Jason Hefner • December 31, 2022
Every year, it seems that the buildup for Christmas starts earlier and earlier. Decorations and sales have even started competing with Thanksgiving. Then, suddenly, Christmas is over and the world goes back to normal. In traditional Christian observance, however, Christmas Day is the beginning of the Christmas season, not the end of it.
The Christmas season commences with the celebration of Christ's nativity on December 25th and continues until January 6th, the Epiphany of the Lord -- 12 days. On Epiphany ( Greek = "manifestation") we remember that wise men came from distant lands to honor the newborn King. (Matthew 2:1-12) The season of Christmas, culminating in Epiphany, reminds us that Christ was born to be a light for all people.
On the one or two Sundays that fall within the Christmas Season, we focus on events that happen in Jesus' very early life. For example, this year, we will hear the violent and scary story of how King Herod attempted to destroy the newborn Christ. Thankfully, the Child was protected and grew up to later overcome such evil through his purposeful death and resurrection. (Matthew 2:13-18) Such early stories remind us that when Christ was born he truly joined in our experiences of suffering and offers real hope to a world that is needy for it.
Christmas is more than a single-day holiday. Christmas Day is just the beginning.
Jason Hefner • December 22, 2022
I recently read an article which described how a major congregation was going to cancel Sunday morning worship this weekend. The reason? It will be Christmas morning. The church leadership does not expect that the congregation will attend on Christmas morning.
This set me reflecting. I can certainly appreciate that many Christians have obligations or family dynamics that simply make it unworkable to attend worship on Christmas morning. For many Christians, this may even be a source of mild disappointment. So, I'm not interested in taking cheap shots at them by suggesting that they are failing to "keep Christ in Christmas" or capitulating to secular culture. I am sure that they will find ways to honor Christ on Christmas, just as we all do whenever Christmas falls on a weekday (which is often).
Still, I am very glad that my church will be gathering for worship on Christmas morning. There are several reasons for this. The most important to me is that it gives me the opportunity to put the adoration of the Christ Child right at the center of Christmas Day. Amidst all of the gifts that will be opened on Christmas day, the gift of Jesus is the most precious one -- a gift from God. The Child is God's gift of life and hope to me, to my loved ones, and to the whole world. Worship on Christmas morning is like taking the time to open up God's gift and really appreciating it. For me, it puts all the presents under the tree into the right perspective. They are signs of the joy we feel for the gift of Christ.
Next, I find that worshiping on Christmas day is a way for me to teach my children (and remind myself) that Christ is the One who makes all of life significant. By taking the time and making the effort to go to church on a holiday as big as Christmas, I send a message to my children that Christ is Lord. We can treat Him as such at all times, even at Christmas. In our experience, Santa is perfectly fine with this. Santa respects our priorities. Santa never claims to be Lord, rather he seems to wish us an all the merrier Christmas when we worship.
Lastly, I deeply appreciate gathering with my Christian brothers and sisters on Christmas morning. It is a joy to see their smiling faces, to hear them sing, and to exchange wishes for a Merry Christmas. By gathering in the sanctuary, we reenact how Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds gathered around the newborn Christ. As wonderful as it is to be with our own family on Christmas, Christ invites us into a larger family -- the family of God. The divine family extends all over our neighborhoods, across our nation, and throughout the world. When we gather together on Christmas, we get a glimpse of Christ's family. We are reminded that along with Christ, God gives us the gift of being part of a spiritual family.
This year, Christmas falls on a Sunday. I am glad that it does. The last time this happened was in 2016. It will happen again in 2033. So, it does not happen often. When it does, we have a precious opportunity to gather together to welcome and worship Christ on the day of his arrival along with all those who celebrate him.
Jason Hefner • November 30, 2022
Advent is a four-Sunday season that marks the commencement of a new Christian year and serves as a prelude to the celebration of Christmas. Fittingly, it is a season of expectation and hope. During Advent we remember that God's love was made manifest in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Son of God "became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14) For Christians, all of life is anchored in Jesus Christ. During this season, we seek to prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus into our hearts and into the world all over again.
