Category Archives: Miscellaneous Commentary

Practicing in Lent

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In 2002, I was on vacation in Spain during the first week in which the peseta was retired and the Euro introduced as the official currency. ATM machines dispensed only Euros, taxi meters displayed fares in Euros, restaurant menus listed prices in Euros  – everyone was using Euros, but it was far too soon for anyone to be at ease with them.

I saw a woman who’d been walking briskly down the street suddenly stop short, take a handful of coins out of her purse, stare at them for a while, move them around on her palm, arrange them in different ways –by size or value – trying to get a literal feel for the new tender.

I saw grown men huddled over pocket calculators at kiosks and in bars talking themselves through simple transactions aloud, like children learning to count.

Whenever it was time to pay for something, the world slowed down, and everyone became a learner. What had been a reflex the week before, when pesetas were the common coin, had suddenly to be practiced as a deliberate act.

When people in the ancient world asked to be baptized into the church, they were not marched straight to the font. They first underwent a lengthy period of instruction and moral reorientation. The human life they thought they had mastered had to be re-learned in the light of the Gospel.

2EuroCentsLike people with a new currency, neophytes practiced  – they turned over coins of grace in their palms day after day, took time to count aloud each transaction of mercy, attended to the tasks of being a new kind of human with purpose, and approached the ordinary with discipline, with an intention of excellence.

Only thus, over time, did the disorienting shock of Gospel living became second-nature. Only thus did the faith they had received root deeply, and their witness flower in the world.

The season of Lent originated in these preparations for baptism, a ritual that signaled the end of one life and the start of another. For us, Lent is a holy opportunity to adopt and undergo a similar converting discipline, to learn anew what some of us thought we’d already mastered – a fully human life in Christ, facility with the new coinage of grace.

Perhaps this year, with the world as grimly attached to a currency of violence and exclusion as ever, we might use these forty days to practice some of the things required for a successful introduction of a new tender — slowing down, cultivating a learner’s pose, taking deliberate care with mundane transactions, paying attention to the sacred potential of the ordinary, maintaining an intention of excellence, practicing the faith.

1EuroThe example of the saints, living and dead, declares that if we practice gratefully over time, by God’s help we will eventually come to transact life with ease and poise, and with such graceful mastery that the dying world will know a resurrection and a life beyond its wildest dreams.

Wedding Wine (John 2:1-11)

With thanks to Kathy Coffee..

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–Les Noces de Cana, Louis Kahn, 1949

They have no wine, Mary says. If she says it any louder, the guests will hear and head for the door.

It’s a little indirect, but her drift is clear. She wants Jesus to do something about it.

He’s been hanging around the house for thirty years, knocking together benches and chairs. His father likes him home. The sign on the door says Joseph & Son.

The gold is long since spent on groceries, the frankincense a whiff in the walls, the mystic myrrh tossed on a shelf in the shop.

Building chairs is a good job for a son, but this son was knelt to by Persian wizards. She can be forgiven if she thinks he’s destined for greater things.

She wants him out of the house.

She says, They have no wine. And they have been thirsty since Adam.

Not yet, he says. What you ask will be free for them, but will cost me plenty. One more order of chairs…?

Soused and surly, the guests are frantic to take the edge off.  Any wine will do. The old purveyors line up to supply them rotgut, smiling their oily smiles, rubbing their hands.

She thinks, not for this did the angels sing that starry night. Not for this, my darling dear, that you have a mother.

Since the day John leapt in the womb, she has been tasting it. She can taste it now: wedding wine. Bouquet of the cosmos, undertones of Eden, the finish of revolution.

She turns to the servants.

Do what he tells you.

Pour paradise on drunks.

According to Matthew

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–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

Housekeys: The Flight Into Egypt

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Eastman Johnson,  A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862)

Matthew 2:13-22

Unlike Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s has no journey home to be counted, no overbooked inns, no shepherds, no manger, no swaddling clothes. Instead, Matthew has Joseph and Mary already living in a house in Bethlehem, their own house, presumably; and it is there that the Magi visit the child Jesus and give him gifts.

