What is that light so brilliant, breaking Here in the night across our eyes. Never so bright, the day-star waking, Started to climb the morning skies! What is that light so brilliant, breaking, Here in the night across our eyes.
It was too snowy and cloudy Monday night here to see the lunar eclipse -- or the brilliant stars of the winter sky: Sirius, Orion's belt, or the planet Jupiter.
It was, however, bright enough for the children to be up, well before dawn, ready to go for another day of winter break. Their energy reminds me of the reason we put holidays in the midst of the darkest season of the northern hemisphere.
There are those who worry that our obsession about the duality of light and dark in Christian imagery can lead us into Very Bad Places theologically. While I agree that phrases like "black as sin" have no place in a multicultural faith, I don't think there's any getting away from our human response to LIGHT. We need it. It gives us life. And where it is absent, human beings all over the world seek it out or create it, either by lighting a candle or by searching the night sky. I don't need winter to be warmer than it already is, but I do need some extra light at this time, whether it comes from the stars or from some extra candles around the house.
Whatever kind of night is part of your life right now, may the brilliance of Christ's light give you hope.
Leave your berries bright and good, please do come, O please do come!
Make a soft and downy next so the newborn may rest, fum fum fum!
This Catalan carol was written for people processing in the street following midnight mass. It is meant to be accompanied by guitar -- thus the "fum fum fum!" repetitions.
There are a few carols written intentionally for guitar accompaniment -- Silent Night being the most well-known of them -- but one of the joys of Christmas is that there is such a variety of vocal styles and instrumental possibilities.
This carol also joins together the call to discipleship -- leave your berries, birds! leave your flocks, shepherds! leave your nets, fishermen! -- with the call to all creation to honor the child.
For us, of course, the call may also come the other way -- now is a good time to remember the birds, whose food supply has been largely buried under snow in recent days.
I suppose I'm not alone in having a limited preaching task this week: our congregation's children will offer the message in our second service, so I'm only preaching at the first. I know other colleague's have traditions of special carol services on this day. It's too bad, since Matthew's Christmas story only comes around every three years.
Even so, since our 8:15 crowd is the true diehards (I could not believe how many of them made it to church after major ice and snowstorms this month!) -- I'll be taking another direction, namely looking more closely at the Isaiah text's context.
The good folks at working preacher pointed me here, to Ahaz' unholy compromises with the empires of his day and his seemingly pious refusal to ask God for a sign. He'd much rather go about his political business without pesky prophets like Isaiah suggesting he should consult the true King of Israel first.
How often do we employ the same excuse?
No, God I won’t ask you for anything, because I know you don’t control the weather.
No, God, I won’t ask you for a job, because I know you don’t control the economy.
No, God, I won’t ask you for health, because I know you do not control tumors and my daily nutrition.
There is a certain humility, and some logic to not asking for anything, especially since we are confronted daily with the news of those who lack so much. But how often is that logic really just a cover – a cover for our lack of faith, a cover for our fear that if we ask, we will not receive? How often is our failure to ask really a cover for the fact that it is much easier to trust in other gods than the God of Abraham, the God of Isaiah?
It’s just plain easier to trust in the invisible hand of the market, or our own ability to ensure our own future, or our own acts of securing health and wealth and happiness, even though we know that those powers are pretty unreliable too.
For Ahaz, it was easier to trust in the compromises he would make with the powers that be than to ask God for guidance, than to risk trusting God’s reign rather than his own.
And into this time when Ahaz doesn’t even want God’s help, hasn’t asked for it, doesn’t trust it, Isaiah says, "Look, a sign is given unto you ANYWAY. God is coming to you anyway."
"The impossible miracle of God's saving power is evident in the birth Isaiah shows the king taking place at this very moment. Stop looking away from the miracle. This woman is wracked with pain. She is laboring in faith to bring forth life. In a moment you will hear an infant cry. The woman will feel a flood of fierce love that binds her to this child as his guardian and protector forever. Listen closely when she speaks his name and you will hear her name the ground of all life and hope: God is with us. "
Ode to Joy isn't strictly a Christmas hymn, but its verses reflect the same exuberance of creation's praise that we find in Psalm 98 and in Joy to the World. The line that "stars and angels sing around thee" certainly recalls the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke alike. We're urged to remember that since all creation joins in the praise, it is "unbroken," continuing on since the dawn of time in one unending hymn.
