Thursday, December 31, 2015

Interfaith Days: Watch Night

This post concludes my year-long project: following the holidays of world religions, based on the calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis. I started this journey last year with this post, and I posted 117 short descriptions altogether. The DAP has already published its calendar of interfaith holidays for 2016. See all their work at their website,

Tonight, we look with hope to the new year. On the Gregorian calendar, New Year's Eve is a night of festivities and gatherings to welcome the new year. In some Christian churches it is also a occasion for a "watch night service," for confession, review of the just-past year, and prayers and resolution for the new year. John Wesley, for instance, began in 1740 what he called Covenant Renewal Services for prayers, readings, singing, and worship. The United Methodist Book of Worship has the liturgy for this service. Other churches have similar occasions.

Watch Night became important for African Americans congregations, as well, because slaves waited in churches on December 31, 1862, for the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect the next day. In this contemporary moment, when the call Black Lives Matter is raised around the nation, prayers for justice and liberation will take on all the more urgency this night.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

For All the Saints: Thomas Becket

In Roman Catholic churches and the Anglican communion, Thomas Becket is honored today, the anniversary of his assassination. he was born in 1119 or 1120, and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1164. That same year, King Henry II acted to achieve a lessened connection of the English church to Rome and also less clerical independence. He was able to gain the consent of all the higher clergy of England---all but Becket. Over the course of the next few years, Becket still would not give his formal consent, and when Henry expressed his frustration aloud---one version of what he said is, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"---four of the king's knights took the words as an order to kill Becket, which they did at Canterbury on December 29, 1170.

Becket was canonized quickly, by 1172, and his reputation as a faithful servant and martyr grew through the years. The poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson and T.S. Eliot and the dramatist Jean Anouilh wrote plays him. A famous quotation from Eliot's play (Murder at the Cathedral) comes from Becket's struggles with pride and right motives.

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tamir Rice Grand Jury

A few articles today about the Tamir Rice case. Twelve-year-old Tamir was holding a toy gun on a Cleveland, OH playground when a police officer shot and fatally wounded him. The grand jury announced today that no charges would be filed against the officer and his partner. The prosecutor argued that the law favors officers who must decide quickly if their lives are in danger or not. Here is a story about the announcement:

Here is the story in The Atlantic:

Here is a powerful observation by Charles Blow, from last January, in his NYT piece:

Here is an NPR piece about the way such cases are handled: "[S]ince Ferguson, there's been a growing sense that the real conflict of interest is higher up — at the level of the local prosecutors.For prosecutors and grand juries, the decision to charge a cop is different from deciding whether to charge a civilian. There are good legal reasons for this — after all, cops are allowed to shoot people, if circumstances warrant. But ...'Prosecutors do not seem to approach police shooting cases the way that they approach ordinary shooting cases'…"


And a story about the boy's family:

And yet another thought-provoking essay:

And… a good article that argues "there never was a war on cops"

A Year's Music: Finzi's "Dies Natalis"

In this post a few years ago, I wrote about the English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). There, I quoted a music critic who wrote,  “Finzi’s music is rooted in the tradition of Elgar and his lifelong friend Vaughan Williams. It was his response to words, however, that gave his music is particular individuality, resulting in music that seems inevitably to mirror the essence of the poet’s thoughts.  As in … Thomas Hardy, a sense of urgency can be felt in the music reflecting his keen awareness of life’s frailty. A further preoccupation wash is believe that adult experience tarnishes the innocent wonder of childhood."

I love "Dies Natalis", a cantata for solo soprano or tenor and string orchestra. The four texts, which follow a beautiful orchestral introduction, are by the 17th century Metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. Here is a lovely performance of the piece:
Good ol' Wikipedia provides the texts:

Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness? I was a stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys: my knowledge was divine. I was entertained like an angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory. Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam than to me. Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. All things were spotless and pure and glorious.

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The green trees, when I saw them first, transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things.

O what venerable creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! and the young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! I knew not that they were born or should die ; but all things abided eternally. I knew not that there were sins or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, free and immortal.

The Rapture
Sweet Infancy!
O heavenly fire! O sacred Light!
How fair and bright!
How great am I
Whom the whole world doth magnify!

O heavenly Joy!
O great and sacred blessedness
Which I possess!
So great a joy
Who did into my arms convey?

From God above
Being sent, the gift doth me enflame,
To praise His Name.
The stars do move,
The sun doth shine, to show His Love.

O how divine
Am I! To all this sacred wealth
This life and health,
Who rais'd? Who mine
Did make the same! What hand divine!

