Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve 2009



Time is told by death, who doubts it? But time is always halved--for all we know, it is halved--by the eye-blink, the synapse, the immeasurable moment of the present. Time is only the past and maybe the future; the present moment, dividing and connecting them, is eternal. The time of the past is there, somewhat, but only somewhat, to be remembered and examined. We believe that the future is there too, for it keeps arriving, though we know nothing about it. But try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to measure its length with your most advanced chronometer. It exists, so far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a child among the dead.

We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love's losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.
--Wendell Berry, Andy Catlett: Early Travels

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmastide 2009


In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims
the greatest care and solicitude should be shown,
because it is especially in them that Christ is received;
for as far as the rich are concerned,
the very fear which they inspire
wins respect for them.

The Rule of St. Benedict

YET if His Majesty, our sovereign lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say 'I'll be your guest to-morrow night,'
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! 'Let no man idle stand!

'Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall;
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.

'Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place!'

Thus, if a king were coming, would we do;
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleased, to think no labour lost.

But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All's set at six and seven;
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in the manger.

Anonymous, 16th century.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christ Child Lullaby



I am posting only itinterantly, at best. But this:

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

The cause of talk and tale am I
The cause of greatest fame am I
The cause of proudest care on high
To have for mine, the king of all

And though You are the king of all
They sent You to the manger stall
Where at Your feet they all shall fall
And glorify my child the king

There shone a star above three kings,
To guide them to the king of kings.
They held You in their humble arms
And knelt before You until dawn.

They gave You myrrh they gave You gold
Frankincense and gifts untold
They traveled far these gifts to bring,
And glorify their newborn king.

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

Put me quite favorably in mind of this. Or was it the other way around?

(The Judy Collins audio is readily available here, if you don't know the song.)

Comites Christi-2009



Another draw from the archives, because it's never bad form to quote yourself. Or something.

We come, after Christmas, to the Comites Christi, the companions of Christ. They are honored with feast days following Christmas, and two will be of special concern here: St. Stephen, and the Holy Innocents.

But there is no better introduction to the Comites Christi, for now, than the words of St. Augustine:

Consider what is said to you: Love God. If you say to me: Show me whom I am to love, what shall I say if not what Saint John says: No one has ever seen God! But in case you should think that you are completely cut off from the sight of God, he says: God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God. Love your neighbor, then, and see within yourself the power by which you love your neighbor; there you will see God, as far as you are able.

Begin, then, to love your neighbor. Break your bread to feed the hungry, and bring into your home the homeless poor; if you see someone naked, clothe him, and do not look down on your own flesh and blood.

What will you gain by doing this? Your light will then burst forth like the dawn. Your light is your God; he is your dawn, for he will come to you when the night of time is over. He does not rise or set but remains for ever.

In loving and caring for your neighbor you are on a journey. Where are you traveling if not to the Lord God, to him whom we should love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind? We have not yet reached his presence, but we have our neighbor at our side. Support, then, this companion of your pilgrimage if you want to come into the presence of the one with whom you desire to remain for ever.

Holy Innocents-2009



A re-run from 2 years ago. But this story never wears out:

The Nativity story is a good story. Bound up with it is another story, one that barely gets noticed outside the liturgical church calendar. It is very short, tied tightly to the Epiphany, and occurs almost entirely off-stage:

"When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:
'In Ramah the sound of mourning
and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)

The power of the state is part of this story: for Luke, it is the census that forces Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and her "great with child." For Matthew, it is Herod's fear and insecurity. Walter Brueggeman would call this the theology of scarcity, and point out it's a very old game, even in Biblical history.

In the medieval play “The Play of Herod,” they take this massacre as seriously as the coming of the Magi, as the birth of the Christchild. An angel is sent from God to console Rachel, but she refuses even the aid of God. She refuses all comfort. Of course she does; she is a grieving mother; her children are gone. What comfort can be offered to her? This is real; this has happened. What else could be felt, except bottomless grief, except the sucking, horrible pain of loss?

This is not Matthew reaching for yet another scriptural reference to support his nativity story. This is not Matthew trying to shore up his tale with yet another appeal to authority. This is Matthew telling us he has no words for this horror, and he must borrow words just to be sure we feel it as it was felt by those grieving mothers and fathers. This is not Matthew telling us this is true, because scriptures predicted it. This is Matthew telling us someone else, someone earlier, described it, caught the horror of it, knew what it felt like. This is Matthew telling us this is real.

Don’t confuse “real” with “true” here. True is what the evidence says you have to accept. Matthew doesn’t offer evidence, because Matthew isn’t concerned with proving this to be true. Matthew offers us Rachel, refusing all consolation, because for this story, that reaction is real. Can you feel it? Then you know what Matthew is talking about. You know the character of the people Jesus is up against, and Jesus at this point, no more than two years old. Matthew is reaching here, not for authenticity, but for reality. If this child is truly who Matthew wants to say he is, this is how the world would react. If the birth of kings are the only important births worth noticing (and in Matthew's day, they were, an idea borrowed from the Egyptians. Even the celebration of the birth of Christ would be criticized as Egyptian, and so pagan, for the first few centuries of the church), then this birth must disturb the world, at least the world represented by Herod.

If you know Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," perhaps these words will start to insistently pound in your head, as they do in mine:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The Angels' trumps alarum sound.

