Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Joy

"Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

"No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no person free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he received the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

"In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God's wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown humankind.

"And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to his people on earth as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God's goodness, what joy should it not bring to lowly hearts?

"Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh... Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom."

(From a sermon by Pope Leo the Great, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season and Christmas Season, pp. 404-405. I made the language inclusive in three places.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beethoven's Birthday

Happy Beethoven’s Birthday! His baptism on December 17, 1770 is documented, and scholars assume his birthday was December 15 or 16, because babies were typically baptized at a day or two old.  When I was little, I loved the Peanuts comics and enjoyed getting paperback collections of the strips. Nearly every December 16, the story concerned Beethoven’s birthday and Schroeder’s celebration of it. Of course, Schroeder also performed Beethoven sonatas and other works on his toy piano.

Thus inspired by a favorite comic strip, I liked certain Beethoven compositions when I was young. In those days, the Huntley-Brinkley evening news on NBC concluded with the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth. I wrote NBC to find out the title and got a letter back! Subsequently, I found a used recording of the symphony at our hometown library’s annual book sale. Eventually, I also found LPs of the fifth and seventh symphonies and some of his named sonatas. I took piano lessons, but somehow never managed the spontaneous, unpracticed skill of Schroeder.

Our library acquired a copy of George R. Marek’s Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (Funk & Wagnall’s, 1969) when it was published or perhaps the following year. I didn't read the whole book but I enjoyed checking it out. I was 12 in 1969, and at 13 and 14 I had unrequited crushes on a couple of girls, which unfortunately aggravated some childhood depression I’d had even earlier. Feeling scarily hopeless at such a young age, I found comfort in the fact that, as Marek discussed, Beethoven struggled for acceptance, too!

Marek’s chapter on “The Immortal Beloved” is interesting. Beethoven's letter to his “Unsterbliche Geliebte,” dated July 6-7 and later analyzed to be 1812, was found among his effects after he died. But who was the woman, to whom Beethoven wrote with such passion? Was the letter returned to him, or did he never send it? Reviewing the numerous women important to Beethoven---like Josephine Brunsvik, Guilietta Guicciardi, Amalie Sebald, Bettina Brentano, and Therese Brunsvik---Marek builds an interesting and convincing circumstantial case for Dorothea Ertmann, although (from what little I’ve read on the subject), many scholars argue for Josephine Brunsvik. From time to time I still leaf through my own copy of the thick book, which gives an excellent sense of the composer’s era and life.

In a funny way, Beethoven sticks to my childhood Christmas memories, I suppose because of the Peanuts paperback collections, some of which I received as presents. And, of course, December 16 was, at least for the prodigy Schroeder, a significant day just nine days from Christmas, with a gladness all its own.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Carols

Here is an interesting excerpt from David Vernier, “From Christemasse to Carole,” in Winter 2010 issue of Listen magazine (article is pages 39-42).

He notes that we don't know what part of the year Jesus was born, and that the December 25th date of Christmas was probably chosen because it was already a non-Christian holiday, the solar feast Natalis Invicti on the Roman calendar's winter equinox. “However it happened, once the time of year was official determined (probably sometime in the fourth century), the course of Christmas music history was set. Not only did the ‘bleak mid-winter’ become one of the more vivid and affecting images of the season, but a whole body of songs, hymns and carols began to capitalize on the dramatic possibilities of cold, snow and wintertime activities and necessities. The shepherds in the fields, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the stark rudeness of the stable, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the brilliance of the stars--all took on a more compelling aspect in the context of a cold and dark winter.

"Carols were especially good at conveying these many moods--elation, wonder, appreciation, reverence--and their texts, written in the local vernacular, told compelling stories. The carol, from the French carole, was originally a type of dance performed in a circle. The music was characterized by a refrain sung before and after each verse---and often there were many, many verses. Carols were composed and sung for all sorts of occasions and were not specifically tied to Christmas. Today the term is almost exclusively applied to Christmas music--and many of the pieces we call carols are technically hymns or songs” (pp. 41-42).

(This was a post from last December.)

"Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces"

This Advent I’ve been listening to and reading a remarkable book, with two SACDs, entitled "Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces." A couple years ago I saw the set reviewed in Gramophone magazine, but I didn’t happen to seek it out until the most recent issue of Gramophone (November 2011) featured the Spanish early music specialist Jordi Savall on the cover, reminding me of the "Jerusalem" project.