How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity
In which my soul did walk;
And every thing that I did see
Did with me talk.

The skies in their magnificence
The lovely, lively air,
O how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense;
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great, did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.

A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all His Glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all Spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But 'twas Divine.

The Salutation
These little limbs, these eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins;
Where have ye been? Behind what curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

When silent I, so many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie, how could I smiles, or tears,
Or lips, or hands, or eyes, or ears perceive?
Welcome, ye treasures which I now receive.

From dust I rise and out of nothing now awake,
These brighter regions which salute my eyes,
A gift from God I take, the earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine: if these I prize.

A stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange glory see,
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange, all, and new to me: But that they mine should be who nothing was,
That strangest is of all; yet brought to pass.

Interfaith Days: Holy Innocents

In Christianity, this day commemorates the Holy Innocents, the tragedy recorded in the Gospel of Matthew where King Herod orders the killing of all the young male children in and around Bethlehem in order to slay Jesus. Matthew uses the story (which apparently has no historical evidence apart from the gospel account) as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and it connects the baby Jesus to the baby Moses, who also escaped a similar massacre. This is also a day of commemoration on Western church calendars; Orthodox churches commemorate the Holy Innocents on December 29th.

This site gives some of the historical information about the day.

Tomorrow (December 29, 2015) is also the 125th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, another kind of slaughter of innocent persons.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

For All the Saints: John the Apostle

In the Western Churches, John the Apostle is honored today. He is honored on May 8th in Orthodox Churches. He was one of Jesus' twelve students, brother of the apostle James, and son of Zebedee and Salone. Traditionally, he is said to be the only of the apostles to die a natural death. Also by church tradition, he is considered the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel of John, and also the author of that account, as well as other New Testament writings. The Roman Catholic site has this nice account of John.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

For All the Saints: Stephen

Today is St. Stephen's Day in many Western Churches; in many Eastern churches, his day is tomorrow. Stephen is considered the first martyr of Christianity, according to the Book of Acts; he was executed on a charge of blasphemy after he gave a lengthy speech about biblical history and Jesus (Acts 7). Another significant thing about his speech and death is that Saul of Tarsus, whose story is also told in Acts, was nearby. He was also among the first deacons selected to serve the needy of the church. St. Stephen's Day is a public holiday in several countries.

The site of Orthodox Saints adds: "According to holy tradition, the martyrdom of St Stephen occurred exactly a year after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. His body was taken and secretly buried by Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhendrin and secretly a Christian.

"Saint Stephen's relics were discovered by the priest Lucian in 415 following a vision. They were translated to the church built for them in Jerusalem by the Empress Eudocia, and later taken to Constantinople."

Interfaith Days: Kwanzaa, Zarathosht Diso

In the Zoroastrian religion, today is Zarathosht Diso, the anniversary of the death of the prophet Zoroaster. It is a day of prayers, along with discussions on and remembrance of the prophet's life. This site provides more information.

Today is also the beginning of Kwanzaa, the pan-African celebration created by Maulana Karenga and first celebrated in 1966-1967. As the official site indicates, "As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community, Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense." Here are the seven core principles of Kwanzaa:

Friday, December 25, 2015

Interfaith Days: Christmas

Of course, today is Christmas (from "Christ's Mass"), or Christmas Day, the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, and is the beginning of Christmastide, the twelve-day period following. This site provides historical information about the holiday and its development.

I've posted this sermon selection in previous years: "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.)

A Year's Music: RVW's "Hodie"

Hodie Christus natus est: hodie salvator apparuit
(This day, Christ is born: Today the Savior appeared)

I got up early this morning to listen to this piece, one of my favorite works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He composed the cantata "Hodie" in 1953 and 1954, his last major choral work. (He died in 1958.) The cantata is in sixteen movements. The text blends biblical texts about Jesus' birth with poetry by Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, John Milton,   Ursula Vaughan Williams, William Drummond, and other texts. This site provides most of the texts, while this site, a doctoral thesis, gives detailed analysis of the work.

Here is the work on YouTube. I particularly love Milton's poem, "It was the winter wild" (at 8:42 on this video), and Herbert's poem, "The shepherds sing" (29:26).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Old Sears Wish Book

When I was ten in 1967, I got the notion that I wanted to save that year's Sears Christmas catalog "for posterity." I was a nerdy kid, interested in science but more interested in history than I realized. Partly aided by the fact that my parents rarely threw anything away, I managed to keep the catalog all these years, although I hadn't seen it lately. It reappeared this past summer when I sorted boxes in our basement storage room.

