Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!

This is one of the big feast days of the year, in some country’s traditions the most-celebrated of all Saints’ Days (especially in Scandinavia for some reason).  Rather than give you a single write-up about this feast day in Prayer Book tradition, we’re offering you a variety of angles to explore at your leisure.

#1 – the Natural Connection


#2 – the Christmas Connection


#3 – the Calm Before the Storm

9 Months to go…

Are you expecting?
Well you should be; as nine months from now the Church will be celebrating the birthday of her Lord.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, as some will point out the “real” feast of the incarnation – when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  This holy day is placed, quite logically, nine months before Christmas Day.  If you thought radios and shops playing Christmas music in early November is excessive, how about starting the countdown clock nine months early? 😉

Simply realizing that the Annunciation is celebrated at an appropriate time of the year relative to Christmas can give one a newfound appreciation for this holiday.  But there is more.

There was also an ancient belief that great persons died on the same day they were conceived – there was a sort of symmetry to their lives.  (Perhaps this was more of a poetic assertion than an actual biological belief, I don’t know.)  Whateverso, the Annunciation, March 25th, is often very close to Holy Week and Easter, the sequence of days that commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection.  A couple years ago March 25th was Good Friday itself, perfectly lining up our Lord’s conception with his death.

Liturgically, this means we hold off (or transfer) celebrating the Annunciation to the Monday after the Sunday after Easter Day, rather than celebrating it during Holy Week or Easter Week.  But it is worthwhile to note, in those years, the confluence of liturgical events.

This year, with a later Easter, the Annunciation gets to stand on its own date quite unaffected by the Holy Week schedule and goings-on.  The season of Lent is still around us, of course, still giving an ominous sort of context to this celebration.  Just as Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so is this holy day overshadowed by the Lenten season, reminding us of the dire destiny of Mary’s newly-conceived son.  This, more than Christmas, is perhaps a better time to sing those songs about how Jesus was born in order to die on the Cross.  Christmas is a festal holiday and season in its own right, we don’t need to drown its joy in reminders of Good Friday; the Annunciation however is much more ripe for that combination of moods.

Also, one last reminder: this is a holy day, a Red Letter Day, a major feast day.  And that means your Lenten fasts and disciplines are suspended for the day.  Go and celebrate the obedience of our Lady and the conception of our Lord!

Last Christmas Hymn: From East to West

Tomorrow is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or, the Purification of Mary, celebrating the events of Luke 2:22-40.  As I’ve suggested and explored here before, using these 40 days from Christmas Day until tomorrow is a great way to crawl through the massive collection of Christmas songs in our hymnals.  A good choice for the last of these hymns is From East to West, from shore to shore.

This is an ancient hymn, its text written in Latin by Coelius Sedulius around the year 450.  As often is the case with ancient hymns, its English translation has been set to several different tunes, so I’m not going to include a YouTube link this time; the lyrics will have to suffice.

From East to West is a good choice for the end of this extended run of Christmas hymns because its lyrics touch upon some thematic material that makes it fitting for this point in the calendar:

  1. The appeal for “every heart”, “from East to West, from shore to shore,” to awake and sing about the newborn Christ, is very Epiphany-appropriate.  The song starts immediately with that world-wide invitation to worship Jesus.
  2. The epiphany theme of revealing the divinity of Jesus is also prominent in this song, which identifies him with godly epithets such as “the everlasting King” and “the world’s Creator” and “the Lord most high.”
  3. Mary plays a relatively prominent role in these lyrics, anticipating her prominent role in the feast of the Presentation tomorrow.  Here she is celebrated, “a maiden in her lowly place,” who becomes “the chosen vessel of his grace.”  In the doxology, the final verse of the hymn, Jesus is named as the “Virgin-born.”

In all, this is a fantastic hymn that works for Epiphanytide almost as well as for Christmastide.  I wouldn’t be afraid to pull it out almost any time of year, come to think of it, if I knew I’d be preaching or teaching Christology.  It plays out the dual reality of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, his lowliness and his exaltation, marvelously.

Perhaps you can read or sing it at the Daily Office or other time of devotion today?

From east to west, from shore to shore Let ev’ry heart awake and sing
The holy child whom Mary bore, The Christ, the everlasting king.

Behold, the world’s creator wears The form and fashion of a slave;
Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save.

