"The Hanging of the Green" Rev. Jillian Hankamer
The Meaning of the Service
More than 2000 years ago, the story goes, a clutch of sleepy shepherds were watching over their sheep on a star-brightened hillside in Palestine. It was a still, uneventful night. Suddenly the darkness was filled with a strange light. The stillness was broken by angel voices singing, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.” So begins Christmas, one of the most beautiful and meaningful celebrations of the Christian calendar.
But Christmas actually starts with Advent, the season we begin today. Today is the first day of the new church year and both this season of Advent and Christmas have a long history. These seasons and their customs have developed through many centuries and in many countries. Old customs and observances are refined, renewed, and replaced; new ones are added. Some of our customs have pagan origins but have been “converted” by redefining their meanings. What is significant for us is not what they may once have meant but rather what they mean for us today.
This morning our church building has begun to wear its Christmas apparel. For the first time this year, the railings are draped with greenery. This day is the first time this year we’ll light Advent candles. As we make ready for the birth of the Christ child by talking about the preparations that have been made in our Sanctuary, we will also begin to make ourselves and our hearts ready for this particular season.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have observed a time of waiting and expectation before celebrating the birth of the Savior at Christmas. The Advent season is a time for reflection and preparation, but its mood is joyful. This season proclaims the revelation of God’s love expressed in Christ’s birth in a humble stable. It makes innkeepers of us all, asking us to make room for the arrival of the Christ child. Let us prepare Him room this morning and all of Advent in our homes, our church, our lives, and our hearts.
The Advent Wreath
The lighting of candles has been part of religious worship for centuries. The Hebrews burned candles for eight days as part of their Feast of Lights. Light has been used by many religious groups to symbolize truth. Since Jesus is called “the light of the world” in the New Testament, the light of candles has become an important part of our Christian worship. Some early Christian leaders stated that the wax of altar candles represented the body of Christ, while the wick symbolized his soul, and the flame portrayed his divine nature. Candles made from pure beeswax were used to signify Mary since this wax comes from virgin bees. This has resulted in the practice of some churches burning only beeswax candles on their altars or communion tables.
When Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the temple, Simeon refers to the Christ child as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” From this statement, church leaders have used candles to symbolize the light of Christ shining throughout an imperfect world.
Advent is a time of expectation, and this is symbolized, not only by the four-week period of preparation but also by the lighting of the Advent Candle in the wreath, one for each Sunday of the season.
Three of the candles are purple and are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent - the Sundays of hope, peace, and love. The third candle is pink because the early church recognized that we are a people of joy in every season, and so they set aside the third Sunday of Advent to focus on joy. The color pink (or more accurately, rose) was chosen as a reminder that even in the midst of longing, anticipating, and waiting the church never ceases to rejoice.
Finally, in the middle of the Advent Wreath stands a large, white candle. This is the Christ Candle which isn’t lit until Christmas Eve and then on the following Sundays of Christmastide to represent and remind us of the light that comes into the world with Jesus’ birth.
The Use of Greenery
The most striking and universal feature of Christmas is the use of evergreens in churches and homes. Among ancient Romans, evergreens were an emblem of peace, joy, and victory. The early Christians placed them in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home.
Green represents renewal, new life, freshness, and rebirth. Plants such as pine, fir, holly, ivy, and mistletoe are called evergreens because they do not die; through the seasons of the year, they remain ever-green. Ever-alive. It is no wonder then that we deck our sanctuary with ever-greens during this Advent season as they symbolize the unchanging nature and constancy of God’s love.
Under Christian thought and sentiment, holy in particular became widely used in church celebrations. Holly was thought to represent the burning bush, or a symbol of Mary whose being glows with the Holy Spirit. It’s also been suggested that the red berries represent the blood drops from the crown of thorns of the Passion Narrative.
In Isaiah 60:13 we hear these words from the prophet, “The Glory of Lebanon shall come unto you the fir tree, the pine tree, and box tree together, to beautify the place of your sanctuary.”
Finally, our ancestry called the procuring of these evergreens, “Bringing home Christmas!”
The Christmas Tree
Today, the Christmas tree is the center of our seasonal festivities. Glittering with lights and ornaments, is part of the beauty and meaning of Christmas. There are several legends and stories about the Christmas tree.
The first use of the Christmas tree was in medieval German Paradise Plays, held outdoors and portraying the creation of humanity. The Tree of Life was a fir decorated with apples. Later other ornaments were hung on the trees such as paper flowers and gilded nuts. In England branches or whole trees were forced to bloom indoors for Christmas. From these beginnings, the use of a tree at Christmas was established. But it was Martin Luther who was perhaps the first to use a lighted tree.
The story is told that one Christmas Eve Martin Luther wandered outdoors and became enraptured with the beauty of the starry sky. Its brilliance and loveliness led him to reflect on the glory of the first Christmas Eve as seen in Bethlehem’s radiant skies. Wishing to share with his wife and children the enchantment he had felt, he cut from the forest an evergreen, glistening with snow, and took it home. He placed upon it candles to represent the glorious heavens he had seen. The use of a candle-lighted tree spread to all of Europe and eventually to America where a lit tree has become the central ornament of Christmas.
The Paraments and Advent Colors
Both visual and performing arts have always been important ways to communicate the Christian faith. The use of music has helped believers understand their Godly hope. Other forms of visual art have been used to help express various aspects of Christian doctrine and life. Colors, altar paraments, and banners are some of the most important visual ways Christians have used to express their faith in worship. In the early days of Christian worship, Advent and Christmas were seen as a somber times, much like Lent is today. Purple table coverings were used to speak of Christ’s Kingship, purple being the color of royalty.
We continue this tradition today with our paraments which will remain purple until Christmas Day when they change to white. The paraments will then remain white through Christmastide - the twelve days after Christmas Day - to represent the life of the Christ child come into the world.
St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with the first manger scene about 800 years ago. For people who could not read it was an effective visual aid in telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Today, Nativity sets or creches continue to be one of the most heart-warming expressions of the season.
The Nativity speaks to the mystery of God’s wisdom. Why God chose to send Her son into our world as a baby of humble birth, born in common surroundings, we do not know. What we do know is that God reached out to all people: the poor and wealthy, the simple and the wise, and the powerless and the powerful. Whenever we see a Nativity we find ourselves with Mary and Joseph; with the Shepherds, and with the Maggi; bowing before a manger, overwhelmed by God’s expression of love in human form.