The words are Robert Southwell's, but Britten sets them to an insistent, pounding rhythm, gives them a sense of urgency that threatens to break with sense and almost induce panic. In Britten's version the words rush out, tumbling over each other in their potency, their sheer physical need to be spoken, rising to a crescendo on the last line as the Angel's trumps alarums sound. That is the noise that wakes Herod from his comfortable dream.

In "The Play of Herod," as I said, they took these words very seriously, and that in a day when no Christians were truly being persecuted anywhere in Europe for their beliefs. We only imagine persecutions today; we comfort ourselves with our sense of martyrdom. But if we do so, once again, it is all about us. Rachel cannot be comforted, but that is not where the play ends:

Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

"Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?"--Gabe Huck
It isn't about us; and it isn't about our triumph, and life is not supposed to be sugar-coated and dandy just because we now "believe in God." We don't want there to be a cost to everything, especially to what we want, but that makes us Herod. We don't want to be Herod, but we don't want to acknowledge that there is a price to everything we want. We want to forget that. But Rachel can't forget. Jeremiah (whom Matthew is quoting), can't forget. Matthew can't forget. Not even Luke can forget. When Jesus is presented at the Temple, Simeon sings the last song in Luke, the Nunc Dimmitus, and it is the only song in Luke that is a song of death, but still a song of triump:

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
And then he turns to Mary and says:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
Why does this story never wear out? Well, in this case, because it is always coming about, again and again. Much like the Massacre of the Innocents. It is a part of the world we are called to redeem; called by the child in the manger, by the little two year old who threatens kings and whose life prompts horrors as well as blessings. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...." No, says the Lord; not yet. Not just yet. There is still much for you to do.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day 2009


Behold, a silly tender babe,
in freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies.
Alas, a piteous sight!
The inns are full; no man will yield
This little pilgrim bed.
But forced he is with silly beasts
in crib to shroud his head.
This stable is a Prince's court,
this crib his chair of State;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
the wooden dish his plate.
The persons in that poor attire
His royal liveries wear;
The Prince himself is come from heaven;
This pomp is prized there.
With joy approach, 0 Christian wight,
Do homage to thy King,


And highly praise his humble pomp, wich he from Heaven doth bring.

Audio here.

Christmas Day 2009



This little Babe so few days old,'
is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;
of shepherds he his muster makes;

And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
the angels' trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little Babe will be thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Audio here.

ChristmasDay 2009



There is nothing I can give you, which you have not; But there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look. Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me that angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys too: be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.

--Fra Giovanni 1513

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve-Midnight



And then at midnight, the priest comes out from behind the screen, and whispers to the person standing there; who passes the news on in a whisper, which spreads like flame, like ripples on water, across the expectant crowd:

"Christ is born.

"Christ is born."

Christ is born."


Hodie Christus natus est:
hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt angeli:
lætantur archangeli:
hodie exsultant justi dicentes:

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Today Christ is born:
today the Saviour appears:
today on earth the angels sing:
the archangels announce:
today be exultant and say together:

Glory to God in the highest.
Halleluia! Halleluia! Halleluia!
Audio here.

(When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I sang in a boy's choir that performed the "Ceremony of Carols," and I've remembered most of it ever since. For this holy season, I've decided to post some of the lyrics, though I highly recommend following the link and listening to the performance.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2009: My Soul Magnifies the Subsistence of the Lord



Micah 5:2-5a

5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Hebrews 10:5-10


10:5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;

10:6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

10:7 Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God' (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."

10:8 When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law),

10:9 then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.

10:10 And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Luke 1:39-45

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,

1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."


Noun
Singular
subsistence
Plural subsistences

as, the subsistence of qualities in bodies.
That which furnishes provisions, or that which produces provisions; livelihood; as, a meager subsistence.

(theology) A person, specifically the person of Christ or of another part of the Trinity; hypostasis.

It's a very odd thing to start a sermon, or a meditation, or just a consideration of the lectionary readings for today, with a dictionary definition. But a book I glanced through yesterday mentioned that one definition of "Subsistence" was "abstraction from existence," which seems so contrary a reading of the word as we usually use it that it struck me, and I went searching for something on-line to substantiate that definition; and I found, in part, what you just read above.

It ties into this reading in so many ways; ways that might seem frivolous or fantastical, or even fancifully French (anyone who has read anything by Derrida would know what I mean immediately). But consider: "Bethlehem," pronounced here as the birthplace of the Messiah (as Christians like Matthew and Luke later read the text) means "House of Bread." Bread is the "staff of life." Bread provides a "subsistence living." Subsistence provides a living, but is also the essential characteristic of something which exists; it is the state of having substance. It is real being. It is existence.

We ask more of the world, we say; especially at Christmas. But why? And what do we do with it? Aye, there's the rub.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

There's the Christmas promise, and it doesn't involve packages, or trees, or feasts, or wise men, or shopping. It involves subsistence, and very little more. Compare it to the words of Mary:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Her extravagant praise of God never rises above the level of subsistence. What does God do? Levels the playing field. God feeds the hungry, and lets the rich go hungry for a change. God brings the powerful down, and raises the poor up. But God does not provide mere subsistence; God is subsistence. That's the reason the baby moves in Elizabeth's womb. That's the reason Mary breaks into song. If we first encountered Luke's story as a musical, if we first heard these four songs of Luke's nativity as song, not just words, maybe we'd get that immediately. In musicals people always pour fourth their reason for living. Their song is their subsistence, it is their being, and we react to the characters more strongly for that. This Magnificat is Mary's subsistence; it is the proof that she has being, this is her existence. And it pours forth in response to the actions of God. It pours forth, and it proves and improves, life. Without putting anything under any tree. Without adding anything to our credit card balance. This song seems to take away, but it neither adds nor takes anything away; not anything we need, anyway. This song reflects the wonder of the story, the "reason for the season." This song is about the one who comes, who shall be the one of peace.

