Smith College Christmas Vespers
December 8, 2019
Advent is the season when the revolution of people aligns with the revolution of the earth.
Advent is a time when people – all people all over the world – light candles to cultivate a hope which rekindles us that the light will return. Advent is a time of quiet reflection and meditation, in preparation for the festivities of Christmas; it is a time when we lay evergreen on our doors and mantles, symbolizing that which does not die in the darkest coldest hours. Advent is a time for us to recognize both our fragility and our responsibilities to this earth that sustains us, as we feel in our chilled bones its power over us and its reliance upon us…
These lessons and carols tell a story of a gestation, a journey, and an incarnation. It is also a story of a poor couple who were displaced from their home because of the policies of an authoritarian leader whose rule was characterized by its obsequiousness to the empire, and who was threatened by the potential of Judaism to distort the social order because of its teachings of liberation—care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. It is a story of how this couple became refugees in the land of Egypt, escaping from the persecution of King Herod who feared the disruption of his kingdom.
With the climate emergency at just outside our doors, may this ancient story teach us how to walk forward into our fear, because we carry within us awe which must be spoken, strength about which we are not fully aware, and hope to which we must give birth.
As we begin we bring to mind migrants, refugees, all those seeking sanctuary as Mary and Joseph were. We bring to mind the land upon which we stand, and we give thanks for those who originally cultivated it. We also recognize our present-day neighboring Indigenous nations: The Nipmuc and the Wampanoag to the East, the Mohegan and Pequot to the South, the Mohican to the West, and the Abenaki to the North. We acknowledge, too the presence of Native people here among us.
We bring to mind those suffering from poverty, incarceration, depression, loneliness, addiction. May treasures emerge from the darkest corners of our lives, the ignored, the forgotten. We bring to mind those around us, those we wish were with us. May their memories sustain us as they rest in a peace which passes all understanding.
The opposite of fear is music.
The antithesis of apathy is singing.
The enemy of hopelessness is a melody.
So, drawing ourselves into a spirit of prayer we ask.
O Holy One of many names and faces, Holy One of the earth and sky and trees and oceans and rivers, may this hour of hymns and words inspire us in the meter of our own revolutions.
Hear now this version of the Lord’s prayer from the New Zealand prayer book, and if you wish feel free to follow along:
A version of The Lord’s Prayer
from The New Zealand Prayer Book
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.
REFLECTION AND PRAYERS
Once, greed and violence reigned, and tiny steps, some of them trudging, almost stumbling gave weight to Advent hope, what theologian Peter Gomes calls “muscular hope,” hope forged in the anvil of adversity the stuff that’s gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen is happening.
Let us be thankful for our prophets, not proclaiming what will happen in the future but telling the truth about what will happen if we do not pay attention to the now.
Let us remember in a moment of silence all those touched most immediately and most directly by climate change……in Honduras, Haiti, the Marshall Islands. Let us re-remember actively, in our words and deeds and small pieces of work in this world. Let us remember one another.
In the words of climate activist Fred Small, we cannot prevent climate change from happening; it already has, but it is never too late to save the next life or the next species. It is never too late to offer love to our neighbor or even our enemy–never too late to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, nurse the sick, visit the prisoner. It is never too late to mend the world.
Advent is the season of quiet beginning.
So, let us cradle the laboring world.
Let us be glad for the stump of a root that grew new shoots from almost nothing, for have you not known, have you not heard in the words of environmentalist Arundhati Roy, Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
This Advent may we be cradled by the darkness of the long nights and warmed by the candles that remind us the shortest of days will soon be behind us, that hopelessness will be evaporated with the old year.
May we travel toward home, looking deep within ourselves so we can look far beyond ourselves, never trodding the safest path, but going home by another road.
May the cold corners of our lives be warmed by the warm breath of creatures on our skin. May we find and give sanctuary in the midst of fear.
May we rise up like running rivers–bubbling up through the ice, forging new banks, breaking through the snow drifts like evergreen, moving mountains—may our strength be renewed. May we mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint. Go in peace.
Smith College Vespers 2019 Book of Readings
11A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 35, 1-2, 6b-10; 40:1, 3-10, 26-31
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes…10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
40Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Psalm 104: 1-13
1Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind,
4you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
5You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.
6You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
7At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.
9You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
10You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
11giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.
12By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.
13From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
15and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.
20You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
22When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.
23People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.
24O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
25Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
26There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
27These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
28when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
31May the glory of the Lord endure forever…
Luke 1: 39-53
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Excerpts from The Risk of Incarnation — A Christmas Meditation by Parker J. Palmer, from onbeing.org, December 2014
We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us. But in our violent world, it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, and we don’t like the odds.
In the Christmas story, God … takes the risk of incarnation. The flesh God chooses is not that of a warrior but of a vulnerable baby, a claim that brought me tears of wonderment when I was young. …
As a (someone) who believes that “there is that of God in everyone,” I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short — yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.
Christmas is a reminder that I’m invited to be born again and again in the shape of my God-given self, born in all the vulnerability of the Christmas story. It’s a story that’s hard to retrieve in a culture that commercializes this holy day nearly to death… But the story’s simple meaning is clear to “beginner’s mind,” a mind I long to reclaim …
An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as we get. What an infant needs is not theological debate but nurturing. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that cry out to become embodied in this broken world. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to find the courage to take on flesh — to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming our lives along with the life of the world — they need the shelter of unconditional love.
For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the best gift we can others — whatever their faith or philosophy may be — is a simple question asked with heartfelt intent: What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn….
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Matthew 2:1-3, 3:1-3
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Excerpts from A Climate Justice Advent Reflection, by Jennifer Henry, from kairoscanada.com
Hope, even tenuous and small, is what will fuel this transformation. Community and movements will magnify that hope. Together we will give each other the courage to act – not simply to know in our heads what climate justice means, but to live it in our lives, ever more boldly. It is the creation of community, across borders, with those who are already not just victims, but the leaders of the movements for climate justice. It is our connection with them that will generate hope and transformation. Hope is how we hold on to what we believe. It is the way we rehearse what we believe God to be.
And it is a communal practice. We make the cradle for peace and the shelter for hope into which the Christ Child is born. I want to leave you with a word from friend and theologian Ched Myers ..
Above all we must not imagine that we can sleep though our ecological crisis. Our unsustainable, addictive compulsive civilization is perhaps best exemplified by the unconscionable tar sands extraction in northern Alberta, turning vast lush boreal forest into a barren industrial landscape of open pit mines and toxic tailing ponds…Such policies are driving us into a dark future…we have our backs turned, as we continue to live in Denial of the consequences of our ecological holocaust. Such a historical moment of crisis calls for nothing less than apocalyptic faith. We must awaken to hope, resisting the temptation to despair that history cannot be any different, that another world is not in fact possible…. Apocalyptic faith stays awake to the hope that is generated by all forms of faithful resistance, by all experiments with new ways of living, by all social advances that humanize life—none too small to celebrate, none too large for the dream of God.
Remember, by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
(Vespers is sponsored by the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and the Department of Music at Smith College.)