From Faith McDonnell at Juicy Ecumenism:
For many years it was the tradition for Salvation Army band members to get up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day and wake the town with the Christmas song “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.”
Here is Salvation Army officer Major Alan Young playing it on his cornet for the village of Pill in North Somerset, England…
Christians, awake, salute the happy morn,
whereon the Savior of the world was born;
rise to adore the mystery of love,
which hosts of angels chanted from above;
with them the joyful tidings were begun
of God incarnate and the Virgin’s son. . . .
Oh, may we keep and ponder in our mind
God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!
Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
from his poor manger to his bitter cross.
Tread in his steps, assisted by his grace,
Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place.
Then may we hope, th’angelic throngs among,
to sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song;
he that was born upon this joyful day
around us all his glory shall display;
saved by his love, incessant we shall sing
eternal praise to heav’n’s almighty King.”
Though in my heart no Christmas glee,
Though my song-bird be dumb,
Jesus, it is enough for me
That thou art come.
What though the loved be scattered far,
Few at the board appear,
In thee, O Lord, they gathered are,
And thou art here.
And if our hearts be low with lack,
They are not therefore numb;
Not always will thy day come back–
Thyself will come!
This is like the nativity set my parents put up every year. When I was a child it reminded me that Christmas celebrates a real event, mysterious and sacred. I am putting out mine now. Today I found the history of this Nativity display on the Glencairn Museum site:
“Christmas Manger Set,” USA, early 1940s. This cardboard tabletop Nativity was published by Concordia Publishing House from illustrations first produced by artist George Hinke. A base is provided with special tabs to hold the 17 lithographed figures upright; each tab is carefully labeled so that even a child can assemble it. Hinke was born in 1883 in Berlin, Germany, where he trained as a painter. He immigrated to the United States in 1923. Hinke specialized in religious subjects and nostalgic scenes of small-town American life. He is best remembered for his illustrations of children’s books such as Joseph’s Story, which tells the Nativity story from Joseph’s point of view, and Jolly Old Santa Claus. Collection of Glencairn Museum.
My world was shrouded in fog and mist this morning. It was still and at peace. On our usual morning walk, the dogs and I did not see another person (or dog). Around one corner, though, suddenly we were blinded by the sunlight and the diffused rays that overcame the entire sky, and earth. A perfect Christmas greeting!
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Isaiah 9:2
I love Christmas traditions too, those I know first hand, and others that I have only heard, or read about. Especially I enjoy knowing the history and significance of them. However, I think this is worth thinking about:
Falling into Sentimentality
I love the Christmas tree with the family gathering together to decorate it, but I wish that we were like the French (and many other) who do their gift-giving on Epiphany, with the coming of the Wise Men, and keep christmas Day itself as a holy day. We forget the holiness and fall into sentimentality over the tiny baby in the stable. Who is that tiny baby? Even the Creator, almighty and terrible and incomprehensible!
And this, also from Madeleine L’Engle’s little book, Miracle on 10th Street:
This Tiny Baby
Whoever is the baby?
Nothing but a little lamb
Who says God is and that I am.
Who is this tiny baby?
Just an infant, meek and mild,
just a feeble, mortal child.
Who is this tiny baby?
The Lord strong and mighty
even the Lord mighty in battle.
The king of glory’s coming
who is this
even the Lord of Hosts
This is the tiny baby!
I am looking through one of the books I took from Dad’s library when he downsized, Keeping the Spirit of Christmas, written by a Presbyterian minister, Handel Brown in the 1960s.
In the prologue the author says “the nature of Christmas thrusts upon us questions which, at other times, we successfully evade.” One of those questions he addresses is “How can we know whether Christmas is real or spurious?” Brown:
Christianity is not a subject you can study in College. It is not like logic, geometry or physics. You can learn about it, but the strangest paradox of the Gospel is just this: if you want to know whether it is true or not, you have to accept it first. This sounds like putting the cart before the horse, but unless you accept Jesus Himself as your Lord and Savior, the answer is not there. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Only those who “taste and see” know that “the Lord is good.” This is one field in which experience must precede knowledge. The qualified judge of religious truth is not the critic but the saint. Christian doctrine did not produce Christian experience. It was the other way around. “That…which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, the Word of life….that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” (1 John 1:1f.).
The meaning and the goal of our existence are discerned in Jesus. Not in what he says so much as in what He is, and in what He becomes to those who love Him. We have to know Him before we can know the answers.
This is not a denial of the place of reason in religion. It is the assertion that reason, by itself, is inadequate. I repeat what I said earlier: we must use the minds God has given us, to think in a serious manner. But until we think as Christians, the answer will evade us.
This morning I came across this reference to the latest installment of From Heavenly Harmony by Ken Myers, in which Myers comments on the way Handl’s setting captures the disorienting, or as he expounds, the re-orienting nature of the Incarnation. The music enriches the text. Here is Myers from the original article:
The text for “Mirabile mysterium” (“Wondrous mystery”)—the antiphon to the Benedictus at lauds on the Feast of the Circumcision—is another opportunity for composers to consider how to depict marvelous abnormality: “A wondrous mystery is declared today, an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man; that which he was, he remains, and that which he was not, he takes on, suffering neither commixture nor division.”
A snappy lyric it’s not. But in the hands of Jacob Handl (1550–1591), it is an occasion to demonstrate how music can provide an experiential knowledge of realities too deep for words. In his setting of “Mirabile mysterium,” Handl uses unpredictable harmonic progressions to capture the sense that something disorienting—or better, re-orienting—is happening in the Incarnation, and thus, in the world. At the end of the work, the Latin phrase “non commixtionem passus” (“suffering no commixture”) is repeated over and over, underscoring this important Christological definition. Handl’s setting is one of many remarkable Christmas works featured on A Wondrous Mystery, a recording released last year by the ensemble Stile Antico. If you crave release from needless sentimentality this Christmas, this is a good place to start.
Listen. Immediately you know this event is out of the ordinary.
My new Christmas CD will be here tomorrow. You, too, can get one here.
A Spotless Rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For through Our God’s great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night
John William Waterhouse The Annunciation 1914
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb. John Donne (1572-1631)
Adoration of the Shepherds by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:15-20.