After the Magi leave, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is coming after the Child. The tyrant is prepared to slaughter many children to be sure he’s rid of one. Joseph should take his family and run for it, the angel says; cross into Egypt. Stay there until the tyrant dies.

Here’s what I wonder…

After he woke up, and while he was still shaking from the dream, and after they had packed a few things and saddled up the donkey, did Joseph take the key to the front door of his house in Bethlehem, string it on a rawhide cord, and tie the cord around his neck?

Or did he give the key to Mary after he boosted her onto the beast, handing up the child first, and then the key? Did she tuck it in the travel bag underneath the diapers and the talcum powder and the brand new copy of Goodnight Moon?

At the end of their street, did Joseph stop and turn around? Did he look back at the house they had just abandoned, one ear cocked for the hot breath of the horses, the other for the boots of bloody soldiers, conscripts most of them, kids, just following orders?

Did he find it surreal that he, a terrified man fleeing with his family, was also, in that very moment, wishing he’d gotten around to fixing the creaking tread on the stairs, the one Mary said would come right up some day and trip her, sending her headlong down the narrow flight? Did he say to her with his eyes, “Hold onto that key. Don’t lose it. I’ll fix the stairs, really I will. As soon as we get back…”

And when they made it over the border and found a place that rented to people without papers, did he wrap the key in a cotton cloth and place it in an olive wood box with leather hinges and a brass latch, and place it in a niche in the wall, and cover the niche with an old calendar from a company selling insurance?

And on days when no one would give him work, or during the night when Mary was out cleaning offices, or that first time he realized that his toddler couldn’t remember anything about home and was acquiring an Egyptian accent, did he take the key from its niche behind the calendar and lay it on his palm and rock over it, singing songs of Zion in a foreign land? Did he dream at night of return? Or did the good St Joseph drink himself into a stupor over what was lost? Did he buy too many lottery tickets? Did he take out his rage on the furniture?

And when the news finally came that Herod was dead and they could go back home, did he take the key from the box, knot it back on the cord, and tie the cord around his neck? Or give it to Mary to put in her bag, this time tucking it into one of the little boy’s sneakers so that it would be easy to find if they got to their door very late on a moonless night?

And when they crossed the border again and discovered that the danger had not passed—because for the refugee, the exile, the poor, the person with the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong opinion, the wrong sexuality, the danger never passes—and Joseph decided not to go to Bethlehem where they had a house with a door that the housekey fit, but to settle up in the Galilee, what, I wonder, became of that key?

What did he do with a key that was useless in a new lock in a new house, a key that opened no doors in Nazareth? What became of the key that worked only in the lock of the front door of the little house in the little town of Bethlehem?

Here’s what else I wonder:

Whose necks do such keys hang from now? In whose bags packed for a midnight dash to the border are they tucked away underneath the baby’s shirts and the sippy cup that quacks like a duck when you squeeze it? In whose small boxes are those keys resting? Who is rocking on tired knees singing songs of home over them, like lullabies to a baby, or anthems to a flag, or offerings to a god?

And what traumas are being inflicted, what grievances are being nursed, what resentments are building, what terrors contemplated, what weapons amassed in the name of keys and locks and doors and houses and memories and dreams and towns and lands and borders and nations?

How will it end, this Christmas story? For this cold hard story is as much the story of Christmas as the one about lowing cattle and awestruck rustic men. How will it unfold, and how will it end, this story of Jesus, barely begun?

And is there an angel lingering over earth fierce enough to rouse us from our deep and heedless sleep? Is there any message frightening enough to alert us to the danger we’re in? Is there any light from heaven bright enough to show us this old story as our neighbor’s story, and as our own?

If God Can Find A Corner Small: A Carol for Christmas

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1.

If God can find a corner small,

a town constricted as a tomb,

to house the sweeping Life of all,

we too can find a little room.

2.

If God requires but little space,

an unassuming mother’s womb,

to birth God’s spacious Gift of grace,

we too can be a little room.

3.

If little room is room to spare,

a stable’s manger plain and rough,

to cradle everlasting Care,

we too have room, and room enough.

4.

And even if we still mistake

a mansion’s pomp for God’s embrace,

whatever room we sinners make,

Good Love will gladly fill the place.

