Courtney and I had an opportunity to lead two small groups from 2017-2019 that were focused on what our church called “Newly Married Couples”. These were couples that had been married for less than two years and intentionally sought out this type of group to provide them with some additional guidance for this new phase of their lives together.
One of the most popular nights of the year in both of these groups was the night that we discussed how newly married couples should think about navigating the holidays as a married couple. One piece of advice that we gave them surrounded how to handle the Christmas traditions that each family may have. “Your family’s traditions,” we told them, “are weird to everyone but you.”
I then went on to explain how one of the traditions in my family involves my dad standing underneath a wicker Christmas bell in the hallway of my grandparent’s home. He is just tall enough that the bell looks like a hat. He then clasps his hands behind his back. My Aunt then stands behind my dad and puts her arms through his so that it looks like her arms are his arms and conducts an imaginary choir while my dad sings.
Courtney’s face the first time she saw that happen was priceless. She frantically looked around for an ally who would agree with her that this was one of the more bizarre things they had ever seen and she could not find one.
Later she asked me, “Why do your Dad and Aunt do that? It’s so weird.”
Weird to everyone but us.
The last church my dad was the pastor of before his retirement was Shades Crest Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Shades Crest has a Christmas tradition that felt weird to me the first time I experienced it. On Christmas Eve, during the service the entire congregation takes communion. I distinctly remember going to their Christmas Eve service for the first time and thinking it was so odd to perform the rite that represents Jesus’ sacrifice of death on the night we begin the celebration of his birth.
Communion at most Baptist churches is celebrated by passing the elements out to each person and then following the instruction of the worship leader you consume the bread and grape juice. (Baptists don’t do wine and that’s a whole other thing for another time.)
On Christmas Eve at Shades Crest, however, they have everyone leave their pew and make their way to the altar and kneel together as a family to take communion. I remember thinking how long it was going to take for 500 people to walk to the front, kneel, take communion, and return to their seats.
Courtney now does what the rest of us do when my Dad and my Aunt do their Christmas Bell song: She just laughs and shakes her head. Likewise, as with any tradition that is new, it became less and less “weird” for me to take communion on Christmas Eve.
Read – Galatians 3:25-29
The traditions that we repeat every year at the holidays with our families provide us with immense joy. Even the ones that are a little weird when viewed through the eyes of someone new, carry with them a joyfulness that only people close with each other can truly appreciate.
It can be difficult to define joy. With apologies to Justice Potter Stewart, his famous line works almost as well for defining joy as it does for obscene material: “I know it when I see it…”
Friedrich Shiller was a German poet who lived from 1759-1805. He composed a poem that he would later say was one of the worst things he ever wrote. He even wrote a letter to Christian Gottfried Körner who was his friend and patron where he expressed the feeling that this poem was detached from reality. And more sad, that it held no value for the world or for poetry itself.
It is such a beautiful poem:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
was der Mode Schwer geteilt;
Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben
und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
This poem caught the eye of a composer who set this poem to music. You have undoubtedly heard this piece as it is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest piece of music of all time: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
The title of Friedrich Shiller’s poem that he thought to be not worth anyone’s reading is “An die Freude” or “Ode to Joy”. The English translation is:
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What the sword of custom divided;
beggars become brothers of princes,
Where thy gentle wing abides.
Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he who never managed it should slink
Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us and grapevines,
A friend, proven in death.
Salaciousness was given to the worm
And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly
through the heavens’ grand plan
Go on, brothers, your way,
Joyful, like a hero to victory.
Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss to all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Are you collapsing, millions?
Do you sense the creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy!
Above stars must He dwell.
When Beethoven set Friedrich Shiller’s poem to music he changed a couple of the lines in the first stanza:
Was die Mode streng geteilt (What custom strictly divided)
Alle Menschen werden Brüder (All people become brothers)
But I like the way Friedrich Shiller wrote those lines:
was der Mode Schwerd geteilt (what the sword of custom divided)
Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder (beggars become brothers of princes)
I had the opportunity to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra while I was in college. I remember studying this text as I prepared for our performance and being awestruck. In an entire poem about joy that one line is simply magnificent: Beggars become brothers of princes. Isn’t that exactly what Paul said to the Galatians?
There have been very few Christmas Eves in my life that I haven’t been with my parents. Our tradition is to gather together right before bed. We turn off all the lights except the Christmas tree, we light the advent candles, and my Dad reads the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel.
Very clearly Paul’s letter to the Galatians invokes the words Luke attributes to the Angels who appeared to the shepherds: “…I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people…” For so many years I completely missed that connection. The “Joy” that the angels announced was a savior for everyone; regardless of station in life.
I gained a new appreciation for the communion tradition at Shades Crest Baptist Church as I began to think about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I began to see their tradition of taking communion one family at at time not as a “weird” out of place custom, but as a physical reminder of the joy that Jesus brought that all people are equally welcome at his family’s table.
My dad retired this year and is no longer the pastor at Shades Crest Baptist Church and due to the pandemic Courtney and I will not be with my parents on Christmas Eve.
We are going to start a new tradition in our house this year. We will still turn out all the lights except the Christmas Tree, we will still light the Advent wreath, and we will still read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. But this year we are going to kneel together and take communion as a reminder of the joy that was given equally to all the people.
And one year I’m sure someone will join us on Christmas Eve for the first time and think it a little odd that we take communion on our knees in the living room on the night before Christmas and they will pull one of us aside and ask, “Did you say something in German after communion?”
And with a big smile I’ll say, “‘Bettler verden Fürstenbrüder’. It means ‘beggars become brothers of princes.'”
Sing – Joy to the World
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.