For this how wondrously He wrought!  A maiden, in her lowly place,
Became, in ways beyond all thought, The chosen vessel of His grace.

And while the angels in the sky Sang praise above the silent field,
To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.

All glory for this blessed morn To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born, And Holy Ghost, to thee.  Amen.

Follow-up: obscure Christmas songs

Near the beginning of the month, I made the wacky suggestion that in order to get through the massive pile of Christmas hymns and carols in most Anglican hymnals, you could sing a different one every day all the way until the feast of the Presentation (February 2nd).  Well, as that date approaches, why don’t we check in on one of the lesser-known Christmas songs lurking in the hymnals.

And by “lesser-known”, I’m referring to common American use.  If you know and love this hymn, don’t be offended; be proud you know it!

From heaven high I come to you was written by Martin Luther in 1535; he may have written the tune also which bears this song’s name, Vom Himmel Hoch.  You can hear the piano part on YouTube (though the text translation will be a little different).

Despite how most arrangements like to shorten things, this hymn could have seven verses.  The first three are in the voice of the angels.

From heaven high I come to you: I bring you tidings good and new;
Good tidings of great joy I Bring; Thereof will I both say and sing:

For you a little child is born Of God’s own chosen maid this morn,
A fair and tender baby bright, To be your joy and your delight.

Lo, he is Christ the Lord indeed, Our God, to guide you in your need;
And he will be your Savior, strong To cleanse you from all sin and wrong.

Like the Gloria in Excelsis, these words proclaim the saving purposes of God in Jesus Christ.  But unlike the Gloria, the hymn then continues with another three verses of application.  The voice of the angels is now the voice of the heart, exhorting one another.

Now let us all right merry be, And with the shepherds go to see
God’s own dear Son within the stall, His gift, bestowed upon us all.

Mark well, my heart; look well, mine eyes; Who is it in the manger lies?
What child is this, so young and fair?  It is my Jesus lieth there.

Ah, dearest Jesus, be my guest; Soft be the bed where thou wilt rest,
A little shrine within my heart, That thou and I may never part.

The pious desire to worship the newborn Savior at his manger leads to an invitation – may Jesus come into our own home.  Let us make a bed, a shrine, within our hearts to care for and cherish the Savior forever.  Evangelical culture often speaks of “inviting Jesus into your heart” and “putting Jesus on the throne of your life.”  This hymn does exactly that, with poetry, grace, solemnity, and joy.

The final verse is a doxology:

Praise God above on his high throne, Who giveth us his only Son.
The angel hosts rejoice in bliss To chant a glad New Year like this.  Amen.

What happened to the 2nd Sunday after Christmas?

As you look ahead, you see that this Sunday will not be “the 2nd Sunday after Christmas”, but the feast of the Epiphany.  Does this mean we miss the 2nd Christmas Sunday this year?


This is not unusual; close to half the time that Sunday will be omitted.  In fact, Prayer Books before the 1928 didn’t include a 2nd Sunday at all.  In the event that such a 2nd Sunday occurred, the old way was to celebrate The Circumcision that Sunday.  The rubrics in our 2019 book, last I saw, allow for some flexibility: we’ll be able to choose precisely how to implement these Sunday and Holy Day Collects & Lessons in the latter half of the 12-day Christmas season and beginning of Epiphanytide.  Perhaps another year we can explore than in greater detail, when such a Sunday is available to us.

But this year, hopefully we should all be on the same page: this Sunday, January 6th, is the feast of the Epiphany.  Time to celebrate those magi worshiping Christ!

All those extra Christmas Carols

If you’ve got an Anglican hymn book such the Episcopalian 1940 hymnal or the Book of Common Praise 2017, you may have noticed that there are about sixteen gajillion Christmas songs in there.  Okay, between 50 and 60.  Still, that’s too many to sing in 12 short days, unlike most seasons in which the number of hymns are easily confined to the Sundays of their time of year.  On top of that, many churches have a tendency to stick with the seasonal songs their members know best, and repeat a core repertoire every year… not to mention those who who add in contemporary songs.

But hymnals exist for a very good reason: analogous to the Prayer Book, they serve to provide us with a set of authorized-and-approved words by which we may worship God and ourselves be edified in return.  With scores of Christmas songs available to us but untouched, who knows what we might be missing out on!

