Longing, Joy, & Hope: The Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.  We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.  We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.  We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.  We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.  We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.  To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus." Amen. -Henri Nouwen

“The Nativity Of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” Rublev.

“The Nativity Of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” Rublev.

Liturgical Season

Christian worship is fundamentally about union with God.  That is, God gives himself to us in worship.  And as we receive him- not merely by hearing his word, or making mental assent to a set of doctrines about him, but as we eat and drink him in Holy Eucharist- we are transformed into the image of Christ, unified with God, and brought into the very life of the Trinity!  And all of this happens by his grace, mysteriously, every time we gather to sing and praise, pray and preach, confess sin, receive absolution, share in the peace of Christ, and celebrate the sacraments.  This is Christian worship!

One of the unique ways the Church has learned to open herself up to the transformation that God offers, is through the observance of different liturgical seasons.  Basically, the Church says "Christians, let your worship of God be so pervasive and defining of your identity that even your calendars remind you of the gospel."

I love this!  And I find the observance of the liturgical calendar to be one of the most beneficial practices in my relationship with God.

Currently we are in the season of Advent, coming upon the season of Christmastide.  Let's use these as examples of how God shapes us in worship.  We'll ask: what parts of our human identity will be brought into union with God by Advent and Christmas?  I see three ideas here: Advent teaches us to be aware of our existential longings, and to point them in the right direction (toward Christ).  And Christmas- Christmas reminds us that union with God is a reality of joy and hope.  It is the fulfillment of our human longing!  The two liturgical seasons work together in this way.

Advent: Longing

In Advent we set out on a journey.  It's a journey of LONGING.  In the hymns and collects (prayers), the assigned scripture readings, the greenery around the church, and the progressive lighting of the Advent candles, we rehearse the plight of Israel in the First Testament as they waited for their Messiah to come and rescue them from slavery and oppression.  So we sing hymns with lyrics like this:

O Come, O come, Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel.

Of course, the Messiah did come!  And so our longing during Advent is actually directed in large part toward the second coming of Christ!  It is a season layered with meaning and truth.  This is why sing:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending, Once for favored sinners slain; Thousand thousand saints attending, Swell the triumph of His train: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God appears on earth to reign.

Even the colors of Christian worship help us tell the story of the gospel.  During Advent you'll see purple and blue vestments and linens around the church.  Purple is the color of royalty, but also of lament and repentance (purple is also used during Lent).  Blue is used in some churches, and it represents the anticipation of the season, like the deep blue color of the sky, just before dawn.  It is also the color of the Blessed Virgin in Christian iconography.

So the colors blue and purple remind us that, in Advent, we are longing and lamenting, waiting with anticipation, making repentant preparations for a Savior-King!  We don't have to leave our longings at the door of the church.  We can bring them with us to worship, knowing that God desires to meet and fulfill them in his coming.

Henri Nouwen, in his monastic diary, gives us these words about longing: "An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. In the long run, some voluntary penance becomes necessary to help us remember that we are not yet fulfilled. A good criticism, a frustrating day, an empty stomach, or tired eyes might help to awaken our expectation and deepen our prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come. (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary).

Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, Orlando, FL

Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, Orlando, FL

Christmastide: Joy and Hope

Then?  Christmas comes!  The blue and purple vestments and linens turn to gold and white, colors of celebration, joy, and light.  The dawn from on high has broken upon us!  The Church celebrates Christmas not with a single day, but with an entire season called Christmastide- twelve days of reveling in God's coming.  This means that, even when the stores take down their decorations on the 26th of December, Christians continue to linger in the joyful mystery of the incarnation.  Christmastide is an exuberant and vibrant time of worship as God shapes us into a people characterized by joy and hope.

The emotional uplift that comes with Christmas shouldn't be missed in the sentimentality of the moment.  We need to lean into the joy of Christmas just as we did the longing of Advent!  In a world as broken as ours, joy and hope are precious realities that can sometimes be covered up in the Advent waiting.  Christmas gives voice to the truth, at least once every year, that our ultimate destiny in union with God is joy, hope, and fulfillment.

So my prayer for all of us during this season of Advent and Christmas is that, through the self-giving of God in Christian worship, we may become a people who know our longings, and know the hope and joy that comes with the God who fills them with himself.

- Josh Bales

The Lyrics, Stories, and Artwork for "Count The Stars"


Get The Album On iTunes Here.