And peace, is very much a matter of subsistence. And not in the minimal sense at all, but in the essential sense.

Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Christmas Traditions



1. A glorious angel from Heaven came
Unto a virtuous maid;
Strange tidings and great news of joy
The humble Mary had.
The humble Mary had.

2. O mortal man, remember well
When Christ our Lord was born'
He was crucified betwixt two thieves
And crowned with the thorn
And crowned with the thorn.

3. O mortal man, remember well
When Christ died on the rood;
'Twas for our sins and wicked ways
Christ shed His precious blood.
Christ shed His precious blood.

4. O mortal man, remember well
When Christ was wrapped in clay;
He was taken to a sepulcher
Where no man ever lay
Where no man ever lay.

5. God bless the mistress of this house
With gold chain round her breast;
Where e'er her body sleeps or wakes,
Lord send her soul to rest,
Lord send her soul to rest.

6. God bless the master of this house
With happiness beside;
Where e'er his body rides or walks,
Lord Jesus be his guide.
Lord Jesus be his guide.

7. God bless your house, your children too,
Your cattle and your store;
The Lord increase you day by day,
And give you more and more.
And give you more and more.

--The Sussex Mummer's Carol

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Xmas Presence



The book I should have on my reading list for Christmas (it's an atavism from school days, but Christmas "break" makes me want to sit and read a book or two), if only because the final chapter on contemporary theology reminds me again (no, seriously), of what my life's work should be, but hasn't been so far.

I'm getting so tired of waiting to find out what I'm gonna be when I grow up.

In Advance of a "Traditional" Christmas



1. The first good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of one;
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
When he was first her son:

When he was first her son, good man;
And blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity

2. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of two;
To see her own son, Jesus
To make the lame to go:

To make the lame to go,
Good man, and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

3. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of three;
To see her own son, Jesus
To make the blind to see:

To make the blind to see,
Good man, and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

4. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of four;
To see her own son, Jesus
To read the Bible o'er:

To read the Bible o'er,
Good man, and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

5. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of five;
To see her own son, Jesus
To bring the dead alive:

To bring the dead alive,
Good man, and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

6. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of six;
To see her own son, Jesus Christ,
Upon the crucifix:

Upon the crucifix,
Good man, and blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

7. The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of seven;
To see her own son, Jesus
Ascending into heaven:

Ascending into Heaven
Good man, and blessed may he be
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.



The moon shines bright and the stars give light
A little before the day
Our Lord, Our God, he called on us1
And bid us awake and pray!

Awake, Awake! good people all
Awake and you shall hear
The Lord our God, died on the cross
For us whom he loved so dear

The life of man is but a span,
And cut down in its flower,
We are here to-day, and to-morrow gone,
We are all dead in an hour.

O pray teach your children, man
The while that you are here;
It will be better for your souls,
When your corpse lies on the bier.

To-day you may be alive, dear man
Worth many a thousand pound;
To-morrow may be dead, dear man,
And your body be laid under ground.5

With one turf at your head, O man,
And another at your feet;
Thy good deeds and thy bad, O man,
Will all together meet.

My song is done, I must be gone,
I can stay no longer here;
God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a happy new year!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Biding the End: Advent as the "Little Lent"



They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!"
I've noted, preparing a British Literature Survey course for December, how little poetry there is around the Christmas season in the period from Medieval England to the Restoration. Milton has a poem, Southwell "The Burning Babe," but Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" is as secular a reference as the "A Christmas Story." There are few, if any, famous or notable poems around the season until after Dickens reinvents Christmas with the book this passage comes from. And while we Americans still revere a Dickensian Christmas we've never known, Christmas today is almost entirely an American creation, from the passion for gift giving to maintaining the fantasy of Santa Claus, to the mania that starts on the Friday after the fourth Thursday of November and only finally exhausts itself on the 25th of December.

And nowhere in any of the American literature related to Christmas, do I know of a passage similar to this one. Which says as much about us, as these two stories on NPR this morning. One, a woman who worked and invested all her life, and now faces bankruptcy due to medical bills; the other, a 19 year old who faces the prospect of no medical care at all, precisely because she is young. Dickens' allegory in the middle of Scrooge's conversion makes it clear that Ignorance and Want are the creations of humanity, not the universe or God, and that humankind alone is responsible for them. It is not the natural order that 19 year olds should be denied health care because they can't afford it, or that adult Americans should face poverty because they are too old to be insurable. But we have accepted it as "natural" in this country, and our politicians defend it as preserving some kind of status quo we are not disturb, lest we disturb the universe. This, too, is peculiarly American; as peculiarly American as Christmas and our annual anxiety over "what Christmas is really about."

