Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Holly Bears a Berry

I've been singing this song aloud since a week ago, after hearing Eileen Ivers performing it at her concert in Concord NH. We actually have a holly bush growing in front of our house. It's a very old carol, and it maintains the feel of the original carols that were actually dancing songs written for celebrations of all kinds. This one's lots of fun to sing, and we've more than once found ourselves, the whole family, singing this out while driving together in the car.

To see the music and hear a MIDI of the tune, go here. To hear it performed, go here.

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as a thorn;
And Mary bore Jesus on Christmas Day morn.

And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour to be
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly, holly,
And the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly.
Now the Holly bears a berry as white as the milk
And Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk.
Now the Holly bears a berry as green as the grass
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross.
Now the Holly bears a berry as black as the coal
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.
Now the Holly bears a berry as blood is it red
Then trust we our Saviour who rose from the dead.

The holly bears a bark as bitter as gall;
And Mary bore Jesus Christ to redeem us all.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Incarnation between the Lines

Our Christmas Eve service is remarkably simple. It is modeled after the Lessons and Carols so near and dear to our Anglican friends, but way less refined. Lacking the cathedral spaces, robed choirs, and all that stuff, we get along with a small group of readers rotating through the readings, and singing songs chosen to illuminate the theme of the reading. There is usually one or two “special music” numbers, but mostly it is reading and singing. Since the group probably number about 30 people, even the singing was simple.

But it serves. You can’t go wrong in my book just reading the actual words. Sermons, meditations, devotionals…all that is just fine, but put a good reader behind the book and let everyone listen to what’s actually there on the page….it’s hard to beat.

Most of the passages read this evening were not from the gospels. They were taken from the Pentateuch and the Prophets. Only the last 2 or 3 were actually Gospel accounts. The language of the Prophets is hard to play down. Then you come to the accounts of the Arrival and if you really get what He is laying down, it can blow your socks off.

It stood out to me because I’ve been getting a lot of imagery around the baby. First of all, let me say that babies are overrated -- especially when they first come out. They are all wrinkled up and funny colored, and generally feeling ill-treated and crabby. This whole “holy family tableau” thing with the quiet and gentle glow surrounding the wax figures of Mary and Joseph and the Blessed Christ Child – it just ain’t right. Look, I never met Mary, but it’s pretty hard for me to imagine that even she wasn’t pretty close to hysterical for giving birth to her first baby in a STALL! My wife is a pretty strong woman, but I can only imagine the pyrotechnics that would have been involved in that situation, and I wouldn’t blame her one bit. Maybe the medieval stories about no crying and Mary’s magical holy epidural were true, but somehow it rubs my sensibilities the wrong way. I just can’t buy it. (If you want a slightly more humorous take on that, I refer you to the classic short novel “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”) Life for a refugee family is no piece of cake.

Then there was the whole shepherds watching over their flocks by night scenario. Have you ever seen an angel? Me neither. But why is it, EVERY time one of those guys pops up, the first words out of their mouths are “Don’t be afraid?” I can hazard a guess. It’s probably because they are REALLY, REALLY SCARY.

A friend of mine once posited that Angels probably appeared that night rather like lightning with a voice. Who of us, if a bolt of lightning struck even 50 feet from us wouldn’t have to check our pants afterwards? And then, imagine if the lightning stuck around to have a conversation. Huh. Kind of puts a different perspective on what them shepherds were dealing with.

Angels. Legions of them. Can you imagine what it’s like to have thousands of lightning bolts shouting Good News! At the top of their metaphorical lungs?

And why? Because the Great Miracle, the invasion of creation, and material, and humanity by the Most High God is not something to let pass unremarked, apparently.

When we hear “Peace on Earth” we like think that means “Niceness for Everybody.” This is because of the sops, sentimentalists and schmaltzers who want to take all the rough edges off the story, and go all soft-focus. Reality is too harsh, and any God who would actually get real and dirty this way is too wild. He needs to be tamed. As our Pastor observed this evening it is easy to make nice and feel warm and fuzzy over the baby, but not so easy to get those warm fuzzies over that bloody mess of shredded flesh hanging on the cross. It’s too hard to look at. So the simpering classes only see the baby all clean and dry and happy, and they dray on about how Christmas is about hope, and renewal, and peace winning out over blah blah blah. It is all that, but only because it’s so much more than that.

I suspect (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure) that what those angels really were getting at was something closer to “The War between God and Man is as good as finished!” They were doing a victory dance in the end zone and trash talking the Enemy. “In Your Face!” they shouted to Death, as they spiked the life ball hard in the real Astroturf.

C-Day was the cosmic D-day. As Athanasius said, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” We think a hydrogen bomb exploding is powerful. Ohmygoodness yes. But this! This! This is HUGE! And we treat it as if it is just a sweet ending to a syrupy story.