A NOTE ON TUNES:

You can sing this carol to the tune, ANDREW, Hymn 467, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth’ in The New Century Hymnal. [You will need to repeat last line of each stanza of the carol in order to fit the tune’s 8.8.8.8.8 meter]

A really lovely LM tune, NORWICH, was composed for that same text (“Mothering God”) by Carolyn Jennings. It is at # 735 in the Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. And a wonderful choral setting of this same tune is by Zebuloma Highben, and can be found at Augsburg Fortress. I like this tune very much for this carol.

For a more meditative mood, you might use CONDITOR ALME, alternating verses between a soloist and the congregation, or choir and congregation.

A Communal Reading for Christmas

A Communal Reading for Christmas

NOTE:  This Communal Reading stands in for the gospel reading from Luke, as a paraphrase. The actual text of the reading from Luke could be printed in the bulletin, if so desired. The “script” below should be prepared as an insert for congregation and readers. Shepherd reads from center chancel. Child reads from his or her place in the congregation (standing on a pew if need be, with a cordless microphone, or a very big ‘outdoor voice’). The Choir should be prepared to burst immediately into the refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” from Angels we have heard on high at the indicated places. The Shepherd should be a skilled adult reader who can really tell a story. The Child should be willing to raise her hand and jump up and down a bit, like an eager student. In general, everyone should take their time, and ham it up. No rehearsal should be needed if all the ‘characters’ practice their lines beforehand on their own.

bassano_jacopo_the_annunciation_to_the_shepherds–Jacopo Bassano

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke

[Luke 2:8-20]

Shepherd: I remember that night. How could I forget it? We were tending sheep in the fields when all of a sudden, the dark sky began to shine, and shine, and shine!

Choir: Was it the moon breaking through the clouds?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t the moon!

Congregation: A shooting star flashing across the sky?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t a shooting star!

A Child: I know! I know! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining!

Shepherd: Yes! That’s right! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining! And that angel of the Lord scared us half to death! We fell flat on our faces with fright!

Choir: What happened next?

Shepherd: The angel of the Lord spoke to us!

Congregation: Spoke to you? What did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know! The angel said: “Do not be afraid! I have great news for you and the whole wide world! Today, in Bethlehem, the City of David, a savior is born!”

Shepherd: That’s right! A savior was born!

Choir: What else did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: Hey! You know everything!

A Child: Yes, I do! I pay attention in Sunday School! Anyway, the angel said to go to Bethlehem to find the savior. To look in a manger, not a palace. To look for a baby, not a king. Wrapped in strips of cloth, not in a velvet robe!

Shepherd: That’s right! That’s what the angel told us! And then, oh my goodness! Then, the whole sky was filled with angels! A million of them!

Congregation: A million?

Shepherd: Well, maybe half a million. And they all began to sing!

Choir: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherd: And then they disappeared!  Just like that. They were gone. And everything was the way it was before – dark and cold, and very, very, very, very quiet.  And we looked at each other, our eyes as wide as saucers, and we said, “Should we go, then, and see for ourselves?”

Choir:  And so you went, didn’t you?

Shepherd: Yes, we did. We went to Bethlehem. We saw Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger. We saw everything the angel said we would see. We saw it all, and it made us glad. And so we told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people – and now you know the story too.

Congregation: It’s a wonderful story! Who could have imagined it?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: There [he/she] goes again! All right, tell us. Who imagined it?

A Child: God imagined it!  And God brought made it happen! God did it for us!

Shepherd: For us, yes. Because God loves us, God did it for us. And for everybody, and for always, and forever and ever. Amen.

Everyone: For everybody! And for always! And forever and ever! Amen!

Choir [and everyone joining in]:  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Singing Christmas

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Some congregations observe a sharp distinction between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In Advent, they sing Advent songs. And pretty much only Advent songs. Which means that they don’t even start singing Christmas carols until everyone else is sick of them.

I’m glad some churches save Christmas songs for Christmas. Not only is it more liturgically correct (so say the purists)—it’s also safer. I’ve found that if you sing carols often enough, you actually start paying attention to the lyrics, and when you do that, you have questions. Take carols that sing about “Mary, Mother mild.”  How many mothers do you know with crying infants at the breast who are ‘mild’? More like on the verge of a sleep-deprived nervous breakdown.