We settle that question every year. It's about us; and getting; and selling; and buying; and giving, but only to those worthy of a gift or two, after we've made sure we have a few things for ourselves set aside. It's about withdrawing around a comfortable hearth with those who love us most gathered 'round, and all obligations shut out of doors for at least a day or two; or maybe we drop some coins in the bell ringer's bucket. Mostly it's about blaming people for their poverty or their need or their hard circumstances, because government is not the answer and charity is only for the deserving and my wants and needs have to come first, and Christmas after all is about giving, because the Christchild was a gift and the Wise Men brought him presents, and sure it's more blessed to give than to receive, but somebody's got to do the receiving, and who is more deserving than those worthy of the presents?

We invented Christmas in this country, a little over 150 years ago, in a little over 50 years of that span, and now we wrap ourselves securely in it, and forget or ignore or overlook the lessons of the man who would grow up from the child who is "The Reason for the Season." We wrap ourselves tightly in what we have created, and we call it good, even as we bemoan the materialism of it, even as we complain about "capitalism" and "greed" and sins we never commit (but others do!), problems we have nothing to do with (but others do!). And we take up an iron pen and etch that "Doom" even more indelibly into our own foreheads, convinced that we know neither Ignorance nor Want, and convinced that is a good thing, when in fact it is all we know, and is indeed what we are wrapping ourselves in.

And when we can't understand why Christmas is never like "it's supposed to be," we never think there is a very good reason for that, and that is has very little to do with what everybody else has done to Christmas. Or what little we have done for our world, for our brothers and sisters, for the ones bemoaned and wailed over by Jacob Marley, who at least regrets in death what he did not do in life. But Marley was British, and we are Americans; and there is no such moral lesson in our literature.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday in Advent 2009: The Voice in the Wilderness



Zephaniah 3:14-20
3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:2-6
12:2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

12:4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

12:5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.

12:6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


"And the crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?' In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.'"

I should tell you this is one of my favorite passages, because it gives me Biblical warrant to get all self-righteous on everybody else about how they should behave, when I don't do any of it myself, but I don't have to, because I can just quote John the Baptist. I share food with my friends at Christmas, but I don't go out on the street and give it away to people with no food. I have at least four winter coats in my closet, in a climate where I hardly need one more than a few times a year, but I haven't so much as given any of them away to a resale shop. I don't extort money from anyone, but I'm about as satisfied with my wages as the next guy, which is to say: not at all.

But enough about me: let's talk about you.

I don't get off the hook that easily, do I?

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
I love Isaiah's words but, like most of us, I'm waiting for that day to do the rejoicing. I'm waiting, in fact, for someone else to do the rejoicing for me. I'm waiting for something to make me rejoice. I'm waiting to trust and not be afraid because the last few years especially have been hard ones for someone who thought he'd be a laborer in the vineyard. But enough about me; let's talk about you.

Let's talk about the covenant between me and you. It's what John is talking about. It's all that John is talking about. Jesus will ask, later: "Why did you go into the wilderness? To see a reed bending in the wind?" No; they went to hear about the requirements of the covenant, to find out how they should live. And John told them. Imagine the energy of the man, that people would go out to the wilderness to find him, and would listen, and even Roman soldiers would ask what they should do because they wanted to respond to him. And John didn't give them any doctrinal answer at all. He gave them the answer of St. Nicholas. He gave them the answers of Basil and Ambrose, four centuries later. He gave them the answers of Jesus, of whom he was the herald. Your neighbor is anyone who needs what you have, and you can spare. Your sister or brother is anyone you can help. He gave them the answer of Jacob Marley, 18 centuries later: "Mankind is your business!"

This is where that chain begins. With this energetic prophet in the wilderness drawing people out to see him because what he says, who he is, what he gives or demands or presents, draws them like honey draws flies, like a Christmas tree draws presents, like Christmas carols draw our memories. The covenant between us is not law or culture or tradition. It is not a creature of law, like a contract, or even comparable to a contract. It is not social or even moral or ethical. It simply is. And the coming wrath is not the terrible judgment of a vengeful God, fed up with creatures who ignore and disobey His Almighty Will: it is the consequence of our own actions and inactions and unrighteousness. It is the results of our own mistakes. What then should we do? Take better care of each other.

John never says "Fear God, and keep God's commandments," though that would be wise, and in keeping with the priestly traditions of his father. He doesn't even try to convert the Roman soldiers to Judaism. They ask what to do, he tells them. It applies to all people. The vision here is the one from Isaiah, from Micah, from the prophets: that all the people would come to the place where God dwells, because there would be justice and righteousness for all. There, the fortunes would be restored, and it would be as on the day of a festival. And from what? The consequences of our actions. The creation of the covenant by giving our second one to one who has none, or giving our food to those who are hungry, and treating everyone fairly and equally.

But enough about you; let's talk about me.

When we put this in terms of "me," then it's all about personal satisfaction. If you put this in terms of a single person, it's all about the limitations and the boundaries and the limits and how much I can, or cannot, do. It's all about my ability to alleviate the suffering of the poor, or to warm a heart, or to bring a smile, or to please a child. Christmas is a sad season for the poor, and when it's all about me, it's up to me to make Christmas happier for someone who is poor, to share my abundance with them. And if that doesn't work, well...what then?

But if Christmas is about us. and the Christchild in our midst, the little baby in the stable the angels invite us to come and visit, how does that make things different? If Christmas is about you, and you, and not about me, how does that change my expectations? And if it is for you and you and even you, not about gifts and material things, but about what you need, about what every person needs, how does that change the season?

