Category Archives: Arts

THE Spirit of Christmas


PictureTwo Christmas concerts featuring sacred choral music.  Both presented in local cathedrals.  Both using similar music from throughout Western history right up to the present day.  Both included music that was accompanied and a cappella.  But something was substantially different about one of these concerts, and as a result of that difference, the TRUE Spirit of Christmas came through.

I am drawing a comparison between these two concerts intending to bring specific attention to the reality of Jesus, as the Son of God and the Word became flesh.  In other words, THE Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit revealing this reality to us, and reminding us year after year that this one event – the coming of the person of Jesus Christ – changes everything for everyone, regardless if any acknowledges it or denies it.

The music of the first concert was, in many technical aspects, exceptional and the presentation was well-planned and executed.  As I noted, the music was sacred in nature.  In fact, there is no doubt that some of the conductors and students knew the deep meaning of the lyrics they sung as they described the coming of Christ to earth, as the Word made flesh.

Yet, I left feeling that something was missing.  Thinking that I was just not “in the Christmas mood,” I dismissed my thoughts about the concert and went my merry way.  Then we attended another concert at a later date.

I have had the privilege of hearing the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys for a number of years.  The Director, Scott Bosscher, is colleague from many years ago, and I have appreciated his devotion to this group and passion for seeing the tradition of this kind of musical style continue.  The annual presentation of Nine Lessons and Carols is a highlight of the Christmas season.

As we sat in the crowded cathedral, we knew the program would lead us through the story of the birth of Christ.  This is what is referred to as the “Nine Lessons.”  These are Scripture readings (nine of them) from both the Old and New Testaments that describe the story of Christ’s birth.  Each lesson is followed by a “carol,” or song that reinforces the specific message from that Scripture.  It is a musical journey that leads us along the story of Christ.

I would be justified in reviewing the quality of the music in this article, since it seemed to me that Mr. Bosscher had raised the level of the performance this year to new heights.  Simply put, this was an overall high quality presentation in both planning and execution.

However, what really struck me was THE Spirit of Christmas that was present, beginning with the opening remarks from a member of the board for the organization.  She pointed out that this concert was not just a nice musical presentation, but was intentionally focused to be a spiritual reminder of the truth about Jesus Christ.  In addition, the program notes had the following comment:

“Tonight the choir will offer its’ art…music.  But, in fact, each one of us is God’s work of art, and we cannot be faithful to His design without believing in this child born in a Bethlehem manger.”

And herein lies the difference in my experience at these two concerts.  In submission to God’s purposes, Jesus came as a baby and later died on a cross.  In humble recognition of this life-changing truth, the GR Choir of Men and Boys proclaimed that message.  They did so with musical excellence, but the music was not the primary focus.  Rather, the music was the vehicle for the message about Jesus Christ, come as a babe for the salvation of the world.

As the Holy Spirit reveals this truth to the hearts and minds of people, then the true Spirit of Christmas is understood.  We may describe the spirit of Christmas in many other ways – gift giving, family gatherings, celebrating friendship – but the foundation of all those is that God showed His love for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  We can only love as a reflection of the love He extended toward us.  As we are reminded in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”

May you find THE Spirit of Christmas this year as He reveals Jesus to you!


Ideas for Advent Worship Planning

The Season of Advent

The Season of Advent is an ancient church tradition which helps us to focus on different aspects of the celebration of Christ’s birth.  The word “advent” means “coming” – and we celebrate His coming to earth, as God become man, to redeem us and give His life for our sins.  We will also utilize the Advent Wreath as a symbol of our celebration.  Over the course of the next four weeks you will see the wreath candle lit, each representing the following themes:

Advent week 1 – “Vigilant waiting for the birth of Christ”

Advent week 2 – “Personal preparation for the birth of Christ”

Advent week 3 – “The Joy of our waiting”

Advent week 4 – “The incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin Mary”

Christmas Eve/Day – “Celebrating His birth!”

Notes and Ideas for Celebrating each week

Advent week 1 – Vigilant waiting for the birth of Christ

Reading:  Readings on the coming of Christ

After the Scripture reading, this will be read by way of explanation:  During this first week of Advent we focus our thoughts on looking and waiting for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  We wait with anticipation and longing.  We wait with expectation and hope.  We know He has come, and is returning once again, to restore us to the Father in a relationship of love and service.  Let us celebrate the hope that has come to us, and the hope that is yet to come.