To that end I would suggest that one way to explore the lengthy Christmas section of a hymnal would be to appoint one or two hymns each day to the Daily Office or other regular devotions on your own.  With over fifty songs for this little season, and accounting for an Epiphany section beginning on January 6th, you can stretch Christmas an entire 40 days to its final wrap-up holy day of the year: The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple and the Purification of Mary (February 2nd).

Eventually this Customary will have a sample “hymnal in a year” plan but for now feel free to try out some of these principles on your own!

Christmas Day versus Sunday

Imagine if Easter wasn’t always a Sunday, but sometimes a weekday.  What would we do in church on that following Sunday?  Well, given that the resurrection of our Lord is rather a big deal, it would make sense that we would continue to celebrate that holiday on Sunday, perhaps with slightly different lessons so as not to make Sunday a total re-run for those who showed up on Easter Day itself.  That’s how it is with Christmas Day and the First Sunday after Christmas: the Gospel is the same (John 1:1-18) but the other Scripture readings are different.

The Collect is changed, too.  On Christmas Day it’s much more direct to the event:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

Whereas for the Sunday it’s a bit more general:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This is consistent with the analogy I began with.  The “primary” Christmas celebration is on the day itself (December 25th), but the Sunday after is a second pass at the holiday so that those who missed Christmas in church will still get the holiday covered, and that those who attend both will have an enriched experience of the season, not simply repeats.

However….  Something that is often overlooked is the fact that the First Sunday after Christmas is expendable.

If that First Sunday is December 26th, 27th, or 28th, then the Major Feast of that particular day is to be observed that Sunday.  That is the traditional way to handle this Sunday and our Calendar for the Christian permits (if sadly doesn’t mandate) this method.

Furthermore, if Christmas Day is itself Sunday, the “First Sunday after Christmas” is to be omitted.  Traditionally, what you do on that Sunday instead is celebrate the major feast of the Circumcision of Christ (now “the Holy Name”) (January 1st).  Our Prayer Book also authorizes use of the Second Sunday after Christmas on that Sunday, but don’t.  Just celebrate the major feast days in our calendar when they land on Sundays like that… most folks in our congregations have sadly lacked such experiences for the majority of their lives!

Anyway, tomorrow is the First Sunday after Christmas.  Enjoy it!

From Advent to Christmas

Today is a day of two liturgical colors.  For the morning and afternoon it’s simply Monday in the fourth week of Advent.  If you were to have a morning Communion service today, it’s still purple.  If you were to hold Morning Prayer in a church or chapel, the Advent colors would still be up on the altar.  But then in the evening, out comes the festal white: Christmas Eve will begin!

Evening Prayer today is when Christmas begins, the season changes, Advent ends.  For the big picture, revisit Saturday’s post about the several worship services of the Christmas Eve/Day liturgy.

If you have an Advent Wreath, tonight is when the Christ candle will be lit for the first time.  The purple and pink (or violet and rose) candles have given way to the white one in the center.  The liturgy police will finally start saying “merry Christmas” this evening after vespers, haha!

All the more reason to make sure you don’t miss Morning Prayer today, as this will be your only chance besides yesterday to enjoy the stirring Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Looking Ahead: the Christmas Day options

Christmas is just a few days away, as you all are undoubtedly aware.  If you’re a liturgical planner for your congregation, chances are the big decisions have already been made.  If you’ve got family plans, chances are they’ve already been worked out.  In either case, perhaps there are still last-minute details to sift through – isn’t that always the way?

But perhaps there is still some room to consider the rhythm of worship through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  It is my preference, and the practice of this Customary, to start with a “maximalist” approach: assume that every option in the Prayer Book is to be used; individuals can then use that big picture to work out how it can be reduced and enacted in their own contexts.

Service #1: Evening Prayer on December 24th

Following ancient Jewish (as well as Christian liturgical) tradition, the holiday begins on the evening before.  Christmas, therefore, begins with Evening Prayer.  The ACNA lessons that evening are Song of Songs 1 and Luke 22:1-38.  That Old Testament lesson is an interesting choice, for reading the love poems coinciding with Christmas lends an allegorical interpretive aid: as we celebrate the spousal love described in the Song, we also celebrate the divine love of God that led to his incarnation as one of us.  The New Testament reading is just part of the sequential reading through Luke at the end of the year.  The Collect for Christmas Eve is:

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

This will be used at the following Communion service too.