If we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, what do we hear it saying? And if we hear what the voice is saying, what does it mean to us? To carry on as we have always done, and be blessed in whatever we were doing? Or to do something completely different? To come to the wilderness, where the shepherds are, where the prophets are, where the angels sing? To come back to the city, and see the child, and realize: enough about me, let's think about you. And if we all did that?

What then?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Christmas is a sad season for the poor"



In their comprehension of poverty and its solutions, most Americans moved little beyond Dickens. They believed their Christmas generosity praiseworthy. Charles Dudley Warner thought the present American Christmas to be "fuller of real charity and brotherly love, and nearer the Divine intention" than earlier Christmases. The New York Tribune found the holiday "hearty and generous-minded, [full of] good-cheer and open-handed hospitality." "Nowhere in Christendom," it contended, "are the poor remembered at Christmas-tide so generously as they are in American cities, especially in our own."

In this show of self-congratulation, Americans persisted in seeing poor relief as a matter of individual action to be undertaken on much the same terms as gift-giving within the circle of family. That is, Christmas was the time to give. The best and largest gifts went to those closest to the circle's center. The lesser gifts, in descending order of value, went out to relatives and acquaintances of decreasing importance. The worthy poor, as the outermost members of the larger community family, received gifts too, though the least valuable of all the gifts given.
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, p. 139, 140

Perhaps I should explain who the "worthy poor" were:

A sense that there were those who were worthy of relief and those who were not qualified the attention devoted to poverty relief [after the Civil War], though. Children almost always deserved aid, as did honest women. Seldom did the same plea go out for men. A seasonal article on the New York Tribune implored the public to provide for poor children. In 1877, it reminded readers that most Americans were "Christian people," and advised them to try their best to keep children from being deprived at this time "when they think that all good gifts and gladness come straight from Him whose birthday it is." At the same time, the paper advised the sympathetic to ignore plain street beggars.
As Restad notes:

The sentimentalization of "worthy paupers" at Christmas time, whether in fact or in fiction, did not bring into question the essential structure of the market economy that had, if only indirectly, produced their poverty. Instead, it imbued destitute women and vagabond children with admirable qualities that existed apart from materialism, perhaps even as substitues for tangible wealth. It also aroused the sympathies of readers by giving a face to poverty, and placed the means of solving the problems of hunger and homelessness in the hands of individuals.(p. 135)
I've learned to look to history for lessons in how we got here, and to understand culture as a genetic inheritance (metaphorically speaking) almost as pre-determined as eye color or gender. we think what we think and act the way we act in part because of who our ancestors were, and what they passed on as important and valuable. The "worthy poor" is an interesting category, especially at this season of the year, when even the most unbelieving among us is encouraged to reflect on the lessons of the man who grew up from the Christchild. Well, perhaps lessons is not the right word. As Bob Cratchit puts it to his wife, speaking of his youngest son:

"Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
We don't, after all, want to be reminded that Jesus never put a faith test before someone before Jesus would speak to them, and the one time it is recorded that he did, the Syro-Phoenician woman rebukes him quite accurately. We still prefer our Jesus be more like us, and to start him up from childhood that way, every new year.

I'm well aware of the John Cheever story from which I took the title for this blog. First it crossed my mind as just a good post title; then I reflected on how much it represents that American ideal that individual actions can alleviate poverty for the "worthy poor." I can't think of a story that illustrates that better than Cheever's. It's not really a question of generosity, even, because that question gets down to the issue of ownership in the first place. Restad notes in her history of Christmas in America that it was the affluence and abundance produced after the Civil War that led people to think of widening the circle of their gift-giving, to begin to include at all the "worthy poor." Hard to condemn such compassion, and any critique of it looks just like that: condemnation. But there were other voices, even in the 19th century, even in America:

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization
-- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.
-- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings
-- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play.
-- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr
There was a story about a Christmas yard display in Detroit that was too political for some of the neighbors. And generally that's our line on Christmas: we want to reserve it "for the children," and of course, that's still how we think of the "worthy poor," as children. Hard to think of men as children, so they get excluded from the "worthy poor" very easily. We also don't like quotes like those above associated with our Christmas revels. Fair enough. But perhaps even at Christmas we could look again at the ideas of scarcity and abundance, and consider again whether charity really means merely scraping the crumbs off our tables, or if it means something more.

Christmas is a sad season for the poor; but that doesn't mean it has to be; or that our charity has to be based on sorrow, either.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ne timeas, Maria



There is no rose of such vertu as is the rose that bare Jesu.
Alleluia, alleluia.
For in this rose conteinèd was heaven and earth in litel space,
Res miranda, res miranda.
By that rose we may well see there be one God in persons three,
Pares forma, pares forma,
The aungels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis,
gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gaudeamus, gaudeamus.
Leave we all this werldly mirth, and follow we this joyful birth.
Transeamus, transeamus, transeamus.
Alleluia, res miranda, pares forma, gaudeamus,
Transeamus, transeamus, transeamus.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent 2009: A Soalin'



Malachi 3:1-4
3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;

3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.