Savall and his wife Montserrat Figuera, and their ensemble Hesperion XII have produced several sets on their own label, Alia Vox, some of which I hope to explore in the future. For this Jerusalem album and book, the groups Hesperion XII and La Capella Reial de Catalunya as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim musicians from among both European and Middle Eastern countries. perform a homage to Jerusalem.

The project attempts the “enormous and almost impossible challenge to evoke some of the key moments in the history and music” of Jerusalem. All the material invokes Jerusalem’s history from the point of views of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heritage, the city’s heritage as both a “city of pilgrimage” and a symbol of exile and refuge,” as well as the ever-present concern for peace.  The music and words include recitations from the Qur’an, Psalms (121, 122, 137), Talmudic reflections, the sound of shofars, dances, songs from the Crusades, songs of Jews, Palestinians, and Armenians, pleas for peace in Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, and Gregorian chant, as well as anonymous songs.

All this music and text is given historical context (pp. 110-120, 128-143), and this material is provided in eight languages: French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Included are not only standard pictures of the musicians but also interesting art from different cultures relating to Jerusalem.

The introduction’s author notes that one etymology of the Hebrew name for Jerusalem is “city of two peaces,” that is, the “heavenly peace” promised in prophetic texts, and the “earthly peace” sought by the city’s political leadership over the past five millennia.  “Sanctified by the three great monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean, Jerusalem soon became the focus of prayers and longing. Desired by all, she has been the goal, aim and destination of pilgrims of all persuasions who flock to her gates in peace, but also the objective of soldiers and armies in pursuit of war, who have besieged and burned the city, bringing ruin and devastation more than forty times throughout her long history.” (p. 101).

The project aims not only to trace Jerusalem’s political and spiritual history through texts and music, but also to invoke peace. “A peace born out of a dialogue based on empathy and mutual respect is, despite the enormous difficulties involved, a necessary and desirable path for all concerned” (p. 1). The artists see Jerusalem as a “symbol of all mankind,” and thus a symbol of the urgency of peace in the 21st century (p. 21).

Witnessing to peace comes out of Savall's artistic credo: in that Gramophone article (p. 37), he comments, "We musicians sometimes forget how powerfully what we do can act on people's lives, how it can heal them."

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Can't-Sit-Still Feeling of Expectancy

Nancy Gibbs writes an essay, "The Gospel of Glee," in the Dec. 7, 2009 issue of Time (p. 112). She writes that "a bright, earnest youth minister" had told a group of kids that the television show "Glee" is "anti-Christian" because it "portrays Christians as phonies and hypocrites."

I never feel at all sympathetic toward Christians who think that the media persecutes them. I wonder, instead, what it is about us Christians that conveys that impression: maybe a lot of us are behavior-centered, disapproving, and inconsistent---off-putting because of ourselves rather than because of our message.

How might Christians convey a different "signal" to the world? Several ways, I think, but one is to talk more about the Gospel--the person and work of Christ which accomplishes our salvation regardless of anything we could ever do---than about behavior and our perceived place in the culture.

For my 2009 Advent study book for Abingdon Press, I found this comment from the Bible scholar William Barclay: Christians, he says, should be people “in a permanent sate of expectation.” [1] We can live in hope about the fullness of Christ’s presence. This isn't the same thing as wishing our physical lives were over! It means that, as long as we do live, we feel happy and hopeful at God’s steadfast love, and confident in the blessings God bestows for this life and the next. We could even dare admit that we are not perfect and get a very great deal wrong in our lives, but that God is steadfast.

What wonderful hope we can have! I enjoy the movie The Shawshank Redemption and its theme of hope. Of the two major characters, Andy has hope (symbolized in his love of music and chess) but his friend Red believes that hope is deceptive and prevents a person from accepting reality as it is. After the movie has passed you through several despairing circumstances, the last five or ten minutes of the movie are so uplifting: Red arrives at a point where he does feel hope. He’s so happy “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.”

Some of the joyful Christians whom I’ve known are very hopeful people, both in head and heart. Sure, you meet Christians who aren't very happy, who are angry or put-upon. I've struggled my whole life with mild depression, so I know about "blues" myself.  Let's not judge others too harshly; let's pray that God's love continues to work in all our lives. Joy and hope can be ours because God’s promises are absolutely certain, and far greater than our personality traits and changing emotions.

I believe God works constantly to remind us of the divine love. I also believe that God prepares us to be ready. Thus the power of Jesus’ words: we shouldn’t succumb to “the worries of this life” in case the day of the Lord should “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Luke 21: 34-35). Advent can be a wonderful time to reacquaint ourselves with God's love and grace.