Lighting of the Advent Wreath:  One (1) blue or purple candle

Song:  O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Advent week 2Personal preparation for the birth of Christ

Reading:  Readings of a penitential nature

After the Scripture reading, this will be read by way of explanation:  Our consideration of the second week of Advent is to help us prepare our own hearts and minds for celebrating Christ’s birth.  Christ came to save us, to die for our sins.  It was your sin, it was my sin, it was our sin that nailed Him to the cross.  As we consider this truth, let us humble ourselves and remember His forgiveness and love.  He is a gracious God, full of lovingkindness.  Even when we rebelled against Him He loved us enough to send His Son to die for our sins.

Lighting of the Advent Wreath:  Two (2) blue or purple candles

Song:  Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners

Advent week 3The Joy of our waiting

Reading:  Readings that celebrate the Joy of Christ’s coming

After the Scripture reading, this will be read by way of explanation:  Our third week of Advent brings us to the week of celebration.  Today we sing, we praise, we lift our voices with the joy that comes from God’s love sent to us in Christ.  It was for freedom that Christ set us free – and we are free indeed!  Free from the bonds of sin with new hope each day as we rise to serve Christ throughout the patterns and relationships of our lives.  With our families, with our co-workers, with our friends and with those we just meet – we are free to serve them as the love of God flows to us and through us and to them.  Let us celebrate His life.

Lighting of the Advent Wreath:  Two (2) blue or purple candles, and the Rose candle

Song:  Joy to the World!

Advent week 4The incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin Mary

Reading:  Readings that explore the Incarnation of Christ

After the Scripture reading, this will be read by way of explanation:  The fourth Sunday of Advent brings us to the real miracle of the Christmas season:  God in all of His fullness dwelling with man in the person of Jesus Christ.  Theologians and Scholars have studied and proclaimed this truth for centuries, yet each time we consider the wonder of this idea it brings us new hope and reminds us of God’s great love for us.  Jesus, as the God-man, is the only solution to the sin problem.  He came, as a humble babe, yet fully and completely the Word of God.  Let us remember today His unique place as God who became man and dwelt among us.

Lighting of the Advent Wreath:  Two (2) blue/purple candles, Rose candle, blue/purple candle

Song:  Emmanuel

Christmas Eve and Day – “Christ has come: Celebrate His birth!”

Reading: Luke 2 (The Christmas Story)

After the Scripture reading, think on this by way of explanation:  Christmas has arrived! And with the arrival of Christmas we celebrate Christ. We no longer wait, as in previous weeks, but we rejoice in the presence of God among us. We celebrate God sending His kingdom in the presence of His Son. We celebrate the salvation Christ brings, the forgiveness of sins, the conquering work of the cross over death, and the subjugation of Satan in Christ’s victory. Praise God for His indescribable gift!

Lighting of the Advent Wreath: All colored candles — and the WHITE Christ candle!

Song: Angels We have Heard on High

Worship Planning for the Holidays

The seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with Christian history.  We know that our Thanksgiving holiday in America is directly the result of the Christian influence on our early heritage.  The first Americans expressed their thanks to God for the provisions and care He supplied throughout the year, and we have done the same ever since.

Christmas, of course, carries within it the very name of Christ.  In fact, the word “Christ” and the word “Mass” were brought together to form the word.  The “Mass” is a term that the church of the Middle Ages used to describe its church services.  Thus “Christmas” is in fact the season of church services specifically about Christ’s coming to earth.

As full and rich as the history is behind these seasons, worship planners and pastors often come to this season wondering how to bring a fresh perspective, or a new insight, into this age-old story.  I’d like to suggest some ideas, and give you the permission to use them, change them, or re-create them as you would like and need for your congregation.  These are ideas I’ve used at one point or another in my worship planning.

Ideas for Thanksgiving

For many years I have planned the largest and most involved service of the year to be the service just prior to Thanksgiving Day.  I found that the people participating in this service had plenty of time prior to Thanksgiving for rehearsals, planning and preparation.  However, once Thanksgiving Day was upon us everyone’s schedule became so crowded that trying to plan a big Christmas service became really difficult.

