Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled, that mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead; Before their light the stars grew dim, and wondering hunters heard the hymn: Jesus Emmanuel, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.
Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found; a ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round; But as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angel song rang loud and high: Jesus Emmanuel, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.
(‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, verses 1-2, by Jean de Brebeuf, trans. Jesse Middleton)
The winter moon shines vibrantly on the snow, these cold, clear winter nights and mornings, reminding me of this hymn. The “Huron carol” was written by a Jesuit priest who started a mission among the Huron people in Canada in the 17th century. It makes me wonder …. What does it mean that a European would try to tell the Christmas story through the language and symbols of a native people? My suspicious side says it is yet another attempt to force cultural assimilation and drain meaning from native religions. My hopeful side says that the story of Jesus also brings a critical perspective to every culture, and particularly those cultures that have enjoyed a dominant place economically, socially, and politically. The birth of God-with-us clashed with the Roman Empire, and it even now it critiques and challenges the powers of our day.
Church is canceled today … stay home, stay warm, stay safe!
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… (In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti)
Mid-afternoon yesterday, I forced the porch door open and staggered through the drifts. I drove my shovel into the layered snow of the driveway and heaved each load up and over the bank. Between grunts and groans, I hummed, “snow on snow, snow on snow…”. My shoulders ached and my forearms arms tingled. All the while, the wind danced and roared, driving stinging flakes into my face and mocking my efforts as the drifts swirled back into place. This work felt a bit like bailing out a sinking lifeboat. I know it is strange, but I really enjoy these moments that test the strength of my body, mind and spirit. I like being reminded of both my capacity and my feebleness. I sense the God who made humanity (and our technological abilities) to be strong AND to have limits. I meet the God fashioned nature with its own power and integrity, and who calls us to respect and honor the authority of wind and snow and storm.
Last night, as I rocked our daughter at bedtime, I sang to her, “In the bleak midwinter.. snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.” The windows rattled and the furnace hummed. Wordlessly, Eliza reached for her crib, and the warmth of her down comforter. I give thanks for a safe home, and a dry bed. I bear in mind all who shiver, weary and worn, amid the harsh blizzards of life. I pray that Advent light and hope will steadily grow from flicker to blaze.
I must confess that I neglected my reflections during yesterday’s snowy excitement… or should I say panic. Panic because, last night, we had to move our cars for the snow emergency plows to come through, and let’s just say… it was epic. Our neighbor Eddie finally hitched up our cars to his truck and managed to drag us the few feet necessary to turn around and park… on the other side of the street. We’ll have to do it again tonight.
We were all yelling and huffing and puffing and sweating and shivering. There was a moment, however, when all activity ceased. My comrades went inside to warm themselves. I stayed out, determined to do more shoveling. I looked out at the empty park, the empty streets, the silvery light, and I had to admit that this icy wet substance causing me so much trouble was, in fact, very beautiful. It forced the whole world into a state of sacred hush.
“Silent night/ Holy Night / All is calm, all is quiet….”
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)
Holy Family by Will Humes
I have been afflicted with laryngitis this past week. It comes and goes, but yesterday, after too much talking, i was struck silent again by the time I went to bed. It is soooo hard to be quiet when I don’t want to be. This is a talky talky talky time of year, isn’t it? My forced silence reminds me that many of our beloved hymns, as beautiful a sound as they make, are in fact about silence and stillness.
Yesterday’s post about In the Bleak Midwinter got me thinking about other beloved carols that insert the holy family in an unlikely context. One of my favorite examples is “I Saw Three Ships.” (Above you will find Nat King Cole’s version.) Apparently this carol is based on a legend dating back to the twelfth century, that three ships brought relics from the three Wise Men to Germany.
“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,/ earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;/ snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,/ in the bleak midwinter, long ago.” (v. 1 of In the Bleak Midwinter)
Sound familiar, Minnesotans?