How interesting to look at the prices of things: board games were around $3, construction toys 8 to 10 dollars, talking dolls about $10, men's suits about $30, an 18-inch TV about $120. I found this site which features several representative pages. That year, the catalog was Dennis the Menace themed. After I placed this picture of the catalog on Facebook, a classmate commented she had fallen in love with a big toy collie in that same catalog and had begged her parents for it. I found it on page 582 and shared the picture with my friend.

I leafed through the pages and smiled at the different clothing styles, especially the 60s women's dresses. I wondered whether I'd recognize any of the toys I might have gotten for Christmas that year, and I'm guessing I got the chemistry set and the microscope. From this site, I see that 1967 was the last year the catalog was called the Christmas Book; in 1968 it officially became The Wish Book, as it had been informally called for years. Enterprising preservationists have scanned several vintage catalogs for their site

For as long as they were produced, the big semi-annual catalogs from Sears, Penney's, Montgomery Ward, and other stores were enjoyable for many of us. But the Christmas catalogs were especially thrilling for generations of kids. Although A Christmas Story's Ralphie didn't reference the Wish Book, his joyful declaration about Christmas expresses humorously the feeling many of us had when the catalog came: "We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice." What a wonderful, shared cultural experience of searching the pages of toys, games, and other treasures in advance of Santa's arrival!

Interfaith Days: Tenth of Tevet
In Judaism, today is the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day. It commemorates the 6th century BCE events at the end of 2 Kings, when Nebachadnezzar II of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and ultimately destroyed the First Temple and conquered Judah. As this site indicates, "More recently, 10 Tevet was chosen to also serve as a “general kaddish day” for the victims of the Holocaust, many of whose day of martyrdom is unknown."

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Year's Music: Bach's "Christmas Oratorio"

Continuing until Advent 2016, I plan to listen each week to at least one musical work with some sacred or spiritual dimension, as a kind of pleasurable spiritual discipline.

These past few days I've been listening to Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium (BWV 248), but it's a piece I enjoy all year, at least sampling among the several numbers.

In December 2013 and January 2014 I wrote on this blog about Bach's Advent and Christmas cantatas. Wonderful as these are, we've even more Bach seasonal music in the oratorio, which was written for the 1734 season. The six sections are for each of the major feast days from Christmas to Epiphany: Jesus' birth, the annunciation to the shepherds, the shepherds' visit, Jesus' naming and circumcision, the Magis' journey, and the Magis' adoration.

I forget when I first listened to the piece, probably the Decca LP set with Karl Münchinger conducting (Peter Pears, tenor, Helen Watts, alto, Tom Krause, bass, Elly Ameling, soprano). I've always loved the sound of the opening words: so German!

Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage
(Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day!)

But I also particularly love the alto aria in Part II, "Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh" (Sleep now, my dearest, enjoy now thy rest), as well as other numbers.

Here is the whole piece, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, who is such a master at Bach performance and scholarship:

The Bach Cantatas site has a lot more information about the pice, as does good ol' Wikipedia.

For All the Saints: Procopius of Vyatka

I found an interesting saint, honored today on the Orthodox calendar: Saint Procopius of Vyatka, Fool for Christ. What a calling! That site reads:

"Saint Procopius, the son of devout peasants, first feigned madness to escape a marriage that was being urged on him. He spent his life in the streets half-naked, slept wherever night overtook him and would never accept the shelter of a house. He used signs to make himself understood and never spoke a word, except to his spiritual father, with whom he would converse normally as a man in possession of all his faculties. When he was given an article of clothing, he wore it for a while out of obedience and then give it away to someone poor. When he visited the sick, he set fire to the beds of those who were going to get better, and rolled up in their sheets those who were going to die. He made many predictions, often by means of disconcerting prophetic signs, whose meaning became clear with the event. He spent thirty years in foolishness for Christ and, having foretold his death, fell asleep in peace in 1627." (Synaxarion)

Interfaith Days: Yule

Today is Yule, or Yuletide, originally a Germanic festival connected to the god Odin and also the Anglo-Saxon festival Modraniht. Some of the festival's aspects, notably the Yule log, entered into Christian observance of Christmastide, and the word "yule" has entered into other languages (e.g., Jul in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden) in connection to the holiday.