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Sing carols long enough and sooner or later someone will wreck them for you. That old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass,” comes to mind, but I am particularly fond of “While shepherds washed their socks…”

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,

All seated ‘round the tub,

The Angel of the Lord came down

And gave them all a scrub.

And If you were ever in elementary school, you know this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded.

It exploded. 

We two Kings…

That, by the way, is the American version. The Liverpool version is all about underwear sold in Hamilton Square for two pence a pair—So fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear. And not very safe to sing, either.

But I digress.

There’s a downside to saving carols for Christmas. You don’t have much time to sing them, because the Christmas season is a mere blip on the annual liturgical screen, barely 2 weeks long (if you don’t combine it with the 4-8 weeks of Epiphany). And there are so many to sing! Thousands just in English alone!

All liturgical niceties and regulations notwithstanding, the sheer volume of carols and hymns is probably a good reason for sneaking a few in ahead of time. Here are three to start with.

I. The Huron Carol (“’Twas in the moon of wintertime”)

 9367498_orig“The Huron Carol” was set to a 16th century French tune, but its words were composed in the Huron language by a Jesuit missionary to New France, or Eastern Canada, St. Jean de Brebeuf. De Brebeuf is among the most sympathetic of all the characters in the harrowing story of the 17th C. Jesuit mission to North America. He deeply loved the people he had been sent to evangelize, and like a good Jesuit, he made a serious effort to learn, document and preserve their language and the world of their imagination.

The carol he wrote quickly became part of Huron tradition. It was sung by Christian Hurons in Ontario until 1649, when the implacable Iroquois wiped out the Jesuit mission and drove most all the Hurons to Quebec. There the carol re-emerged and was eventually translated into English and French.

Originally called “Iesous Ahatonnia” (ee-sus a-ha-ton-nyah,  Jesus, he is born), the English interpretation we have here is the work of the early 20th century Canadian music critic and choir master, Jesse Edgar Middleton. Middleton added images he thought would sound Indian, like the lodge of broken bark and the beaver pelts. Today these inauthentic “aboriginal” terms come across as Walt Disney-ish, even condescending.  But the carol has nonetheless become something of a Canadian national treasure.

figure3interiorlgThe Huron dialect in which it was written is now extinct, but we have a reliable reconstruction of the original hymn. It’s a text that shows the respect de Brebeuf had for the Huron converts as human beings and Christians.  It also hints at the seriousness with which he must have wrestled with the perennial questions that arises in every encounter of civilizations—the possibilities and problems of learning to speak the language of the Stranger, in a way more profound than the mere mouthing of syntax and vocabulary.

It also makes me reflect on the ways in which God’s embrace of our human life, the Incarnation, is for us the emblem of all such border crossings. The living God in Jesus is the prototype of every encounter with the Other that inevitably changes us, them, and everything.

Here’s part of that literal translation:

Have courage, you who are humans;

Jesus, he is born.

Behold, the spirit who held us prisoners has fled.

Do not listen to it, it corrupts the spirits of our minds.

Jesus, he is born.

Sky people are coming with a message for us.

They are coming to say, “Be on top of life!”

Marie, she has just given birth.”

Jesus, he is born

Three elders have left to go there

Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon,

leads them there

Jesus, he is born.

They found him, the one who is for them,

and he says, “Come here!”

Jesus, he is born.

They made a name many times, saying,

“Hurray, he is a good man.”

They greased his scalp, saying “Hurray.”

Jesus, he is born.

Let us show reverence for him

as he comes to be compassionate to us.

How providential it is that you love us

and that you say, ‘I should adopt them.’”

Jesus, he is born.

Listen to the Huron Carol….as performed by Chanticleer.

 

II.  The Friendly Beasts (“Jesus our brother, kind and good”)

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In the Christmas pageants of my youth, this longish carol was the traveling music for Mary and Joseph. It was also always a bone of contention.  Its seven or eight verses got doled out to eleven and twelve-year old soloists. Invariably, the kid who got assigned the cow verse refused to sing it. Who wants to sing, “I,” said the cow…”?  And if it wasn’t the cow, it was the ass. So in the interest of spreading the humiliation around equitably, when you sing it in your church be sure to have the whole congregation sing all the verses of this great galumphing little tune.