3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1:68-79
1:68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,

1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us

1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,

1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,

1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Philippians 1:3-11
1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you,

1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,

1:5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

1:6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

1:7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

1:9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight

1:10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,

1:11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;

3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Again with the covenant. But you have to start there, or the rest doesn't make any sense. You have to start there, or the story is completely out of context and becomes an empty vessel for whatever meaning you want to pour into it. And what kind of story is that?

So: again, with the covenant. It's not a very American thing, either, covenants. Obligations to others make us uncomfortable. Christmas, the season to remember the birth of the man who told us who our neighbor is, is largely a family affair in America, an occasion to remind us of the importance of hearth and home and blood relations. We have no equivalent in American Christmas literature or lore to the vision of "Ignorance" and "Want" as two starving children cowering under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, no tale that reminds us of even the cry of Jacob Marley that "mankind was my business!" Business is business, and Christmas is about business and family in America, not covenants that bind nations together with obligations that far exceed adhering to certain laws or rituals.

Hey ho, nobody home, meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry, hey ho, nobody home.
Hey ho, nobody home, meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry, hey ho, nobody home.
Hey ho, nobody home.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house, and the mistress also
And all the little children that round your table grow.
The cattle in your stable and the dog by your front door
And all that dwell within your gates
We wish you ten times more.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

Go down into the cellar and see what you can find
If the barrels are not empty we hope you will be kind
We hope you will be kind with your apple and strawber’
For we’ll come no more a ’soalin’ till this time next year.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

The streets are very dirty, my shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket to put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’ penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

Now to the lord sing praises all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace..
This holy tide of christmas of beauty and of grace,
Oh tidings of comfort and joy.
The lyrics of that Peter, Paul, and Mary song are classic English folk lyrics for Christmas. They have almost no counterpart in American history. Christmas in England, of course, included a long history of noblesse oblige, something unknown to "independent" Americans. As Penne Restad points out, the English would sing "Christmas is coming,/ the geese are getting fat,/ won't you please put a penny/in the old man's hat?" while Americans "skipped past recent histories and took the singer to Biblical times" in songs such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Our Christmas focuses on family, not on society. Those we embrace in brotherhood are already our brothers; or our sisters; by and large.

There are lots of reasons for Christmas to be this way in America. But when someone asks: "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?!", we generally answer with the domestic scene of the manger and the donkey and the oxen and the shepherds: and so seldom notice that the manger is hardly a home setting, and that shepherds usually stink, as do sheep, and nobody brought any gifts that night, although probably family was around, and accepted the strangers as welcome guests.

Look at Elizabeth's song again: there's nothing in there that is even remotely domestic. It's about the covenant: the promise of God to the children of Abraham, the people of Israel. It's about the fulfillment of that promise. It's about us, but "us" means everybody in the group, at once, together. It doesn't mean the nuclear family or the extended family around the Christmas tree; or if it is about family, it's about a family that extends much further than any family we've ever been a part of.

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
"Hey, ho, nobody home....." Holiness? Righteousness? And without fear? And what is this salvation? One who "will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness." Present offerings? Wait a minute? What about the Christmas presents? What about the stockings and the tree? Is somebody really gonna get coal and switches this year? Really? And what is this "crying out in the wilderness" stuff? Who goes out to the wilderness to get a message? If someone cries out in the wilderness and there's no one around to hear them, do they make a sound?

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.
We don't have traditions like that in our Christmas, but we know about them. We sing the songs, we listen to the stories, we know about the cries of Jacob Marley and the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. We know Christmas is connected somehow to St. Nicholas; that in some way he became, or might as well have become, Santa Claus. And we know all that tradition of gift giving is not merely pre-Christian, that it has some ecclesiastical warrant, somewhere in the history between that birth we celebrate, and now. We know gift giving is not just about family, because the gift given that makes us celebrate again was not given to us as family; but it was given to us all the same. We know this, and we appreciate Paul's prayer "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God," even though we don't much think of love leading to knowledge and insight anymore, unless it is about how important the beloved is to us, personally; individually. Even though we don't like to think that we need to produce a harvest of righteousness, whether it comes through Jesus Christ or anybody else. We know Christmas is supposed to be preceded by a refining fire; but we prefer to precede it with decorations and happy songs that remind us of sleigh rides we've never known, or ancient cities we've only imagined: anything besides the here and now.

But the herald who cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way is still in the wilderness, and his voice still carries to us where we are; wherever we are. And as if that were not miracle enough, his voice compels us to look beyond the bonds of family, to extend the season of Christmas as far as we extend the celebration of Thanksgiving: to turn, not in towards those we know, but out to those we are obliged to. To see that our faith is part of the covenant, and the covenant is part of our obligation to each other. And that that, is what Christmas is really all about.

Amen.

Friday, December 04, 2009

And so this is Christmas....again



First, Christmas as we know it in America didn't really get started until the 1820's. It wasn't widely celebrated until the 1860's, and didn't become an official national holiday until 1870. So the "observance" of it (whatever that means) is not all that old. (For a bit of perspective, A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, and many scholars today attribute the "revival" of Christmas celebrations in England to Dickens). And from almost the moment the holiday was observed as a holiday, it was connected to commerce. So the connection between Christmas and shopping, in America, is as old as Christmas in America itself.