It is likely that the observance of Advent goes back at least 1,500 years. When you enter the church sanctuary, you will see traditional symbols of the Advent season. The color purple, signifying royalty, reminds us that Jesus is the coming King. The four candles of the Advent candelabra represent hope, peace, joy, and love. Each Sunday we light an additional candle, signifying that Jesus is the light who comes into a dark world. (John 1:4-5) The Christ candle in the center of the candelabra will be lighted on Christmas Eve. Music and preaching during this season tend to emphasize the nearness of the Kingdom of God and the need to be watchful.
Importantly, Advent mirrors the season of Lent, which also utilizes the color purple. During Lent we remember that the King who came on Christmas suffered and died for our salvation. For this reason, Christians often reinvigorate their spiritual devotion during Advent, seeking to respond as generously to Christ as possible. Spending extra time in prayer, repentance, and service are typical practices.
"Advent" means coming. Throughout this season, we are encouraged to be alert to the nearness of God. The miracle of Christmas is precisely that God comes among us in Christ. I invite us at the outset of Advent to prepare to make him welcome.
Jason Hefner • November 22, 2022
Every year the President of the United States calls all Americans to cease from work and normal occupations to give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy and to beseech God's blessing upon our country. In many ways, Thanksgiving is comparable to Fall festivals held the world over. Fall is a natural time to enjoy the fruits of the harvest and to ready ourselves for the challenges of winter. The President usually issues the Thanksgiving edict in the most general of terms so that Americans of all perspectives may share the holiday according to conscience.
It seems to me that we Christians should embrace this holiday whole heartedly. We believe that God has indeed blessed us. We believe it is right to give our thanks and praise to God. We believe that we should be praying for our nation and all nations. We give thanks and pray every Sunday. In other words, we are already a thanks-giving people.
Connecting Thanksgiving to our regular Sunday morning worship is helpful because it reminds us of the point of the holiday -- giving thanks to God. We want to enjoy a feast, of course. But let us not stop there. Let us be sure to give thanks. We want to be with family and friends. Let us bless God for them. We want to enjoy our religious liberty and free society. Let us pray for God's blessing upon all nations.
My hope is that we -- with our clear vision of God's goodness toward all in Christ -- would role-model the spirit of this holiday.
Jason Hefner • November 17, 2022
The Christian year is built around our experience of Jesus Christ. As we come to the end of the year, we set our hope firmly upon the promised reign of Christ. One day, Jesus will return from heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father in glory, to establish his kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace for all people. Celebrating Christ as King makes us a hopeful people. For us, reality is not random. Rather, Christ reigns and he is guiding history toward a glorious end.
As Christians, we seek to live into Christ's kingdom right now. We obey Christ's commands and follow his example. This is our way of showing that Christ is our Lord. It also points others toward faith in Christ. Through our faithfulness we become a "provisional exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the world." (PCUSA Book of Order, F-1.0304)
Importantly, we remember that King Jesus knows the endurance required of his people. The first crown Jesus wore was one composed of thorns. Before he was lifted up into glory, he was hung on a cross. It was because Jesus was willing to humble himself for our sakes that God lifted him up and gave him a name that is above every other name. (Philippians 2:9) Since he is the one who died and rose again, we give him our allegiance and our adoration. (PCUSA Book of Worship, p.394).
Although our world is often chaotic, I invite us to find hope and perspective by embracing Christ as King. May he reign in our lives, as we trust his promise: "In this world you will have trouble, but be of good courage for I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
Jason Hefner • November 01, 2022
Today is All Saints Day. According to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, this holiday has been observed since the ninth century. We remember our predecessors in the faith, who have completed their baptism through death. They have gone ahead of us into glory. While we mourn those who have died, we also rejoice in the promise of eternal life given to us by Jesus Christ. Today, we emphasize the calling we share with all saints everywhere to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and to live in faithful expectation of the Kingdom of God.