It's Beethoven's birthday (and also that of the boy pictured above), so it's an appropriate day to sing this simple melody that so perfectly catches our sense of unbounded joy. Beethoven set the melody to a poem by Friedrich Schiller (actually Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller), an die Freude for his 9th symphony, but the words we use in English were penned by Henry van Dyke, inspired by his own love of the Berkshire mountains. van Dyke was a Presbyterian pastor and poet who presented this hymn to President Garfield in 1907.
May you join in creation's praise today, even if the only living thing you see in the wintry landscape is a small boy.
In this month's Christian Century, Rodney Clapp reminds us that the primary feast of the Christian year is Easter, not Christmas. If we're feeling stressed out about all there is to do with nine days to go, it is good to remember that
"The pressure to keep up a relentless facade of merriment is not a Christian pressure. We may not be able to completely escape this, but perhaps we can lessen it by not confusing it with discipleship."
Tonight at ECLC we'll do our part for relief from that pressure toward merriment by hosting a Blue Christmas service -- one designed to give space for those who are grieving or finding the season difficult. I know there are many such people. Indeed, today I received a caringbridge update from the sister of a friend who died in December two years ago, just a couple days after her own 43rd birthday.
The fact that Easter is our primary feast is hinted at in a number of Christmas carols, though sometimes the "facade of merriment" makes us uneasy with verses such as this second verse from What Child is This?. Who wants to hear about nails and spears on December 24? But the fact is that the Incarnation and our redemption through Jesus' death and resurrection are bound up together. If Jesus had not been born a mortal, he would not have been fully human. If this baby had not eventually died at the hands of the Romans (and, say, had become a successful violent rebel instead), his witness to a God who wishes "peace on earth" would have been null and void.
So we can sing with some gratitude that, like we will, Jesus died. And since he rose again, we too can join in Easter songs as well. Hail the Word made flesh!
O the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
So many of our Christmas images have absolutely no basis in the biblical story. From the camels of the magi to the donkey Mary supposedly rode on to the lily that is Mary's iconic flower. None of that is in either Luke or Matthew's story, the stickler would be quick to point out.
But finally, does it matter? The incarnation is all about God coming into mortal existence -- which means into ours as well as 1st century Palestine's. In art and music we enflesh that story with the flora and fauna of our own time. Of course, there are better and worse ways to do so -- not every addition is perhaps true to the spirit of the story, but when it comes to the natural world, I say knock yourself out. God comes to all of earth -- not just Mediterranean ecosystems.
The Holly and the Ivy is one of those carols that spells out meaning in every aspect of the plant: the flower, the berry, the prickle, the bark. The second verse even references another plant that is associated with Mary's purity and beauty - the lily (which, you may have noticed, is present in many classical paintings of the anunciation). Each element is thought to remind us of God's saving work in Jesus.
What will remind you of God's love today? Whether it's a bird, a star or a pile of snow, let it be as much a witness to you as the playing of the organ or singing in the choir.
Shall those who have light no light let us borrow,
Giving no heed to our burden of sorrow?
Will you help us soon? Will you help us soon?
Happy St. Lucia's Day!
The association of the 3rd century Saint Lucy with light and Scandinavian Christmas has much more to do with the timing of her saint's day than with her origins (Italian) or anything particular about her story. Hers is a relatively common "virgin martyr" story: she showed her allegiance to Christ over the patriarchal system of the time that would have had her married off to a pagan to suit her family's wishes. Legend has it she attempted to give away her dowry to the poor, and ended up martyred rather than making the sacrifices required of her to the pagan gods.
It's not really a story that fits easily with the homey customs of Santa Lucia: having the household's oldest daughter bring breakfast to her family with candles on her head. Like many saints's stories, we've managed to domesticate her beyond recognition.