In modern Neopaganism and in Wicca, the festival centers on the winter solstice. This site, for instance, gives several aspects of the Wiccan observance. This site is also informative.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

For All the Saints: Katharina von Bora

In Lutheran churches, Katharina von Bora is honored today, the anniversary of her 1552 death. Born in 1499, she was educated in monasteries and became a nun, but she became interested in the reform movement and asked Martin Luther for help in fleeing the monastery. Luther did so, and in fact, Luther soon married her (1525). They lived at a former monastery where Katharina administered the continuing business aspects of the facility, including a hospital and a brewery. She had six children by Luther, three of whom grew to adulthood, and they also raised four orphans. She survived Luther by six years and led a a turbulent, eventful life. She is said to have declared on her deathbed, "I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth." See also this site and this site.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

For All the Saints: William Lloyd Garrison, Maria W. Stewart

On the Episcopal calendar, two prophetic voices are honored today. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was the editor of the famous abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which began in 1831. He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. During his career he faced death threats and mob violence as he continued to call for "immediate emancipation" of American slaves. After the Civil War, he continued a long-time interest in women's suffrage.

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1880) was a former domestic servant who became a prominent African American journalist and lecturer. She was the first African American woman to make public lectures and first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of whites and blacks and women and men. Garrison's newspaper published her pamphlets. She was also a leader in women's suffrage.

Monday, December 14, 2015

For All the Saints: John of the Cross

On Western Christian calendars, St. John of the Cross, O.C.D., is honored today. This Spanish friar and priest lived from 1542 till 1591. He was a significant figure in the Counter-Reformation, including his reforming work for the Carmelite Order. He and St. Teresa of Avila founded the Discalced Carmelites mendicant order. Suffering privation during his life and also imprisonment, he therein found the love of God which he expressed in hundreds of poems, some of which are classics of Spanish literature. The phrase "dark night of the soul" originates from the poem of that title, which traces the soul's journey to God. His other works include Ascent of Mount Carmel, and A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul. He is considered one of the "doctors of the church," those who contributed significantly to the church and its theology. Salvador Dali's painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross is based on a drawing by St. John.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Year's Music: Hovhaness' Magnificat

Continuing until Advent 2016, I plan to listen each week to at least one musical work with some sacred or spiritual dimension, as a kind of pleasurable spiritual discipline.

This morning, our pastor preached on Mary and the Magnificat. Over the weekend I've been listening "Magnificat," by a favorite composer, Alan Hovhaness, about whom I write here.

This site, describing the recording to which I'm listening, provides information about the piece, for instance: "Hovhaness shows us another side of his spirituality in 'Magnificat,' of which he says 'I have tried to suggest the mystery, inspiration, and mysticism of early Christianity in this work.' His blend of Eastern and Western styles allows him to suggest the Near Eastern and Orthodox elements of early Christianity in this music, which is as haunting, as mesmerizing as we’ve come to expect from Hovhaness – perhaps even more so with its chant-like vocal lines."I particularly love the "Gloria" section at the end.

Here is a recording of the piece, on YouTube:
There are many other Magnificats in music, and I hope to get to others during the upcoming year.

For All the Saints: St. Lucy

On nearly all Christian calendars, today is the day St. Lucy (in Italian, Santa Lucia) is honored. Wikipedia provides many of the kinds of celebrations of St. Lucy's Day, including Scandinavia and Italy. One of the eight women commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass, she was about twenty when she was martyred, circa 304 in Syracuse, during the Diocletian Persecution. The earliest accounts of her life are from the 400s, Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea. By the Middle Ages, legends developed that her eyes were  gouged out (or that she removed her own eyes) prior to execution, but that her eyes were miraculously restored when her body was taken for burial. The legends implicitly connect eyes with the Latin word for light (lux, plural luces) and her name, as does the prayer at this site:

Saint Lucy, you did not hide your light under a basket, but let it shine for the whole world, for all the centuries to see. We may not suffer torture in our lives the way you did, but we are still called to let the light of our Christianity illumine our daily lives. Please help us to have the courage to bring our Christianity into our work, our recreation, our relationships, our conversation -- every corner of our day. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

For All the Saints: Karl Barth and Thomas Merton

Two significant and prolific Christian thinkers are honored on some church calendars today, the anniversary of their deaths. They both died on the same day, in fact, December 10, 1968.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is close to my heart because I did my doctoral dissertation on his theology, and I visited his hometown and grave this past summer. He was a Swiss Reformed theologian who began as a pastor. Discouraged by the popular liberal theology of his time, he wrote a commentary on the letter to the Romans, Der Römerbrief (1919, revised 1922), which unexpectedly propelled him to the center of theological discussion. His "dialectical theology" developed through the 1920s and early 1930s, and during the 1930s he was also a leading voice against Hitler and National Socialism. Ordered to leave Germany, he returned to Switzerland and, aided by his assistant and companion Charlotte von Kirschbaum, he embarked on his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics (1933-1962), at over 9000 pages one of the longest works of systematic theology.  

