumpet, and the other beats a drum. Throughout this scene, on the gallery railings, the musicians play a musical refrain. Then a boy soprano intones 'In Dulci Jubilo' which is continued by male voices accompanied by shawns and bombards.

The song is scarcely over before a sight exceedingly beloved of the children appears in the center aisle. It is old Father Christmas himself in his white beard, with pointed cap on his head and a large sack on his back, soon surrounded by 'angels' and children, who vie with each other for the good things that are to be given out. When the large sack is empty and Old Father Christmas has disappeared behind the sacristy door, then is sung the closing chorale.

Sounds like quite a production. Every Christmas since then many churches witness the annual miracle of the Christmas program all coming together at the last minute. Don't miss it. It's a long tradition. Support your local nativity play.

For some music... not from 1659, but 2010, when the Matt Wilson band premiered their album "Christmas Tree-O" at my previous church, First Presbyterian, Baldwin, NY. (Matt Wilson is an elder there). They are currently touring the West Coast before doing two nights at the famed Jazz Standard club in N.Y.C. But it all started in Baldwin! Here is their version of 'O Come All Ye Faithful' (complete with congregational participation). Apologies that it doesn't quite make it to the end... darn those memory cards And a merry Christmas to all!

Rev. Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dreamers Welcome

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
"Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Matthew 1:20 )

I confess that, from within my 21st Century worldview, I find it easier to accept angels coming to people in their dreams than actually appearing in physical form during their waking hours. Both sorts of encounters appear within the scriptures. Last week at Mount Hebron we talked about an angelic visitation to a young maiden. That sermon can be found here. Zechariah, Mary and a whole gang of shepherds have close encounters of a physical kind. However the angelic encounters of Joseph come during his sleeping hours.

Joseph's encounter is no less life changing than those of his contemporaries within the Christmas story. Being guided by his dreams becomes a feature of his life. In three other incidences, an angel appears in his dreams to tell him to flee the murderous intentions of Herod and then, later, to return to Israel and finally settle in Nazareth.

For Joseph these dreams were powerful. They persuaded him to go against everything his culture told him he should do if his betrothed wife informed him she was pregnant outside of their marriage. The expectation was that their relationship would end and that she would be punished. Thankfully, not only did Joseph love and trust Mary far too much for that to happen, but through his angelic dream he understood that this was a God thing.

As he was fully involved with the raising a new child, Joseph probably had no idea about the crazed intentions of Herod to murder all the children in his region because he had heard rumors one of them might turn out to be a rival for the throne. Yet, Joseph, on the premise of a dream, uprooted his family and headed to unfamiliar territory. If he hadn't, then there may have been no Christmas story.

And on the strength of a dream, the family return and set up home in a place called Nazareth. Matthew's gospel tells us that this took place to 'Fulfill what was said through the prophets, that the child would be called a Nazarene.' On the strength of a dream, Joseph fulfills a prophecy he may never even have known about.

When it comes to the purposes of God, dreamers are welcome! Particularly those who act upon the dreams they believe God has placed within their hearts. As we draw near to the end of another year, it is always a good time to dream dreams for our future. Christmas offers us a message which tells us that 'Dreamers are always welcome'.

So here is the challenge. What are our dreams, for ourselves, for our families, for our churches, for our communities, for our nation, for our world? Maybe we should write them down. It may take a while to figure out which are simply wishful thinking and which are things God is calling us to pursue. But often, over time, it becomes clear to us where our passions lie. Involving ourselves in disciplines such as worship and study, prayer and service can help us to clarify our goals.

We may not have the luxury of angelic encounters, physical or otherwise. Yet God has a way of guiding lives that are open to possibility. As we travel through this Advent season, dare to dream!

I could not resist posting Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra singing 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas'. Yes, I know. It's not a carol or a hymn nor even a praise song. But it is the best selling single... ever... and I just happen to love it. If you want to sing more traditional carols... then visit your local (church) as soon as you can!

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Safe Places

Last week at Mount Hebron we began a sermon series looking at some of the angelic encounters in the Christmas Story. The tale of Gabriel and the Doubting Priest can be found here. This week, the second Sunday in Advent, we move onto consider Mary, who is greeted by Gabriel with the words; 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you...You will bear a son.'
We tend to picture a warm, glowing Nativity scene, a shiny angel with a tinsel crown smiling at Mary, and she responds happily, 'I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.' (Maybe kind of like this Storyteller video clip).  She holds hands with Joseph as they walk with their donkey to Bethlehem. Soon they kneel in a neatly swept, odor-free stable gazing down at their pink-skinned, blue-eyed baby— 'the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.'

But Mary’s irate parents? Joseph’s confusion about whether to divorce Mary? Those scenes don’t usually appear in our imaginations. Imagine how it really was. Think of your teenage daughter, or sister, or friend. She is smart, pretty, set to go to college on scholarship, meet a nice guy and settle down. Then she finds out she’s pregnant, and claims it was by an angel. How does Dad respond? The church? Youth group? The neighbors? The boyfriend?

An unplanned pregnancy was decidedly mixed news for an engaged virgin in first century Nazareth. The bad news, which the angel discreetly left unsaid, was worse than Mary’s plans for her life being waylaid. Unmarried women who found themselves pregnant in first-century Judea were unlikely to find a good husband or respectable livelihood. What could her future hold? At best, she might live out her days secluded in her father’s house, or maybe support her child by prostitution. At worst, she could be stoned to death.

Imagine dad’s reaction.'You are grounded for life, young lady!' Might he have considered contacting the religious elite to take drastic action against his own daughter? The law permitted death by stoning. Although Joseph did not consider the death penalty for Mary, it was a legal option. The scripture states that she was 'much perplexed,' and the angel specifically says, 'Do not be afraid.' Perplexed? She must have been terrified!

We are told 'She set out with haste' to her cousin Elizabeth’s house where she stayed for three months. When Gabriel addressed Mary as 'favored one' Mary might not have felt that this was such a great favor. Yet she responded with trust and faith. Though alarmed, she responds, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord' ... and then she fled for her life!

There has been much talk in the news about folk around the world fleeing persecution and war. The vast majority of them are simply trying to find a safe place. They never dreamed they would one day be forced into looking for a new homeland but have been placed in a situation where staying where they are is not an option.

Organizations that deal with situations of domestic abuse or seeking to combat human trafficking create much needed safe places for those whom they feel they can help. Such places are not intended to be permanent homes, but places of transition. The church here at Mount Hebron has supported organizations such as 'TheSamaritan Women', a national Christian organization that seeks to provide restorative care to survivors, and bring about an end to domestic human trafficking through awareness, prevention, and advocacy.
Hebrews 13:12 tells us 'Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.' Let us thank God for all those who are seeking to provide much needed 'safe places' in today's world and seek to support them in whatever we can. To do so is honoring an often overlooked part of the Christmas story.

Couldn't resist posting a link to vocal group 'Pentatonix' and their inspired version of the Christmas song "Mary Did You Know".

Rev Adrian J Pratt B.D.