But maybe there is a nice biblical connection: namely Matthew's parable of the wise and foolish virgins, whose story is referenced in this verse 2 of Lost in the Night, a carol whose origins span Finland, Sweden and Norway. This verse, in the voice of those foolish virgins who didn't bring enough oil to keep their lamps burning until the bridegroom's arrival, plea for help from their wiser counterparts. The rest of the carol stays in this moment of waiting for the groom's arrival -- full of longing and hope. While the parable (in typical Matthean hardball fashion) has the wise virgins refusing any help, the carol seems to invite us to imagine a different response. In fact the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) placed this hymn in the "Witness" section instead of in Advent, where it appears in the new hymnal.
As we continue to dig out and hunker down for frigid temperatures for another day here in Minnesota, there are some nice "good Samaritan" stories going around. On this Lucia's day, let your light shine -- offer it to someone else, even if they were not wise enough to be prepared for what the day has brought. Let your light shine!!
Christina Rosetti was asked to write a Christmas poem in 1872 for Scribner's, but never got to hear her lyric set to music. It was Gustav Holst who first brought the words to song, though lately a number of lovely melodies have been composed for these words.
For some people, the first verse may come to mind this weekend, when we expect snow on snow on snow. But the second verse above ties the paradox of Advent and Christmas together. The "coming of the Lord" is often imagined as a great and fearful day in Scripture, and so the wonder of the incarnation -- that the fullness of God could come to dwell in the simplest of human lives -- comes as a true mystery.
If bleak weather slows us down enough to ponder this -- eternity entering an embryo -- then it is well worth the inconvenience.
Of her I took fleshly substance Thus was I knit to man's nature To call my true love to my dance.
Sing O my love
O my love, my love, my love
This have I done for my true love.
This carol was completely transformed for me by John Gardner’s syncopated arrangement. Apart from a recording, I can hardly remember the “original” tune anymore, though it’s been arranged by some pretty good musicians: David Willcocks, Gustav Holst, and John Rutter. What Gardner’s version captures for me is the joy and exuberance of the lyrics, which tell the whole Christ story from the perspective of God wooing the world. (Nobody does all 11 verses, and you can see why). I can almost imagine God skipping like a child, singing out this story.
What a refreshing contrast to some carols, where the emphasis on the majesty of God “stooping” to be among mortals leaves you feeling a bit like those skits that Garrison Keillor occasionally does of an adult man calling his mother; all the love ends up feeling like an enormous guilt trip.
But this is not a parent singing about how unappreciated she is. This is a lover, who delights in knitting himself to human nature and looks forward to that day when the true love – that would be our whole world (John 3:16) – joins in the dance.
May you dance a bit today, wherever you are, and know that God is saying “may I have this one?”
(photo by wleif from flickr, used with permission)
The second verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel calls to mind that ancient name for the feminine spirit which Proverbs 8 gives voice to: one who is alongside God at the creation and who calls humanity to attention, like a street preacher.
In early Christian theology the terms “word/logos” and “wisdom/sophia” were used almost interchangeably. For a variety of reasons “word,” won out, but Jesus’ ministry and teachings were consistent with this persona of the Old Testament and apocrypha: God’s active, embodied way, reaching out to humanity.
Calling Jesus Sophia doesn’t make him female, of course, but there’s good historical reason to be OK with Jesus of Nazareth being a guy. Elizabeth Johnson writes:
If in a patriarchal culture a woman had preached compassionate love and enacted a style of authority that serves, she would most certainly have been greeted with a colossal shrug. Is not this what women are supposed to do by nature? But from a social position of male privilege, Jesus preached and acted this way, and herein lies the summons. (She Who Is, 1993, p. 160)
We are a people who still crave wisdom, perhaps more than ever in our information-soaked culture. We can google "how to" anything, but we still wonder how best to live. Sophia is even the most popular girl baby name of 2010! For the sake of all those baby girls, let us heed wisdom's call to live into Jesus' way of compassion and mercy.
It is also the death day of Thomas Merton, 20th century writer and monk who brought a monastic voice to social action in the 1960’s. He has a long poem dedicated to lady wisdom, of which the excerpt below is only a small part
Hagia Sophia - Written in 1963
I. Dawn. The Hour of Lauds.
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden whole- ness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in word- less gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator's Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.
I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this, my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.