01 I Am Me (Salvation) To Fritz, Matt, Jeremiah, and Kevin 1. What I long for, what I fear, is to know and be known. But I hide. I disappear like a secret never told. In my guilt and in my shame, I begin to separate. I begin to lose myself until you call my name. Chorus: Then suddenly Iʼm me- who Iʼm meant to be. I am whole. I am home. I am seen. I am known. I am me. 2. Oh my heart begins to wake, then the chill begins to thaw. Yeah the memories start to flood and my tears begin to fall. Like a feast for a starving man, I can hardly take it in. And the saints and the angels sing when they hear you call my name. Bridge: I wonʼt be afraid. ʻCause when you call my name...

Hans Rookmaaker said “Jesus didn't come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human." And St. Irenaeus “The glory of God is man fully alive." Eastern Orthodox Christians talk about the goal of salvation as “theosis” or becoming divine. The Orthodox talk about salvation not as becoming a different person, nor as becoming God, but as becoming the truest, deepest, most redeemed versions of ourselves! In salvation, Jesus is making us who God intended us to be. This is the most personal song on the project. It reflects my theological and psychological theory of sanctification and change. I use the ideas of this song in therapy with clients, and in my own personal walk with Jesus, often reminding myself that, where as sin fragments me, Jesus wants to make me whole. He wants to make me “me.”

02 Your Kingdom Come (Kingdom) 1. The kingdom is coming. The kingdom is at hand. Through the great parade of providence, Godʼs kingdom expands. Until one day all thatʼs old will be made new. One day all thatʼs sad will be made untrue. We will lift our eyes to the King, Jesus Christ. Until then weʼll pray: Chorus: Your kingdom come. Your will be done on this earth as it is in heaven. 2. We are not abandoned. Weʼre children of the king. Redemption is our story but we havenʼt reached the ending. Our battle is not fought with the weapons of a war, but with love and justice all will be restored. The king will return. Heʼll and bring heaven to earth. Until then weʼll pray: Bridge Our tears are not lost. Our hope is not vain. One day- one day- weʼll see him at last so, Christian, hold fast. Hold fast and pray.

This song was written for my church, Lake Baldwin Church, in Orlando, on its seventh anniversary. I wanted to express the idea that praying the Lordʼs Prayer is not defeated resignation or mere wistful wishing for an easy fix to a complicated and sinful world. No, praying the Lordʼs Prayer is a bold act of faith, an action that theologians call a “speech act,” that is, a group of words that accomplish what they say. In other words, as we pray for Godʼs kingdom to be realized on earth, our prayer is answered, in part, as Godʼs kingdom is realized more fully in our own hearts and lives. The idea is that our prayer becomes our life. As we pray, so we live. I love the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this: “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray (CCC, 2725, The Battle of Prayer).”

03 Count The Stars (Hope) 1. When I lay me down to sleep at night underneath a sacramental sky, I count the stars- count them if I can, then rest my dreams inside my Makerʼs hands. Oh I count the stars. 2. I count the stars for they are signs to me- pictures of a future I canʼt see. Like a mother with no child to hold, every starʼs a child I call my own. So I count the stars. (Chorus) On my darkest night a million beams of light ask me to believe that your promise is like a starlit sky- bigger than my dreams. So in my doubting dark I count the stars. 3. I count the stars when hope is hard to find, when there's no morning for my soul's dark night. And when my longing heart feels weak and thin, I lift my head and count the stars again. I count the stars. (Bridge) Oh help me see (that) your promise is bigger than my dreams.

I wrote this song for my churchʼs sixth anniversary, when we were studying the life of Abraham. Friends and members of my church were struggling with really dark life moments like infertility, existential doubt, and disappointments in careers and marriages. My pastor and a church member (the designer of this projectʼs artwork, Brandy Nicks) called the series on Abraham “Count The Stars” and I said, “Man, that would be a great song title!” I wrote the song that week and played it at church the following Sunday. As I began to play it live for other events, the song started to take on a life of its own. One couple at an event in Texas, in connection with Bryan College, my alma mater and the institution to which this recording is dedicated, offered to help pay for the recording. I contacted Ed Cash and we made the song together. After that, I used the song to help kick off my Kickstarter campaign and, after meeting the goal, we turned a one song project into a full EP. It was incredible. The message of the song was playing out in my own life! God was blowing me away with his blessings- in ways that far surpassed even my dreams.