While All Saint's Day is a special day of observance, we remember throughout the year our connection with all of God's people -- throughout time and space. When we say the Apostle's Creed, the most unifying and universal expression of Christian faith, we affirm that we believe in the "communion of saints." We believe that to be a Christian is to be a member of a vast community of people who belong to Jesus Christ. When we celebrate communion by eating bread and wine, we remember and show that Jesus' death and resurrection has united us to God and to one another.
Today I rejoice in the profound truth that to be called into relationship with God through Christ is to also be called into a community of other people. We are connected to God through Christ, and through Christ we belong to one another. In short, because of Christ we are not alone.
This All Saints Day, I invite us to pray for those who have lost a loved one this year, to celebrate the good news of eternal life in Christ, and to be active members of the community of faith.
Here is a prayer that you may choose to use today:
"Faithful God, source of every blessing: teach us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to share our possessions, to give to those who are in need, and to do to others as we would have them do to us, so that we may join that company of blessed saints who feast with you in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Luke 6:20-31)
May the blessing of All Saints Day be with you today!
Jason Hefner • October 27, 2022
Every year, many Protestant communities acknowledge Reformation Day on October 31st. This observance reminds Presbyterians of the origin of our distinctive way of being Christian in the 15th century. Pastoral leaders, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, challenged the norms of their day with bold visions of Christian community.
Today, Presbyterians seek to continue the ethos of "reformation" by constantly evaluating our faith and practice in relation to contemporary needs and in light of God's ongoing mission to the world. We are willing to make changes. We seek to challenge the norms within our church that are harmful or obscure the gospel. We seek to clarify and strengthen our vocation to be a representation of the Kingdom of God.
While Reformation Day has strong connections to the Protestant community, it also calls us to think about ecumenical relationships. We are partners with Christians all around the world. Our Book of Confessions, which includes ancient and universal formulas, such as the Apostle's Creed, also contains documents like the Confession of Belhar, which was adopted by our denomination in 2016.
This year, the PCUSA highlights the Belhar Confession because of its relevance to the contemporary issues of racism and division.
You may like to read this confession. Here is a link: https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf
This Reformation Day, I invite us all to embrace a hopeful outlook toward the future. God is always doing new things and leading us into more profound expressions of discipleship. Prayerfully, we may identify areas for repentance and areas for renewed vigor. On Reformation Day, we celebrate that every day is a new opportunity to be and become the people of God.
Jason Hefner • October 21, 2022
As a child, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. It was an opportunity for me to dress up like Luke Skywalker, a rock star, a ninja, or...Luke Skywalker, again. It was a thrill to be out at night, to see everyone else's costumes, and bag lots of candy. The "dark side" of Halloween -- witches, monsters, skeletons, and tombstones -- did little more than add a mysterious and macabre dimension to the evening.
Over the years, I have continued to enjoy Halloween. However, I have become more alert to the concerns that some people have about this holiday. It is not unfair to say that Halloween can be used as a vehicle to "glorify" horror, death, and the monstrous. Pranks and parties frequently get out of hand on Halloween, leaving people feeling guilty, hurt, or insecure.
In this post, I'd like to offer a reflection on the origin of Halloween that might help you consider how to engage the holiday this year.
Many people claim that Halloween is a celebration that is rooted in pagan religion -- especially the druidic traditions of Celtic cultures. Those who make this claim link modern Halloween to ancient Fall festivals. Indeed, certain contemporary Halloween traditions, such as carving pumpkins (Jack-O-Lanterns), can be traced back to such origins. Eating tasty foods, playing games, and scaring away evil spirits are also well-attested customs designed to prepare the community for the harshness of the coming winter.