The poet Christina Rossetti was not going for historical accuracy with this hymn. Instead, she captures a sense of the warmth–almost the thawing–that Jesus’ birth brings to the world.
Does it ever snow in Israel? Maybe this is a silly question, but I figured I better not assume. I did some quick googling on the subject, and discovered that yes, it does, but mostly in high altitude regions and very rarely in Bethlehem.
Snow in Bethlehem, PA, USA
“All I want for Christmas is yoooouuuuuuuuu.”
OK, I admit this isn’t a verse from a hymn. It’s the refrain from a popular Christmas song by r&b artist Mariah Carey, and I’m hearing it on the radio all the time. As a result, it’s in my head all the time as well.
Mariah Carey’s song may not be a classic carol, but it is reminding me of the power of music in this season. Every time I hear it, I know that Christmas is coming. I think the song first came out when I was in junior high school, when my idea of Christmas mostly involved presents and cookies. My concept of Christmas has changed quite a bit (less presents, equal amounts of cookies, and a lot more spirit). But this song still makes me irrationally happy and excited. My music preferences have also changed, but I guess sometimes memory is more powerful than taste.
What are your inescapable Christmas tunes (if you dare admit to them)?
The Baptist shouts on Jordan’s shore, the earth shakes with a mighty roar, Awake, let lazy sleep now flee: behold the voice of prophesy! (The Baptist Shouts on Jordan’s Shore, v. 1, NCH 115)
John the Baptist was a wild kind of guy. If he were to wander our streets today, we’d dismiss him as a “crazy person.” As powerful as this image may be, I like to remember that, like Jesus, John enters our story as a baby… well, actually in utero! As you remember, John leaps for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she comes in contact with her cousin Mary, newly pregnant with Jesus.
It was a popular Renaissance motif to depict John and Jesus as babies together. It is so crucial to the Christmas story that power begins here: with tiny, beautiful, vulnerable babies.
Sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci of Anne, Mary, Jesus, and John
In worship today we sang the Advent hymn Watcher, Tell Us of the Night (NCH 103).
It is a dialogue between “watcher” and “traveler,” with the traveler asking the watcher what is out in the night. The watcher tells the traveler that dawn is nigh and Emmanuel (“God with us”) is close.
I was struck by a line in the final verse:
Watcher, you may go your way; hasten to your quiet home.
Being a watchman (or woman) is indeed tiring work. Even thought watchers often stay in the same place, they are doing the exhausting work of keeping their eyes and ears open. I bet a watcher does appreciate being dismissed from duty and allowed to return home!
My one real experience with it is when I was twelve.
I participated in an Outward Bound program for girls. At night, we set up camp and doubled up on shifts keeping watch through the night. It was hard for me, at that age, so stay awake at such odd hours. But the responsibility of it piqued my nerves and kept me awake, watching. I remember my fellow watcher and I huddled together, waiting, sleepy, excited, whispering to each other.
Are you a watcher or a traveler this Advent season?
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One, and open furrows, the sowing of our God. All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty, it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
(First verse of Toda la Tierra, by Alberto Taule)
This past Sunday, we sang “all earth is waiting” and our Advent waiting began. For me, it is often hardest to wait when I know the thing I await is close. Yesterday, for instance, I couldn’t help myself: I headed out to go cross-country skiing at Wirth park, though I knew the snow would be terrible, and that it would be perfect if I just waited until today. And indeed it was bad skiing: lots of ice, exposed concrete and gravel, even some grass sticking through the crusty snow. (Luckily, I have cheap old skis…) Last evening, I waited for a friend to come over so we could go out and get supper. The hour grew later and later. But I didn’t feel raid-the-cupboards-hungry until he walked in the door.
Waiting is a process, with different stages, and varied emotions. Of course, our experience of waiting also depends on for what we wait: a birth, a death, a homecoming, a change? For me, the waiting of Advent wraps up all of my waiting, in meaning and in hope.