Advent (Fourth Monday)

Advent (Fourth Monday)

Four candles lit. Can you believe it?

The season of Advent will soon be fulfilled. Christmas is near. And I am so pleased to share these words from my friend Allison. A fellow writer and gardener, Alison and I met at church. When I say thank you for the many good gifts I have received since moving to Pennsylvania, Allison is always near the tippy-top of that long list. I love being able to introduce you to her today.




Why Christmas is Not About Giving

Sometimes I really hate getting gifts.

It’s not the gifts themselves I hate. It’s the getting part.

You know the feeling. Your co-worker unexpectedly gets you a Christmas gift, and you can’t hide the fact that you never intended to get one for her. Or your friend buys you an expensive present that you love, and you wonder if you spent enough money and effort to get him a comparable gift.

Sometimes I love giving gifts more than getting them. I get excited about brainstorming creative gift ideas for family and friends—homemade food items or crafts, books I know they’ll like, fair trade gifts, something fancy they couldn’t justify buying for themselves, or something they didn’t know they wanted. I can’t wait to see their faces when they unwrap what I got them and see just how well my gifts fit who they are. I even get a little jealous if they gush over something that someone else got them.

As much joy as I get from giving, it can be a distraction. It can even be selfish. “[E]veryone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity,” writes William Willimon in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.”

Giving involves power. I love to be the strong one who tips well, who feels good about writing the big check for the soup kitchen, who tries to do more than my fair share of listening to and helping my friends, who doesn’t mind spending a little extravagantly to get my family what they really want. I want them to be indebted to me, maybe even dependent on me. They usually appreciate my gifts, but even if they don’t, I get to feel useful and generous.

For me, Christmas is too often an opportunity to secure a little more power in my relationships through giving. But Christmas isn’t about using gifts to gain power. It isn’t even about using gifts to express love for people.

Willimon puts it bluntly: “We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.”

Christmas is about receiving the gift of God Himself. In this relationship, we have no power at all. We are embarrassingly needy, dependent on the generosity of another. We are forever in His debt with no hope of reciprocating. We now have the costliest, most precious gift imaginable—God’s gift of His very self. A gift we despised and rejected, because we were too proud to admit we needed it.

This lesser-known Christmas carol reminds us of just how much Christ gave—and gave up—for us:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

He impoverished Himself, left the glories of heaven, came down to our level, spent all He had on us so that we, through His poverty, might become rich.

So in the remaining days before Christmas, set aside those glittering gifts. Open your hands. See how empty they are. As empty as a virgin’s womb. Now stretch out your hands toward the manger. Receive the Christ child, and the wealth of His love, into your arms.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes. And this is why God’s Name is blessed above every other name, for He is the all-powerful Giver. “Hallelujah! Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”


Allison Sheeler Duncan is a writer and theology nerd who is learning (slowly) to love receiving gifts as much as she loves giving them. She works as a communications specialist at a university in southeast Pennsylvania, and she enjoys writing in calligraphy, growing heirloom tomatoes, and singing at least some of the right notes in the alto section of her church choir. She blogs at


Advent (Day 19)

People, look east!

The guest is on the way …


A hymn for this, the third Thursday of Advent.




“People, Look East”


People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Angels announce with shouts of mirth,
Him who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.


Words: Eleanor Farjeon, 1928
Music: ‘Besançon’, traditional French carol

Advent (Day 12): Hymn for a Turning World

This Advent hymn is new to me this year. It is becoming a favorite.

It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to shout.

This is Mary’s song for a turning, changing world.




Canticle of the Turning

1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!

2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

3. From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

4. Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.


– Rory Cooney

Advent (Day 5)

A hymn for this, the first Thursday.


“See the Lord of earth and skies; / Humbled to the dust … .”




GLORY be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend!
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears!
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.

Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King.
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!

See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man;
Dwelling in an earthly clod,
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.

We, the sons of men, rejoice,
The Prince of peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.

– by Charles Wesley

Advent 2012 (Third Saturday)

off on a bike ride


Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


–          Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Advent 2012 (Third Monday)


I reserve Mondays for poetry, but, truthfully, I keep opening books and closing them again. The loss of so many children and their teachers is too heavy, and I have no poem for you today.

My head is bursting with words I want to share: words of anger, words of lament. But I think it better to follow the example of Job’s companions: “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13).

Instead of writing, I’ve been listening. Mostly to this song. It asks a question I can’t get out of my head: is love alive? Some part of my mind is sure of the answer, but most of me is anything but sure.

We are approaching the longest night of the year. We’ve known it was coming, but we didn’t know how dark it would be.

The pace of advent requires that we walk through the darkness. There can be no Christmas without this long, long night. For me, it means sitting with my questions and my tears, without reaching for answers too soon.

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