The Immaterial comes to town. He enters not as a visitor, but as one who belongs here. He was not tacked on, but became one of it’s creatures. He moved from incorporeal to very corporeal in all it’s implications, while still maintaining all that He was before and without it. It is a great mystery. It is The Great Miracle. I think there is no better name for it than that.

When you really listen, it’s in the text. If you are like me, though, you have to listen to what is really going on here, and not pay too much attention to the overlay that has been placed on it by our overfamiliarity. When I heard it tonight, it pricked me a little. Not like the Angels appearing, but enough to set me going. The rest of the Christmas deal I can take or leave. But that small significant moment is what I live for.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

Dispatching Advent

Well, I pretty much missed the chance to make comments on Advent, which is really too bad. Although observing Advent has never been a great strength of mine, it has been growing as a presence in my mind over the years. It’s value may, I think, lie powerfully in the idea of making the Feast that much greater by virtue of the preceding fast. If Advent is no more than the run up to Christmas, it really differs little from the practices of the infidel hordes who scurry madly about in a mass-induced hysteria, all the while claiming “Peace, Peace on earth!!!” It is a ludicrous irony.

Now that I am beginning to see Advent as the long night of waiting, the filling of lamps and the trimming of wicks, in preparation for the coming of the master (a la the parable of the 10 virgins)…then it begins to make sense. If it is the companion season of Lent, where we prepare our hearts to receive the Great Miracle, then it makes sense. I think I may be moving toward defining for myself a true rule or practice for Advent. I have about a year to figure it out. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Also, when Advent is treated this way, then a 12 Day time of Feasting really does appeal. I’m kind of liking the idea.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Newest Family Member

My wife is a stone cold dog freak. Her life is not complete without a dog. She has been this way since we first met, and I have just had to come to terms with the fact that although I too and furry and smelly, I cannot seem to fill that place in her heart that belongs to dog kind.

Our good old Buster dog died 2 years ago. We have been dogless since, and that has been a long dry spell for my Bride. This year was to have been The Year of the New Dog, but what with all the upheaval we have been experiencing, we never managed to acquire a new pet.

Our daughters have inherited the dog love. So I have had three women mooning away over dogs in general and in particular all year long. It is a favorite pastime of my oldest to read any of several books she owns on dogs. She is becoming quite the authority on various breeds, their uses and temperaments. Her mother has taken to surfing dog rescue websites, as well as sites of shelters. She finds profiles of dogs she likes, prints them out, and then brings them to the dinner table where we discuss the pros and cons of various dogs brought before the council. This has provided hours of entertainment for the whole family.

Nevertheless, as month after month goes by without actually getting a live dog for our house, my daughters have taken to lowering the stakes in a desperate bid to obtain SOME kind of animalian companionship. The poor girl got desperate enough to move down the food chain as far as fish, in hopes that a low enough bid might actually get the pet train moving in the right direction.

Last night, my Bride and I were on a date (by our own adult selves!) and decided that it might be time to actually act. We have been talking about purchasing a small pet for them recently, to at least give the girls something to focus on until we get a proper dog. So, to cut to the chase, we went to the local Petsmart, and brought home with us the newest member of our family.

Meet Gus, our new rat.

The name is not set in stone, but it seems to be the one we are settling on. It is chosen in commemoration of Augustus Ceasar (a major character in recent home school history studies on the Roman Empire). Whether Mr. Ceasar would be impressed by having a rat named after him is dubious, but since he is more than slightly dead, I am not overly concerned with his dignity.

Of all the other pet rodent options, he seems to have the best mix of activity/restfulness and sociability/solitariness. Gerbils are active and interesting, but don’t like to be handled. Hamsters have a tendency toward aggression. Word has it that Fancy Rats like being handled (if accustomed to it) and are active enough to be interesting without seeming manic. After meeting our rat, and handling him, we determined that he seemed like a nice boy. Since we already possessed an aquarium to provide a starter home, for about $40, we got what we needed to get things started and brought him home.

The plan was to present him on Christmas Day, but what the heck. Rather than hide him in the basement store room for 2 more days, we opted to let the girls start enjoying him today. As I write this he is resting on my chest, curled up inside my fleece pullover. He loves to crawl up inside my wife’s long black hair, nestling against her neck under the curtain of her tresses. He is about 6 inches long, not counting the tail. He is a juvenile, and we expect him to grow about half again as large when full grown.

The girls are fascinated, and it will be fun to see how he grows on us. I suppose, however, that when we get our dog, we will not be getting a terrier.

I'm Not Done Yet

Well, just back from my multi-week hiatus. Business and family have kept me moving briskly so that there has been little time for actually posting to a blog. So, for all three of you that read these things, I hope you will soon be rewarded for checking again. Thanks for being interested enough to see what I’ve put up here. While I do this mostly as a personal exercise, I am grateful for an audience.

I have a long list of topics that have been fermenting in the cask of my cranium. God willing, some of that will bubble over and spill out into this forum. Some of it may be pretty stinky. You have been forewarned.