Service #2: Evening Communion (or Vigil) on December 24th

Earlier drafts of our liturgy (I think following the style of the 1979 book) called this option Christmas Day I, but the most recent updates have gotten more specific: this is Christmas Eve with its own Collect and lessons.  The Collect is shared above.  The lessons are Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-14(15-20).  The parentheses refer to an optional lengthening of the reading.  Just as the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the birth of Christ seemed to happen overnight, so we get the Bible’s primary nativity narrative in the evening, or vigil, service.  Traditionally this would be a late-night service, after when Evening Prayer would normally be said, making it analogous in function to the Easter Vigil.

Service #3: Sunrise Communion on December 25th

Just as many churches have a sunrise service for Easter, the following collect and lessons are the Prayer Book’s option for a sunrise Christmas service.  This may be an “impossible” idea for families with children, who want to rush to the tree first thing in the morning.  But it’s worth noting that some traditions, particularly across the pond, left the Christmas day gift-opening festivities until after Christmas lunch or dinner, making an early morning service actually preferable.  The lessons for this service are Isiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, and Luke 2:(1-14)15-20.  The Gospel is the same as the night before, basically for the same reason; but the the Old Testament & Psalm and Epistle lessons are different.  There are so many excellent Old Testament lessons for Christmas, the variety is just worth celebrating.  This Epistle (Titus 3) is found shortly after last night’s epistle (Titus 2), so there’s a sort of sequential logic to that as well.  The Collect for this day is:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Service #4: Morning Prayer

Now the duplications start coming in.  The lessons at Morning Prayer are Isaiah 9:1-8 (the same as the Christmas Eve Communion service, plus a verse) and Revelation 17 (just part of the sequential reading of the month).  It’s more than a little unfortunate that chapter 17 is one of the more unpleasant chapters in Revelation; we’re stuck reading about the Whore of Babylon on Christmas morning.  I suppose you could redeem this unpleasant oversight with the observation that the precious baby Jesus came into the world precisely to deal with such evils.  Still, not a very festive reading… oh well.

Service #5: the Principle Communion

By “principle” I mean “primary.”  This is the one that best matches the historic Prayer Book lectionary, and therefore ought to be the one that a church uses if there’s only one Communion service on Christmas Day.  The lessons are Isaiah 52:7-12, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, and John 1:1-18.  You’ll note that the three Communion services (the night before the sunrise, and the principle) make use of sequential psalms: 96, 97, and 98.  These are very festive psalms and lend themselves to celebrations of all sorts.  The non-liturgical Christian today may be surprised at the choice of John 1 for the Christmas Gospel: what about the delightful nativity story of Jesus and his family in Bethlehem?  The answer is theological.  John 1 tells us of Jesus’ true origins; his eternal divine pre-existence with the Father.  Hebrews 1 backs this up, and provides another observation of Christ’s incarnation in human history.  Where the Vigil and the Sunrise services capture the drama of Christmas, this Principle service captures the substance of Christmas.

Service #6: Evening Prayer on December 25th

Christmas Day ends with Evening Prayer, where the lessons are to be Song of Songs 2 and Luke 2:1-14.  This is another instance of duplication – we’ll already have heard this Gospel lesson at the Vigil and/or Sunrise Communion services.  I guess this way, if you don’t make it to any Communion service and only say the Office at home, you’ll at least get the nativity story here.

Applying this to your personal or family context

Ultimately, a Customary cannot tell you how to “take the liturgy” home, exactly.  Nor can I, as a writer, dole out universal advice on what works best for you.  Families with children have one situation, empty-nesters have another.  Some people travel and will be on the road at typical prayer times.  Some people have lots of church services to go to and others will have none.  You’ve got to work with the situation you’ve got.

In the case of my tiny congregation, all we’ve got is the Evening Prayer service on Christmas Eve.  Knowing that we won’t be offering any Communion service to attend, I’ve planned for the New Testament lesson (Luke 22) to be changed to Luke 2:1-20.  Song of Songs 1 will be staying.

As you look at how to handle your personal and/or family devotions, consider what your church will be celebrating together.  Plan your worship at home in conjunction with the corporate liturgy, so that you can have as rich a celebration of Christmas as possible!

And yet, the liturgical context for celebrating Christmas is even bigger: there’s still the following Sunday to consider! But I’ll save that for another entry on another day.  In the meantime, have a blessed final couple days of Advent.