Short testimonials of thankfulness are excellent during these services.  This helps congregational members to connect with their own instances of God’s care in their lives.  There are also plenty of musical selections geared toward thankfulness and praise to God for all that He is and does.

One might organize a Thanksgiving service thematically.  For instance, spend time during the service thanking God in three areas:  1) for redemption in Christ, 2) for family and friends, and 3) for daily needs supplied.  There are any number of themes that can be used for this.  Supplement each theme with Scripture readings, songs, testimonies, and short sermonettes.  Repeat the same flow three times—once for each theme.

Sometimes it’s good to use Scripture as a jumping point.  Psalm 107 is an excellent passage that has built-in repetition of specific stories, how God met the needs of His people, and then a response of thanksgiving for His work.  This worship flow works well and is already planned for you!

Ideas for Christmas

Think of the Christmas season as a multi-week discovery and consideration of the meaning of Christ’s coming to earth.  Use the Sundays between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day to gradually build expectation from week-to-week in preparation for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services (if you have them).

I’ve written previously about celebrating the Advent season with its candle wreaths, colors and weekly themes.  Information on how to do this and what it means is readily available on the internet—along with lots of ideas on how to implement these services.  Celebrating Advent is the classic style of building anticipation for the coming of the Christ Child.

Another four week idea (there are usually four Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas) is to explore the offices of Christ each subsequent week.  The four offices of Christ would be Prophet, Priest, Judge and King.  One topic for each week.  What did it mean for Christ to fill these offices?  How was He the fulfillment of each one?  What does it mean for us today as we remember His birth?

On a more practical level, I have found that enlisting the help of other worship planners for this special season really has its benefits.  By having four different people plan the four services, we have variety in style and thought that permeates the season.  This reflects the variety we find in the body of Christ, the church!  I will often give overall guidelines, Scripture references and thematic descriptions—and then set them loose!

Overall, the burden that pastors and worship planners feel during these yearly seasons can be lifted by trying some of the ideas I suggested.  It will also provide for the purpose of our discussion—to find a fresh voice to remind us of these important Christian seasons.  May your celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas bring you ever closer to the God Who has demonstrated His love toward us so faithfully.

Losing Beauty in Worship

A discussion of beauty is one that seldom remains unemotional.  “Beauty,” we have been told, “is in the eye of the beholder.”  And with that powerful suggestion of autonomy, each individual is able to declare what they believe to be beautiful, and what is not.  To challenge this cultural assumption is often met with disdain, yet to clearly understand beauty this assumption must be challenged.

As an element of philosophy, beauty is part of the study of aesthetics.  In a larger context, it is part of the three-fold scheme philosophers have considered for centuries:  goodness, truth and beauty.  According to John Cottingham, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading:

“Truth, beauty and goodness…are all what philosophers call normative concepts — they carry with them the sense of a requirement or a demand.  The true is that which is worthy of belief — “to be believed”; the beautiful is that which is worthy of admiration; and the good is that which is worthy of choice.  They all therefore seem to be rather ‘queer’ properties (as the late Oxford philosopher John Mackie once put it). They have this odd, magnetic aspect — they somehow have ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into them.”*

As concepts which are “to-be-pursued,” we can recognize that they are outside of us with an existence (if we can say it that way) that is independent of our thoughts or opinions.  In other words, something is not beautiful because we determine it to be so (“in the eye of the beholder”), rather, beauty is something we discover because it is in the world for us to find. When considered this way, it is no longer a matter of opinion, but an objective reality that anyone seeking truth and beauty can discover.

This is in keeping with a biblical view of beauty.  Goodness, truth and beauty as constructs of thinking are evident in many Bible passages (see Romans 12:1-2 as an example).  Overall, these are part of God’s creation, because His creation represents His character (Romans 1:20).  They are all discoverable things – so that beauty is something that we discover infused in God’s creation around us.  Things are not beautiful because we think that they are, we discover the beauty and agree that the beauty is there!

Worship in the gathered Christian community would benefit from removing the cultural baggage that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.”  Rather than singing songs we like, or that “get us moving,” or somehow touch us emotionally, we would benefit from finding songs that represent beauty holistically (the music as music, as well as the message), allowing them to shape our response.  Beyond music, architecture, lighting, use of technology, and other facets of worship must be part of this thinking, and we would be well-served to avoid making decisions primarily because they are practical.  In doing so, we may lose the beauty in the process.



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