There are many opinions about its origins, but it was probably part of the medieval Festival of the Ass celebrating the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and was a regular Christmas observance in parts of France in the 13th century. During the mass of this festival, it was common for a live donkey to be led or ridden into the church.

The original song gives thanks for the donkey on which Mary rode into safety in Egypt, and begins: Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus (‘From the East the ass has come’). Each verse ended with the chorus ‘Hail, Sir Ass, hail’ and was punctuated with a rousing oh-heh, which is Latin for hee-haw.

I probably should not have said that, because now you’ll want to do that hee-haw part in church….

Oh, all right, do it.

From the East the donkey came,

Stout and strong as twenty men;

Ears like wings and eyes like flame,

Striding into Bethlehem.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Faster than the deer he leapt,

With his burden on his back;

Though all other creatures slept,

Still the ass kept on his track.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Still he draws his heavy load,

Fed on barley and rough hay;

Pulling on along the road.

Donkey, pull our sins away!

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;

All rejoice who see him pass;

Mirth inhabit young and old

On this feast day of the ass.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

The carol as we have in our various hymbooks is an expanded and somewhat sentimentalized version of that original, and today it is regarded as a children’s song. But no matter how much fun was made around the figure of the donkey in the Middle Ages, the song was always meant as a serious tribute to a creature of God, without whom the work of our redemption would not have been possible. It speaks of the way God uses all the things God made to work God’s will and show God’s love.

IMG_1097What we might take from this carol, apart from the jolly spirits of the high Middle Ages, is a new sense that the salvation promised from of old encompasses not just the human creation, but all creation; that Christ was born into a real world that God really loves, and that everything in it, even some silly looking animals (like us!), is shot through with divine grandeur.  In an age in which the ancient ice shelf is melting into the Arctic sea and the polar bear is on the endangered species list, that’s a good and necessary thing to sing about.

Listen to it here…

III. Go Tell It on the Mountain

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This familiar spiritual was born in the oral culture of enslaved Africans in the American south. As is the case with most spirituals, its music and lyrics cannot be attributed to any one person, but “Go Tell It on the Mountain” has a peculiar association with The Fisk School, now Fisk University in Nashville.

The Fisk School was established in 1866 to educate everyone, including freedmen, but quickly became known as a school for African Americans. To raise money for Fisk, a group called the Jubilee Singers was formed and began touring the nation.

At first ridiculed for their unimpressive looks, the group eventually won the public over, and in seven years they were able to erase the school’s $150,000 debt.  The songs they popularized were known as Jubilee Songs.

“Go Tell It on The Mountain” was one of two from their repertoire that have become household words (the other being “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”).

African America composer John Wesley Work, who taught classics and history at Fisk, included it in a songbook he published in 1907, and it has been a staple of the Christmas repertory ever since. Work himself used to lead singers around the campus before sunrise on Christmas morning singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” as a way of announcing the good tidings of the day.

In thinking about this spiritual, I recalled that James Baldwin borrowed it for the title of his first novel, published in 1953. That book is a searing portrayal of black life in America, of lives horribly damaged by racism, and of a society confronting inevitable change in the civil rights movement.

It struck me that “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is no tinsel-thin holiday song, but the strong and resilient song of a people for whom good news has always been in short supply. The song of a people who endured unspeakable inhumanity as enslaved women and men, but still found the courage to endure even more as they stood up to act, and to demand that others act to recognize and respect their humanity—the same humanity that God was irrevocably committed to in the newborn flesh of Jesus. The song of a people who understood, in Baldwin’s words, that “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” It’s not for nothing that in the 1960’s civil rights movement, “Go Tell IT..” was sung with the words, “Let my people go” substituting for “…that Jesus Christ is born.”

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Whenever you sing this wonderful spiritual, pray that it will be a thick, strong song for you and your congregation too. And pray that when we go and tell the good news of Christmas on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, we will by that act commit ourselves courageously to the redeeming danger of the gospel as well as to its resounding joy.

One of my favorite renditions, by Mahalia Jackson: