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.
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!
“For know a blessed mother thou shalt be, all generations laud and honor thee;
Thy son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
Basque Carol, 19th century
Today, December 8, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for our Catholic brothers and sisters. If you’re anywhere near downtown Minneapolis today, you’re likely to hear lots and lots of bells, as the Basilica of St. Mary lauds this day
A little known fact among Protestants (and even Catholics): the IC is not about Jesus’ conception. It’s about Mary’s. Mary is understood, in this rather recently dogmatized understanding of the church, to be born without sin, so that she in turn may give birth to Christ without sin.
My Protestant brain short-circuits at this point. If God could produce the miracle of the virgin birth (which is not what this day is about, and a subject for another post), surely God could have seen to eliminating Mary’s sinful genes in the process too. But all this dogma came before DNA, so that’s not really the point.
What is the point?
“Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee!” What an astonishing thing, that God entered into our humanity, crammed heaven into an embryo, was completely undeterred by the mess generations of human beings have made of our imago dei, and came this close – with us in our very nature.
God seems to have been able to work with Mary, and how exactly that worked isn't the good news. Mary said, “let it be,” and generations after her have looked to her example to imagine that Christ might enter us, and through us enter the world.
Although not strictly a Christmas carol, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree gets more air time at this time of year than any other, probably because it has some wonderful choral settings that choirs like St. Olaf's really do well. Elizabeth Poston's arrangement ranks as one of my favorite pieces ever.
The text is from 18th century New England, and -- like other carols that portray Christ as a rose -- emphasizes the sheer beauty of the savior. The text calls to mind the famous second verse of Beautiful Savior: fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands, robed in flowers of blooming spring; Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer. He makes our sorrowing spirits sing.
Though this kind of piety sounds old-fashioned to some, beauty is a theme with renewed popularity among theologians now. Given that it is increasingly difficult to make empirical truth claims of any kind these days, we could do worse than to emphasize the sheer beauty of having a savior who takes on our humanity.
A slightly less serious observation: according to Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire, apples in early Americana were not grown for schoolchildren's lunches. Johnny Appleseed was celebrated for taking apples across the country becauase apples were a source of cider -- that is, hooch. So in this sense, Jesus as an apple tree is analogous to Jesus as a vine. His final gift to us isn't just sustenance in the puritan sense -- it is drink, it is joy.
Feast of St. Nicholas today! More on the holiday here, and a lectionary blog here.
And for fun, verses 2 and 3 of Jolly Old St. Nicholas
When the clock is striking twelve, when I'm fast asleep, Down the chimney broad and black, with your pack you'll creep All the stockings you will find, hanging in a row Mine will be the shortest one, you'll be sure to know-
Johnny wants a pair of skates, Suzy wants a sled, Nellie wants a story book, yellow, blue and red, Now I think I leave to you, what to give the rest, Choose for me dear Santa Claus, you know what's the best!
What I love about this is how completely quaint it sounds to our ears. What kid asks for a sled or a story book for Christmas anymore? (My children, I think, still enjoy getting books, but even my electronics-deprived kids never ask for books from Santa.)
There are a few songs out there that deal with the real Saint Nicholas -- the bishop, patron of children and sailors. There's a lovely collection at the St. NIcholas Center, including one from poet Luci Shaw.
So, whatever you do for St. Nicholas Day, may it be simple in spirit, attentive to children and the poor. And while you're at it, utter a prayer for "those in peril on the sea."
Today's second verse you may actually know by heart:
Joy to the earth! The savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ!
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy!
Like the Issac Watts hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past, this one is also a psalm paraphrase. Psalm 96 is often assigned in the season of Advent, which is why this popular Christmas hymn was once classified as an Advent hymn. The psalm speaks of God's advent in jubilant words; judgment is viewed as a context for rejoicing instead of fear.
The psalmist imagines all creation joining in the rejoicing when God comes:
11 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. 12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. 13 Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.
I love the image of the trees shouting for joy at God's arrival. Lord knows they have had much to weep over during the reign of humankind. In biblical times, the chief cause of deforestation would have been war (think fire and battering rams). In our time, human sin is no less a cause, but it's more likely to be the deleterious effects of an economy that values short-term gains over long-term benefits of the forest.
What would the trees and hills say to us? I have no doubt they would be glad for God's judgment on human ways. But Watts knows that the final word of God's arrival is not cause for fear. We can join in with fields and floods and trees . . .because we know that Christ comes to reconcile even our relationship with the earth. May you hear them singing along this Advent, and may your life anticipate the things they will say.
Love, the Rose is on the way (photo by k.landerholm, from flickr creative commons)
The story behind Eleanor Farjeon’s text, People Look East is a writer’s dream: she was asked by the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols (1928) to write a carol. They used the text, set to a jaunty French folk tune, and then it became a classic. Not bad for a commission!
Then again, Farjeon had a good track record as a poet and musician. She’s also the author of “Morning has Broken.” Who knows how many not-so-great pieces she had to write in order to arrive at those two classics?
What she does brilliantly is give the sense of joy in the midst of awaiting. Love is a guest, a rose, a star, and a bird, all “on the way” even in the midst of signs of barrenness and winter.
Christ is several times compared to a rose in carols as a sign of unlikely beauty. The biblical reference is actually to a “crocus” mentioned in Isaiah 35:1, a blossom that springs up in the desert, a sign of God’s abundance poured out upon the earth. Presumably the Europeans, whose flora are a bit different from Palestine’s, preferred the more familiar term for a flower that symbolizes love.
Zion hears the watchmen singing, and in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes she rises from her gloom; for her Lord comes down all glorious, the strong in grace, in truth victorious. Her star is ris'n her light is come. Oh, come, you Blessed One, Lord Jesus, God's own Son. Sing hosanna! We go until the halls we view where you have bid us dine with you. (Phillip Nicolai, tr. Catherine Winkworth)
Having just spent a rather wakeful night with a sick boy, I'm not feeling very appreciative of the wakefulness metaphor today. But Nicolai's image of the watchmen singing is a lovely one. If you're waiting for the sounds of alarm, imagine being awakened by the sound of singing. If you're up (hypothetically) listening to labored breathing, waiting and watching for signs that things are getting worse, imagine how lovely to hear instead the sounds of rejoicing.
In a culture that mostly warns us to be wakeful because of fear -- fear of falling behind, fear of intruders, fear of someone betraying our trust -- what a lovely reversal to imagine that we are awakened by the coming of God, bidding us come to dinner!