Others minimize this claim and advocate for the Christian origins for Halloween. They point out that "Halloween" is a variation of "Hallow's Eve" and refers to the night before All Saints Day. On November 1st, all the dearly departed saints are "hallowed", or reverenced, for their exemplary lives. Just as other Christian holidays are preceded by a special evening (such as Christmas Eve before Christmas Day or Holy Saturday Vigil before Easter), so All Saint's Day is preceded by a celebration. "Trick-or-treating" may be a descendent of the practice of poor children going door to door to ask for specially prepared cakes and, upon receiving them, promising to say prayers for the donating family.
I am inclined to believe that both claims are true. Halloween probably has pagan and Christian origins. This is to be expected because, through the millennia, Christianity has spread across the globe and into diverse cultures. As a matter of course, previously existing pagan practices were often "baptized" with new meaning. Halloween, rooted in the plenty of harvest, yet tipping toward the threat of winter, was a natural time for people to think about mortality and the supernatural. Christian converts likely infused the celebration with the hopeful message of eternal life (represented by hallowed saints), trust in Christ's power to dispel evil, and the need for generosity toward others.
In this light, it can be seen that Halloween, occurring at an important seasonal juncture, has long been celebrated for natural and spiritual reasons. The over-arching goal seems to have been to prepare the community for the coming winter by celebrating the last vestiges of plenty and soliciting divine assistance. From this, we can discern that turning Halloween into an occasion to glorify evil, do harm to others, or abdicate one's integrity in any way, is a misrepresentation of Halloween -- whether one is a Christian or not. Contemporary over-emphasis on horror and mischief may be symptomatic of our cultural disconnect from the traditions we have inherited. Halloween should be about building community, acknowledging our vulnerability, and promoting spiritual resilience.
So, will I be celebrating Halloween? Yes. I may be extra vigilant for folks being mischievous, but I'll enjoy the evening. I'll pass out candy. I may walk the neighborhood with my kids. I will be just one of the crowd. Yet, I will probably infuse a few Christian elements into the celebration: I will pray for the houses my kids visit. When I pass out candy, I will also pass out a blessing. I will appreciate costumes as an impulse to scare away evil. I will reflect on the fact that many Christian saints have walked through the valley of the shadow of death into the realm of glory.
In short, I plan to celebrate Halloween AND All Saint's Eve. Among you, my fellow Christians, I will likely say, "Happy All Saints!" And I will warmly welcome such a wish from you! As we prepare to celebrate on October 31st, I invite us to see the day as an ongoing opportunity for us Christians to join with the larger culture and to shine a positive spiritual light.
Jason Hefner • August 18, 2022
Why does the pastor give a "charge and benediction" at the end of the worship service? Christian worship does not end at the conclusion of corporate worship. Rather, we go forth from the sanctuary to love and serve Christ in daily living. The pastoral Charge is a distillation of the Word of the God into a formula for action. The Charge makes clear that worship guides the congregation into God's mission to the world -- you have heard the Word of God, now go and live it! This is no small task, so we need God's grace and assistance. For this reason, the pastor couples the Charge with a Benediction. "Benediction" means "blessing." Just as the ancient priests blessed the people to invoke God's mercy and faithfulness over them, the pastor blesses the congregation in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are blessed to be a blessing. Departing with the Charge and Benediction orients us and empowers us to pursue our chief end: to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
Jason Hefner • August 01, 2022
Why do we offer Prayers of Intercession during the service? The word intercede means "to come between so as to prevent or alter a result or course of events." During this time of prayer, then, the congregation stands as an advocate for the world and the church before God. From the PCUSA Book of Worship, "we pray for the world God so loves—joining Christ’s own ministry of intercession and the sighs of the Spirit, too deep for words." Prayers of Intercession are offered for the mission and ministry of the local and universal church; care of creation; peace and justice in the world; those in position of power; the poor, hungry, and oppressed; healing and wholeness for those who suffer; and personal concerns from within the congregation. Sometimes called the Pastoral Prayer, the Prayers of Intercession are more accurately understood as an action of the whole congregation. Everyone affirms their participation through response like "Lord, hear our prayer," and "amen" at the end. Now you know Why We Do That.