The First Sunday in Advent
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.
We Zumwalt children went through our entire growing up years without ever having Christmas with our German immigrant grandmother. Her month-long visits with us came every other summer. Because we had no air conditioning in our houses in Texas until I was 12, Grossmutti always visited at the worst time of year for heat. Mama would say, “Mutti, you should visit us in the winter when it’s not as cold as Philadelphia.” But our grandmother was the matriarch of her German church, St. Michael’s and Zion (Alt Zion) in Philadelphia, and she couldn’t be gone at the festivals.
In a very real sense, Grossmutti was always with us during the Advent season when the children of St. James church were practicing German carols for the Christmas Eve program. We used her little “Liederbuch” (Hymnal) to learn the Christmas carols in German by rote. Mama would teach us how to pronounce the German words, and, then, she would tell us what the words meant. On the Sundays in Advent, Lutherans do not sing Christmas carols in church, because it is not yet the Messiah’s birthday. Yet, the musicians, yes, even the children, must practice weekly for the services of God’s house on that most holy night. Practicing the carols without singing them in Sunday worship teaches us about yearning.
In the fall of 1977, I took off a semester from seminary to decide, once and for all, whether my, then, girlfriend and I were to marry. I was miserable, because I wanted seminary and her, too. She was miserable, because she wanted me without seminary. Mama was miserable, because she was still grieving my father’s death, working as a geriatric nurse, and was living with her 95-year-old mother for the first time since Mama left home to serve as an Army nurse in WWII. Grossmutti was miserable, because she was away from the church she had known since she was 20. So, that Advent, the singing of German Christmas carols was particularly poignant. Grossmutti would look over my shoulder at the words she knew by heart and sing with me as I played the piano. Her favorite carol was “Sǔsser die Glocken” (The church bells never ring so sweetly as on Christmas). When I heard that elderly formidable saint sing the carols I had learned as a little boy, they were given a depth I had never known.
I was on vicarage (internship) in Kirksville MO in the winter of 1979 when Grossmutti died. I flew to Philadelphia for the funeral. Her pastor, Juhan Suurkivi, an Estonian refugee, asked me to assist. Everyone in attendance was related. Grossmutti had outlived most of her friends, and so it was that we sang (in German) of the heavenly Jerusalem. For we have here no continuing city (Hebrews 13:14). Advent reminds us of that.
I will practice my German throughout Advent in anticipation of the German Christmas Eucharist on December 21 at noon. We confess that Grossmutti and all the unsung saints are with the Lord, and so they are always with the company of heaven with whom we praise God each Eucharist. I hope to see my German grandmother in the new Jerusalem in her new body that cannot grow old and die. Advent is a time to hope.
Thank you, dear Father, for Grossmutti and all grandmothers who love your Son for Whom we yearn. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.