04 Homesick (Desire) 1. Standing at the brothel door, past his lust there is so much more. For his sin, like an SOS, tells us of his soulʼs distress. See his longing. See his holy fire. See the journey of his heartʼs desire. Chorus 1: All our longings- theyʼre like sacred signs. And they point us to the God behind them all. Thatʼs why sadness, and every sweet romance- thatʼs why sunsets always make us homesick. 2. Lifeless marriage. Twenty years. Why want more, when she can disappear? But still desire calls her name, bids her cry the tears of faith. See her longing. See her holy fire. See the journey of her heartʼs desire. Chorus 2: All our longings- theyʼre like sacred signs. And they point us to the God behind them all. Thatʼs why laughter, and every moonlight kiss- thatʼs why silence always makes us homesick. Bridge: Hear the echo in the ache. Feel the longing in the pain. Itʼs the way you were made.

G.K. Chesterton wrote “Every time a man knocks on a brothel door, he is really searching for God.” And Brent Curtis, in an article titled “Less-Wild Lovers: Standing At The Crossroads of Desire,” says “In all of our hearts lies a longing for a Sacred Romance. It will not go away in spite of our efforts over the years to anesthetize or ignore its song, or attach it to a single person or endeavor.” This is a song about what we do with our desire for God, as seen through the story of a sex- addicted man, and a woman stuck in a lifeless marriage. This is a song about how our longing is a sign that points to the creator of the longing and the thing longed for. Though an uncomfortable message at first, this song is meant to deepen our awareness of how even our sinful patterns point to the deeper truth that we are all made in Godʼs image, and thus haunted by our truest identity every day, in every experience of life, good or bad.

05 Isnʼt That Amazing Grace (Identity) To Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen 1. Underneath the countenance of God we all try to hide. We forget how he loves us so, we forget weʼre Abbaʼs child. So when the lies are loud, let the gospel drown them out. Chorus: Come out, sinner, from those shadows, Every corner of your shame. Donʼt you know youʼre his beloved? You donʼt have to hide your face. Isnʼt that amazing grace? 2. But there are other voices in our hearts. Theyʼre imposters in disguise. And they tell us we canʼt trust his love- that on our selves we must rely. But when the lies are loud, let the gospel drown them out. Bridge: Donʼt believe the lies. Youʼre beloved, Abbaʼs child. No more guilt and shame, ʻcause isnʼt that amazing grace?

This is a song about the comfort of the gospel. As the beloved of God we donʼt have to hide in shame. Not only is our brokenness deeply accepted by God, it is that brokenness- along with the entirety of the fallen creation- that God is redeeming in Jesus Christ. The chorus “Come out, sinner” is a simple, daily invitation to rest in Godʼs grace, acceptance, and love. I believe far too many of us live the majority of our spiritual and relational lives in hiding simply because we donʼt know, trust, or feel Godʼs deep, abiding love for us. Two authors who have written extensively about Godʼs grace and our identity as Godʼs beloved, are Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen. This song was patterned particularly after Manningʼs book “Abbaʼs Child,” where he addresses the difference in living as Godʼs beloved verses living as the imposter, or false self.

06 Sweet Forgiveness (Forgiveness) 1. I was surprised to see you in the store recently. And after all this time, the tears still welled up in my eyes. (Chorus) I do forgive you with all that that means. Though the wounds and scars you left still bleed. And who can say if Iʼll ever forget all those things you did without regret. But there's still forgiveness- sweet forgiveness, yet. 2. You don't know this but we've talked. I've begged you for answers with no response. I've searched for peace. And all I want is to be free. (Bridge) Some people say that forgiveness is the key It opens the door and sets you free. (Final Chorus) I do forgive you with all that that means. Though the wounds and scars you left still bleed. And I will not live a life of regret when I could live with love instead. ʻCause there's still forgiveness- sweet forgiveness, yet.

I wrote this song for a sermon at my church. Our pastor was preaching on the Lordʼs Prayer, specifically the phrase “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I began to think about the most difficult moments in my life, and the lives of others I knew- the moments where the miracle of forgiveness was most needed. And as I reflected on the power of forgiveness, the adjective “sweet” kept coming to mind. I pictured what it would mean for victims of abuse and affairs, betrayals and tragedies, to be given the gift of forgiveness for their perpetrators. And I mostly wept while writing this song. Initially I had no intention of recording the song because it seemed too dark. But as I began to play the song live in shows, the response was overwhelming as listeners came up to tell me their story of pain and forgiveness. So we recorded it in the studio with one emotional, live take on the guitar. No click track. And our hope was to keep it simple and raw.