Now there are all kinds of nonsense about Christmas being "stolen" by the Church from pagan rituals, as if the Church were a monolithic power which imposed its will on people, or performed clever subterfuges to foil their innate desires, or simply forced them to "Christianize" what were otherwise "pagan" rituals. Which is, anthropologically and historically and even sociologically speaking: balderdash. As succinct and reliable a history as any on the Web is at New Advent, the Catholic encyclopedia. It's notable that the Christ Mass (from which "Christmas" is derived) didn't exist until the 11th century (quite some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the extinction of the Empire's culture. Not too many Saturnalia's going on in the 11th century, in other words.). The first recorded observance of the birth of Christ (which is what, according to Linus Van Pelt, "Christmas is all about". I'll explain my "neutrality" on that point in a moment) is in Egypt in 200 C.E. Again, not a hotbed of Roman culture. Undoubtedly, though, the same Roman culture which inspired the idea of a republic among the "Founding Fathers" in America, and gave London it's "circus," and left behind ruins that the Danes who told the story of "Beowulf" thought the work of "giants," left its mark on celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. So probably there was a habit of exchanging small gifts among friends at the time eventually set aside for Christmas. But it wasn't the church that "stole" that from the pagans because they needed it. As I say, the Church seems to have gotten along without a formal recognition of Christmas for most of its first millenia. (If you want an idea how winter became the birthdate for Jesus, look at the New Advent link above. There are as many explanations as there are scholars to explain it, though, so don't imagine any one explanation is the "truth."). It wasn't, as I say, that "the Church" stole anything (and the distinction between the Church and the people will become important in a moment). More like something survived, or more likely, was revived. Which means the modern assumption:

Capitalism has of course very successfully colonized established holidays, in much the same way as Christianity nicked Halloween, etc., from the pagans. Christmas is nowadays pure capitalism; Santa is all about the advertising, and the marketing, and the purchasing of consumer products, despite what the kitsch figurines tell you.
is not all that historically sound. Which is where I want to take us, tripping lightly through the thorough and excellent scholarship of Penne L. Restad and her book, Christmas in America (New York: Oxford University Press 1995). It is from that book that the historical information in this post, comes.



The fact is, Christmas as we know it and celebrate it in America, is pretty much an invention of the market place, and has only and ever tangentially been related to Christmas as a religious observance, as the "Christ Mass" held to honor the birth of the Savior. It's more like the two celebrations occur coincidentally at the same time of year, than that one is a vulgar and degrading corruption of the Platonic ideal of the other. Once you understand that, the picture becomes much clearer; or perhaps darker.

If you want to understand how Christmas got started in America, consider the example of the European Feast of Fools. As New Advent says, it was "a celebration marked by much license and buffoonery." Scholars again differ on the reach and importance of this festival; some crown it as a n important "release valve" of the tensions and pressures of feudal society. Others, like Michel Foucault, downplay it was limited to northern France and a few other regions of Europe, and always opposed by the Church. The lesson for us is that this 'feast' was a folk celebration, not a church one, and its irreverence was tolerated by the Church because they couldn't stop it, more than it was encouraged as a way of reminding the peasants of their place in the hierarchy (a comparison to Christmas in the slave holding South will prove instructive here, if I remember to mention it again). Christmas, too, was a folk celebration, one more honored in the British South (thanks to the presence of the Episcopal church) than in Puritan New England (where it was officially banned for a time, in at least some of the New England states). Restad's history presents Christmas as largely a folk celebration, in contrast to Thanksgiving, which was vigorously promoted in the 19th century by Sara Josepha Hale, who did more than any individual to promote Thanksgiving as a national holiday (ironically, the objections to it were on church/state grounds. It was argued that a national day of giving thanks would violate the First Amendment, an objection that was finally obviated by the times, when Lincoln established that later became the holiday) Aside from the religious entanglement objection, Thanksgiving was regarded as more of a "New England" celebration than a national one, for much of that century. Christmas, on the other hand, crept into public celebrations from many lands and many hands, and was early on largely disconnected from any religious observance, and while promoted as connected to the Christchild, was really no more dependent upon Church sanction than it is now. The idea, in other words, that there was a "pure" Christmas observance once upon a time, which the marketplace or the public square corrupted, is as false as the idea that the Christmas celebration we know now descended in an almost unbroken line from the Saturnalia. It just happens that people like an excuse to exchange gifts and eat a lot of food, and especially for people from a northern European culture, winter is a jolly good time to do that.

The interesting thing about Christmas in America is that it's always been a glorious bastard, a jackdaw of a project grabbing "Christmas trees" from Germany (which may, or may not, be related to the "Paradeisbaum" of the medieval German morality plays) and decking the halls and boar's heads and feasting from England (which may or may not be related to, or even influenced by, Druidic practices. It's always seemed like a bit of a stretch to me to go from kissing under the mistletoe directly back to Frazer's "golden bough"). Carols were a medieval creation coming, per Restad, from pagan folk dances that people liked and simply "Christianized" (like most things, the Church couldn't beat 'em, so it joined 'em), although many of the carols we know today are products of the mid- to late 19th century (so it goes). As Restad points out, Christmas in America was cobbled together from European bits and pieces, and the parts that fit in America stuck, and the parts that didn't fell away.

We forget, too, that America initially had no holidays. Europe had them because of the church, which was universal throughout the different countries of Europe, and because of local customs. But without a universal church, or established local customs, America went, for almost a century, without any national holiday which all citizens could claim as their own. Ironically, again, that holiday became Christmas; but not because all Americans were, or were even presumed to be, Christians.

