As the season of Lent draws to a close, Nativity gathers for worship in some of our most distinctive services of the year, all of which are meant to draw us nearer to the holy mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Lent we bury the Alleluia, meaning we stop using the word in worship and in our hymns. As in Advent, we also give up the Gloria in excelcis, the festive music that comes just after the opening hymn at 10:30am worship.
Looking at Hymn 135, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” one notices that this is a seasonal hymn addressing the themes of this Epiphany season. The repetition of "manifest" reminds us of the manifestation of Christ to all, not just the descendants of Israel. It covers the Baptism of Christ and the Transfiguration, which are the focus of the first and last Sundays after Epiphany. The wedding at Cana is also alluded to for those years with a longer Epiphany in which we hear in the lectionary Jesus’ first miracle. The tune name is "Salzburg," harmonized by Bach, representing some of the best hymnody in the German/Dutch/Swiss Protestant tradition.
Contrasting to this is Hymn 448, "O Love how deep, how broad, how high," which is used extensively in both the Lenten and Easter seasons, and usually several times in the Season after Pentecost. The allusion to the Love of God is obvious in the title, and regardless of the season, it sometimes is the most cohesive choice for coordinating with the Collect, Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel of a given Sunday. The Tune is "Deus tuorum militum," alluding to the original Latin text, "O God of your soldiers." It is French in origin, written just after the death of Bach, and represents the "new school" of Roman Catholic hymnody that emerged as a result of the Counter Reformation.
Loosen your belts, put on your dancing shoes, and join us for one more celebration before we begin Lent! Nativity’s annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper begins at 5:30pm, Tuesday, February 13. Join us for pancakes, sausage, Mardi Gras beads, and the last Alleluias of Epiphany before we begin the fast on Ash Wednesday.
Very often as we look toward Lent, we begin having conversations about our fast, that is, what it is we are going to give up during this period. This year, I invite you to prepare for Lent by focusing on what it is you’d like to gain.
With the 2017 Speaker Series this weekend and Nativity hosting Happening #85 the following weekend, one could be excused for forgetting that Ash Wednesday is March 1! But indeed it is, and so, at 12:05 and 5:30pm we will gather to pray for the world; to have ashes imposed on our foreheads; and for the invitation, once again, “to the observance of a Holy Lent.”
For the last ten years, my observance of Lent has always included listening to the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. This massive work of classical music recounts and reflects upon the story of the last supper, Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was originally written to be performed on Good Friday in the church where Bach served as church musician. Truly, this is a piece of classical music meant to be an act of worship. It is crushingly beautiful, and at times inspiring, mournful, and surprisingly joyful in places. Each Lent, it allows me to dwell deeply in the story of our Lord’s suffering and death and his love for us.
My hope, this Lent, is to share that gift with you all in an adult forum class I’m calling “Bible Study with Bach.” We’ll read together Matthew 26 and 27, pausing periodically to watch a performance of the Passion from the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. In the performance, you get a sense for Bach’s own spirituality, how he interprets the biblical text, and what he thinks it all means. And just like reading scripture with any other friend, how Bach reads the story might shape how you read the story. These days, when I read of Judas giving back the money for which he betrayed Jesus, I hear the depth of his repentance that Bach puts into music. When I think of Peter in the garden denying Jesus, I hear the mourning that Bach puts into Peter’s voice. Two years ago, my entire Palm Sunday sermon was inspired by the music Bach composed for two words St. Matthew wrote: “wept bitterly.”
I’ll be assisted in this undertaking by our friend Ben Arnold, assistant professor of music at MVSU and known to many as a bookseller at Turnrow. St. Matthew Passion moves me on a deep level, but when it comes to talking music history and theory, I get out of my depth very quickly. I am grateful to Ben for helping me out in that department. In addition, David Williamson has given an introduction to Bach and the Passion elsewhere in this newsletter. As David points out, all of you already know music from the St. Matthew Passion. It’s in our hymnal, and it’s in a lot of weddings too!
This offering begins March 19 and will continue through Easter Day. Whether you’re a big music lover or not, why not take this Lent and this opportunity to spend a little more time with the story that makes all the difference in the world?
For me, one of the great highlights of the last two years at Nativity has been the restart of the Nativity Speaker Series. I consider myself unbelievably privileged to be able to learn from, spend time with, and host some of the most influential religious thinkers of our day right here in Greenwood. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be talking theology with Walter Brueggemann over a plate of chicken livers, and yet, there we were at the Crystal Grill last year before I took him to the airport!
The first weekend in March, Nativity will welcome the Rev. Dr. William Willimon for the 2017 Speaker Series for a program entitled Why Jesus? Born in South Carolina, Dr. Willimon is now known as one of the great preachers of our day. In 1996, a survey out of Baylor University named him, alongside Billy Graham, as one of the twelve best preachers in the English speaking world. He served as Dean of the Duke University Chapel for fifteen years before being elected the United Methodist Bishop of North Alabama in 2004. Since 2012, he has been back at Duke Divinity School as Professor of the Practice of Ministry.
A distinctive feature of Willimon’s preaching and teaching is the high expectations he has of the Church as it witnesses to and follows Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior. Willimon is a fascinating fellow in that he has spent his career deep within the governance and structures of the Church but has never been confused as to Whom he owes his first allegiance. As Rusty Douglas said to me, “Willimon has been known to knock out a stained glass window or two!”
Friday, March 3, the weekend will begin with a light reception at Turnrow Books at 5:30pm. I am grateful to Lucy Swayze who is helping pull off this new feature of our speaker series. After enjoying fellowship and showing off our beautiful bookstore to out of town guests, we’ll head back to Nativity for the first lecture, “The Most Interesting Person in the World,” beginning at about 6:30pm. Saturday morning, we’ll have a light continental breakfast at 8:30am followed by lectures at 9am, “Jesus Christ: the Truth About God,” and 10:45am, “Jesus Christ: the Salvation of the World.” In between, Dr. Willimon will be available to sign books.
On Sunday, March 5, Nativity’s adult forum will be treated to some extra time with Dr. Willimon at 9:30am. All through February, we will be reading his book Why Jesus?, and on this day, he’ll lead a class that he has intriguingly titled “Jesus Christ at the Church of the Nativity.” Finally, at 10:30, he’ll be our guest preacher for the first Sunday in Lent. As we hear the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness, his sermon title is “Just Say No! Resisting Temptation with Jesus.”
It should be a wonderful weekend. I hope you’ll plan on taking advantage of this great opportunity and invite friends from near and far!