Saturday, December 27, 2014

All is calm, finally

This is my column that appeared in "The Arab Tribune" on December 27, 2014.

Here we are, just a couple of days after Christmas.

There are leftovers in the fridge and crumbs in the cookie jar. Trash bags stuffed with wrapping paper lay next to a stack of shirt boxes, and my tummy is full and happy (maybe the word is bloated). An ornament has fallen off the tree and this time, I didn't pick it up. I wonder if I will.

Our family is settling into a post-Christmas lull, enjoying a few days off together. I think of Julian of Norwich’s saying “All is well, and all manner of things are well.” That’s how I feel after Christmas. It feels like all is calm after the storm.

It’s funny how our celebration of Christmas has evolved. Until recent history, no one started celebrating until Christmas Eve, when the tree went up and the festivities began for a holiday that went all the way to January 6. This ancient Christmas tradition is the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Nowadays, the Christmas craziness seems to start after Thanksgiving. There is lots of music, and there are classic movies on TV. The parties go all month. In church life, the pastor gets to go to lots of them. I always say it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

There’s a reason we love to sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, because by the time we get there, we are desperate for one.

So for most people these days, December 26 means we are done. Whew. We are dog tired, and Christmas is over.

But not for me. This is the best part.

I have grown to love the twelve days of Christmas, and it’s not just because it’s the pastor’s most common week for vacation (okay, that might be part of it). There is a certain stillness after our winter flurry. Even when I didn’t lose the season to too much stress, it is very nice to have some post-Christmas rest.

After all, it’s still Christmas. And Christmas is about peace on earth.

It occurred to me that by the time Joseph and Mary got to the manger to lay the baby down, all was calm and all was bright. Finally, they could give it a rest.

But getting ready for that day? No rest, only stress.

If we think our days leading up to Christmas were tough, think about Mary. She was about 14 years old, barely old enough to have a child and certainly unprepared to raise one. And though it makes us uncomfortable to use the words, she was an unwed mother. She was engaged, but not married. The angel had cleared up any potential misunderstanding about her pregnancy with Joseph, but others were undoubtedly talking.

Then Caesar orders everybody to go to their hometown. They were of little means, otherwise they would have had connections to get a decent room in Bethlehem. It was an 80 mile trip, and tradition says she rode on a donkey.

A donkey? I’ve certainly never been pregnant, but I do have an imagination. If she was great with child, this 80 miles was a long and bumpy ride. It could not have been pleasant.

By the time they got to the manger, they needed a silent night all right.

Maybe today's Christmas insanity is not just the result of the influence of commercialism. Maybe, just maybe, it evolved because our contemporary experience connects us with theirs.

If we believe in the mystery of the incarnation, this strange claim that Christians have, we have embraced the idea that the Word became flesh to dwell among us. Now that he is here, we could dwell on it a while ourselves.

So rather than succomb to post-traumatic stress, let’s give it a rest - a really good one. Let Christmas be calm and bright.

It's not too late. We're just getting started.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Spirit of Christmas" on YouTube

"Spirit of Christmas" is a song I wrote a number of years ago, during my first semester in seminary. We had been studying Athanasius, an important fourth century church father, in class.

Athanasius is the one who coined the phrase "he became what we are so that we might become what he is" in his quest to clarify our belief in the incarnation. I often think of him around Christmastime.

A musical version may be found on my "Living Stones" CD, and you can listen to Spirit of Christmas on YouTube.

I share the lyrics in hopes that it helps you fathom the mystery of the incarnation during this holy season.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As you came to the wise men of old,
As you came to the shepherds who found their way home
In a manger, so loving a fold.

Spirit of Christmas, you came to us
As a mother and father, so kind,
Surrounded the babe with a blanket of love
That the world, so hopeless, would find.

For God sent the Son to reveal to the people
A love unlike that which was known.
The Spirit of God came down from above
That we might be brought from below.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As we follow our Morning Star,
Our minds be uplifted, our hearts rejoice
In discovering whose savior you are.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As we seek to bring life to the world.
Abide in our hearts, let us rest in your care,
That the Spirit of love be unfurled.

Copyright 1994 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

In the Forgotten Verses of a Beloved Christmas Song

Spending time with hymn texts can expand our spirituality incredibly.

There is no doubt that out of Charles Wesley's thousands of hymn texts, the most beloved one today is "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Did you know our present version fails to capture some of his most beautiful and poetic thoughts on the spiritual formation of the human heart, in response to the miracle of the incarnation? The last few verses were not included in the adaptation we sing today to Mendelsohn's tune.

Here is Wesley's original text of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Spend some time with the “forgotten” verses:

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”

Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace! 
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

God of the incarnation, fix your humble home in my heart. Bruise the serpent's head in my soul, bringing light to my darkness. Restore my nature and bring me into mystical union with you. Imprint the image of Christ on my very being and restore me in love. Form your very self in my believing heart. In Christ, Amen.

Thank you, Charles, for leading me in prayer.