Stephen Nissenbaum argues that the American Christmas was formed more by Clement Clark Moore's poem than any other single source. Accepting his position arguendo, what is most notable about "The Night Before Christmas" is that it creates a holiday and the celebration of it, without ever getting closer to religion than the word "Christmas" (which the Puritan New Englanders despised as a "Romish" word, but which, by Moore's day, had lost almost all religious connotation). This was more a feature than a bug in the 19th century. Dicken's Christmas Carol comes closer to invoking the religious reasons for the season, but he does it mostly in terms of Victorian sentimentality, than in terms of any church doctrine. Penne Restad points out that Christmas was grabbed onto by merchants in America almost as soon as it emerged as a public celebration. The emergence of the holiday coincided with a renewed interest in the power and importance of domesticity, an interest probably prompted by the Industrial Revolution and the quick acceptance by Americans of the ideals of the Romantic movement. Personally I think it was a combination of Romanticism and the Pietistic movement of the 17th century, which effects lingered long in a Protestant dominated culture, but Restad makes clear the connections between the desires for domestic values and the importance of a uniting holiday, one everyone could gather into despite cultural ("Germany" as we know it, for example, didn't exist in the 19th century. We often overlook how many cultural differences there were between Europeans, differences that carried over into America) and doctrinal differences. In this sense, Christmas was the first truly "American" holiday. Grafted onto European roots, without doubt; but made a holiday both observant Christians and non-Christians (and yes, there were some, even in the 19th century!) could engage in. It's not at all insignificant that Christmas in America began as a religious observance almost anyone could join, and quickly became a public holiday everyone could revel in. And aside from the Puritan's objections to the holiday's Catholic roots, it was the revelry they objected to almost as much.

I have a book of Texas related Christmas stories, one of which tells the fictional story of an East Texas Christmas celebration. The celebration consists largely of a family gathering in the isolating woods of East Texas farms, and the children setting off firecrackers, followed by the men firing off guns and drinking rather heavily. To modern sensibilities, it's a bit of a frightening tale, and you keep expecting someone to get hurt in the semi-controlled mayhem. The climax of the festivities comes when the men take their shotguns and fire at the target of the gate down the drive from the house. They end up splintering it into kindling, and it was a nice, new gate. Fireworks exhausted and shotgun shells expended and whiskey consumed, they go to bed and wake early the next morning to eat a simply country meal. But the story closes with the family patriarch, who did the most damage to his own gate, kissing his wife (in public!) and grinning widely as he says: "I had me some Christmas!" No presents, no treats, no store-bought goodies except the firecrackers and the shotgun shells, but a raucous celebration nonetheless. Connected to the Feast of Fools, or Saturnalias? Not likely; but as I say, it's a good time of year to celebrate a bit freely.

As for the Roman Saturnalia, this will give an idea how it was celebrated:

For New Year, Posumus, ten years ago,
You sent me four pounds of good silver-plate.
The next year, hoping for a rise in weight
(For gifts should either stay the same or grow),
I got two pounds. The third and fourth produced
Inferior presents, and the fifth year's weighed
Only a pound--Septicus' work, ill-made
Into the bargain. Next I was reduced
To an eight-ounce oblong salad-platter, soon
It was a miniature cup that tipped the scales
At even less. A tiny two-ounce sppon
Was the eighth year's surprise. The ninth, at length,
And grudgingly, disgorged a pick for snails
Lighter than a needle. Now, I note, the tenth
Has come and gone with nothing in its train.
I miss the old four pounds! Let's start again!

Martial, tr. James Michie
I'm not sure what the Church took from that, but it wasn't much of a bargain.



Where were we then? Oh, yes: Christmas has always been two things at once, especially in America. It's never been a particularly religious holiday, so much as it's been a holiday named for and celebrated around a religious observance (which is still more honored in the breach than in the keeping). Christmas became, almost as soon as it was universally celebrated, a celebration of hearth and home, of domesticity (to this day, does a Christmas tree remind you first of Rockefeller Center, or of your childhood home?) Restad shows us that the Christmas tree itself became an American custom because it came with stories of German families gathered around a small tree on a table top, revealed in all its decorations and offerings of presents by the parents to the excited children. It was the American twist that the tree got bigger and bigger until it had to scrape whatever ceiling it was placed under from the floor on which it had to sit. Some things truly never change.



So is our Christmas ruined by all this commercialism? Depends on whether or not you agree with Linus about "what Christmas is all about." I like his answer, personally. But that's the answer for some of us; it isn't, and doesn't have to be, the answer for all of us. Let it be unto you according to your...well, faith, is how the German E&R Church concluded that blessing. But this isn't necessarily a matter of faith. So let it be unto you according to your best interest. Keep Christmas as it best suits you. And may it be a blessing unto you. Now, and into the ages.

SNOW!!!!!!!!!



Okay, it's 38F, and it looks nothing like that picture, and it isn't so much as sticking (and in fact, is barely snowing), but the prediction is for 2-4" (which means it's gonna have to get colder, which is bad, because it's gonna get icy first, and I'm a freeway or two away from home.). And for snow that was promised at 8 p.m. to come at 8 a.m. on near-enough-for-dammit the Texas Gulf Coast, well, it's about as exciting as December gets.

Especially since we could well be back up to the 70's by Christmas Day. Ya never know.



(I couldn't resist adding it.)