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France, his father was from New Zealand and his mother from the states. His mother died when he was young, and his somewhat absent father also died, and subsequently, Merton lead a life of travel and discovery, with some dark chapters of drinking and womanizing, for instance, during his Cambridge years. He came to the U.S. to study at Columbia, and the cultured and interesting but still lost young man developed an interest in Catholicism. Eventually that interest led him to become a priest and monk at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. He wrote an autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain (1947) that became an unexpected best-seller. He was passionate about spirituality, monastic practice, prayer, art, world religions, and social issues. Although he died accidentally at the age of 52, he wrote many books of theology, essays, literary criticism, and poetry, as well as private journals that were eventually published. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Interfaith Days: Bodhi Day, Feast of the Immaculate Conception

In Roman Catholic Christianity, today is a holy day of obligation, celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to this doctrine, Mary was conceived without original sin. The doctrine has long been held but was finally defined dogmatically in 1854 by Pope Pius IX.

Today is also Bodhi Day, a Buddhist holiday commemorating the attainment of enlightenment by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. After years of seeking enlightenment (bodhi) he found it through meditation, awakening to the truth after 49 days of meditation.

Monday, December 7, 2015

For All the Saints: St. Ambrose

All the church calendars this week honor St. Ambrose on this day, December 7th. The Orthodox site that I use tells us about Ambrose:

"….Brilliant and well-educated, he was made a provincial Governor in 375 and took up residence in Milan. In those days, the Arian heresy was still dividing the Church, despite its repudiation at the Council of Nicaea in 325. When the time came to elect a new Bishop in Milan, the Orthodox and Arian parties were so divided that they could come to no agreement on a new Bishop. When Ambrose came as Governor to try to restore peace and order, a young child, divinely inspired, called out 'Ambrose, Bishop!' To Ambrose's amazement, the people took up the cry, and Ambrose himself was elected, though he tried to refuse, protesting that he was only a catechumen (it was still common in those days to delay Holy Baptism for fear of polluting it by sin). He even attempted to flee, but his horse brought him back to the city. Resigning himself to God's will, he was baptized and, only a week later, elevated to Bishop. Immediately, he renounced all possessions, distributed all of his money to the poor and gave his estates to the Church. Straightaway, he entered into a spirited defense of Orthodoxy in his preaching and writings to the dismay of the Arians who had supported his election. Soon he persuaded Gratian, Emperor of the West, to call the Council of Aquilea, which brought an end to Arianism in the Western Church…

"Saint Ambrose, by teaching, preaching and writing, brought countless pagans to the Faith. His most famous convert was St Augustine (June 15), who became his disciple and eventually a bishop. Ambrose's many theological and catechetical works helped greatly to spread the teaching of the Greek fathers in the Latin world. He wrote many glorious antiphonal hymns which were once some of the gems of the Latin services…."

With Gregory the Great, Jerome, and Augustine, Ambrose was one of the four original "doctors of the church" as first declared in 1298. He is the traditional author of the Te Deum hymn and is credited for bringing Eastern hymnody to the Western church.  

A Year's Music: Schütz's "Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi"

Dresden's Frauenkirche.
Schütz was buried in
the previous church.
Continuing until Advent 2016, I plan to listen each week to at least one musical work with some sacred or spiritual dimension, as a kind of pleasurable spiritual discipline.

The past few days I've listened again to Heinrich Schütz's "history of the birth of Jesus Christ," or simply, The Christmas Story. Schütz (1585-1672) of Dresden was a teacher of many composers and is regarded as the greatest German composer prior to Bach. His Christmas story, which probably premiered in 1660, is a lovely little piece (about 40 minutes long) which weaves together texts about Jesus' birth from Luther's Bible translation. The composer uses the tenor Evangelist the role of narrator, as Bach did later in his own work. This essay gives a good account of the background and character of the piece, concluding that once we've ODed on traditional holiday fare, it would be good to give time to music like this!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Interfaith Days: Hanukkah
This year Hanukkah begins tonight (December 6) at sundown and continues until Monday, December 14. The festival commemorates the Maccabean Revolt of the Israelites over the Syrian Greek army in 165 BCE and the subsequent restoration of the Jerusalem Temple---including the miracle that a single vial of oil, enough for a day, lasted for eight days. It is not a major Jewish holiday and the commemorated events happened after the period of the Tanakh. The Judaism 101 site, which includes more information about the holiday's background and observance, includes this comment: "Chanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar."