1. The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, by William Barclay (The Westminster Press, 1975), page 261.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Rest a While in God"

A psalm-like reading from St. Anselm’s Proslogion, for the first Friday in Advent and appropriate for the "seeking" quality of the Advent season.

"Insignificant [person], escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.

"Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire.

"Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here where shall I look for you in your absence? Yet if you are everywhere, why do I not see you when you are present? But surely you dwell in ‘light inaccessible.’ And where is light inaccessible? How shall I approach light inaccessible? Or who will lead me and bring me into it that I may see you there? And the, by what signs and under what forms shall I seek you? I have never seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.

"Lord most high, what shall this exile do, so far from you? What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and cast so far from your face? He yearns to see you, and your face is too far form him. He desires to approach you, and your dwelling in unapproachable. He longs to find you, and does not know your dwelling place. He strives to look for you, and does not know your face.

"Lord, you are my God and you are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and you have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know you. I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet done that for which I was made.

"Lord, how long will it be? How long, Lord, will you forget us? How long will you turn your face away from us? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face? When will you give yourself back to us?

"Look upon us, Lord, and hear us and enlighten us, show us your very self. Restore yourself to us that it may go well with us whose life is so evil without you. Take pity on our efforts and our striving toward you, for we have no strength apart from you.

"Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you and love you in finding you."

From The Liturgy of the Hours: I, Advent Season, Christmas Season (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1975), 184-185. I enjoyed studying Anselm in two of my degree programs, both in his reflections on the atonement and his ontological argument subsequently used by Karl Barth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Do you have a favorite Advent or Christmas hymn? Usually, mine would be "Joy to the World," in a close tie with the Wexford Carol... although I also love "The First Noel," and then there's also ...

Driving home from teaching classes the other day, I was listening to the Sirius XM "Holiday Pops" channel. "Joy to the World" joined other pieces--choral music, instrumentals, hymns, and carols. Like so many hymns, I sing the verses and know what they say, but I don't always think about them. This time, a line stood out: "Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy."

People sing praises to the newborn Jesus, and then Creation repeats the praises. What an interesting image! I connected this verse in my mind to Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In other words, Creation praises God with a "voice" that does not use words and speech, but that "voice" is very clearly heard and understood as praise.

The psalmist continues:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

As Creation praises God for his care, the psalmist praises God for crucial aspects of God's care for humans: his redemption, teachings, commandments, and guidance.

Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. For thirty-two verses the psalmist praises God for his creation and sustenance, and then in the last few verses, the psalmist joins the praise of Creation and humbly rejoices in God.

Then I thought of Colossians 1:15-20.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The psalmists praise God's creation and redemption alike, while the author of Colossians writes a kind of "psalm" that connects creation, redemption, and Christ. The New Interpreter's Bible commentator on Colossians notes that "Christ is not simply to be seen as the firstborn of all creation (1:15); rather, all things were created in, through, and for him (1:16). God is the Creator, but Christ is both an agent of creation and, more than that, its goal...he is also the one to whom all creation is directed, the very purpose of its existence. Not only so, but all things hold together in him (1:17); their integrity and coherence depend on his role." Creation is also "in need of reconciliation," since evil and dark powers still pervade the world (1:13), nevertheless, "Through Christ the powers have already been pacified and reintegrated into God's purposes, and believers can already appropriate this achievement, but the full recognition of their new situation by the powers themselves awaits the eschaton." (p. 570).

I suppose the popular image of animals gathering around Jesus' manger is a way of conveying the connection of Jesus' birth with human salvation and with Creation's praises to God.

As I listened to "Joy to the World," the word "flood" stuck in my mind. The things that "repeat the sounding joy" are positive things in the way a flood is not. Floods are destructive, although in an arid region, an overabundance of water could be a good thing. But floods (and any manifestation of weather) are part of God's creation, too, although we rightly lament the destruction and personal and economic hardships resulting from bad weather. This was a key point in Annie Dillard's classic book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, that the hideous and inexplicable aspects of Creation force us to offer praise to God, too, although in much more difficult ways than the praise we offer when we're happy and things are orderly. 

Advent is traditionally a penitential period in the church's liturgical calendar, and if snow falls in December, the landscape takes on a pretty bleakness in keeping with Advent solemnity. But amid all the liturgical and commercial aspects of the month, we can increase our sense of joy and wonder at Christ's birth by looking around us: at Creation, which in its own way is singing (Ps. 19:4).

(A post from last year, 12/15/10)