For All the Saints: St. Nicholas

On most if not all Christmas liturgical calendars, today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. It's also on my
Interfaith Calendar from . I wrote about Nicholas last year:

Friday, December 4, 2015

For All the Saints: John of Damascus

Here's another saint honored on both Eastern and Western (including Protestant) calendars, the Syrian saint named John of Damascus. He was born in 675 or 676 and died on December 4, 749 (or 760, according to this site). He is honored by Catholics as a Doctor of the Church, as a strong defender of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the Eastern Church commemorates his defense of icons. He was a skillful theologian and also a skillful poet, writing hymns that are still used, for instance, in Orthodox Pascha services. Before his service as a monk and priest, he had been a civil servant for the Muslim caliph in Damascus.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Year's Music: Vaughan Williams' "The First Nowell"

Continuing until Advent 2016, I plan to listen each week to at least one musical work with some sacred or spiritual dimension, as a kind of pleasurable spiritual discipline.

When Advent arrives, this piece is typically the music that I play first! There is a little bit of nostalgia associated with the piece.
During the early 1980s, I was just beginning to become devoted to Ralph Vaughan Williams' music. That was also the time when Beth and I were engaged and making plans. Sometime in 1983 or 1984, I shopped a favorite used vinyl store in Carbondale, IL and found an LP of RVW's "nativity play," The First Nowell. One of his final works (not quite finished, in fact, at his death in 1958), the piece uses traditional English carols composed together to form the Christmas story. Roy Douglas completed the score and the piece premiered in December of that same year. The sections are:

1. Prelude. God rest you merry and The truth from above
2. The Sussex Carol
3. Gabriel's Message (Angelus ad virginem)
4. Salutation Carol
5. Gabriel's Message
6. The Cherry Tree Carol
7. As Joseph Was A-walking
8. O Joseph Being an Old Man
9. In Bethlehem City
10. Bring Us in Good Ale
11. On Christmas Night (Sussex Carol)
12. The Shepherd's Farewell ("Tidings true there be come new")
13. How Brightly Shines the Morning Star
14. The Procession of the Kings to Bethlehem
15. The First Nowell

I purchased that used LP and cherished it for years. It is a Musical Heritage Society release from 1973 (MHS 3262, LCCC: 75-750825), not a record company release. The Choir of Calvary Presbyterian Church of Riverside, CA and the Pro Musica Orchestra are the performers. I could find no other LP recordings of the piece, and this was at the very beginning of CDs. I actually belonged to that record club in the 1980s and 90s, but this recording was no longer available through the club. So, knowing I might not find another copy, I took gentle care of the LP, played it every Christmas, and still have it. But now, the piece can be found on two CDs by other orchestras and choirs.

I like the recording on the Chandos label, with Richard Hickox conducting the City of London Sinfonia, and the Joyful Company of Singers. That CD has two other premieres: a string-and-organ arrangement of the already-well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and a never-before-recorded masque, On Christmas Night, that tells the Dickens' Christmas story. There is also a recording on the Naxos label, which I've not yet heard.

For All the Saints: Francis Xavier

Honored today on both Roman Catholic and Protestant calendars is Saint Francis Xavier, SJ (April 7, 1506-December 3, 1552). He was co-founder of the Society of Jesus, was thus a friend of Ignatius of Loyola, and was among the first seven Jesuits who took their vows in 1534. Canonized in 1622, he is known as a missionary to Asia. See:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

For All the Saints: Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford
Since this past All Hallows' Tide (a time of remembering the saints of the church), I've been writing briefly about persons who are honored on different liturgical lists. A "saint" can mean someone formally canonized by the Roman Catholic church, or any servant of God who became historically memorable.

On the ELCA liturgical calendar, four women martyred in El Salvador are honored today, the anniversary of their deaths. Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (b. 1939), was an American Ursuline Religious Sister and missionary to El Salvador. Sister Maura Clarke, M.M. (b. 1931), lay missionary Jean Donovan (b. 1953), and Sister Ita Ford, M.M. (b. 1940), were beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the El Salvador military on December 2, 1980. The soldiers were tried and convicted, and the US-supported El Salvadoran government was brought into world scrutiny. The day before, Ford had quoted in her conference talk a passage from Archbishop Óscar Romero: "Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead."