Monday, December 31, 2018

Quote of the Week

The feet of the humblest may walk in the fields
Where the feet of the holiest have trod.
This, this is the marvel to mortals revealed
When the silvery trumpets of Christmas have pealed,
That mankind are the children of God.

- Phillips Brooks

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Break (and a Few Old Carols You've Never Heard Before)

Since this week is Christmas, I'm taking a break from blogging. Normal posts will resume next Monday, Dec. 31. In the meantime, here are some old Christmas carols that I found, and which are in desperate need of a comeback. They probably wouldn't fit in a church service, but perhaps on a Christmas comedy album of some kind.

First up is an old English classic going back centuries, "The Cherry Tree Carol." It narrates an event that takes place just after Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, but before the angel visits him to explain the nature of the conception. It gives you a rather unconventional perspective on the holy family--see Joseph's "answer most unkind" in the verses below:

Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary, with words so meek and mild,
"Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, for I am with child."
O then bespoke Joseph, with answer most unkind,
"Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee now with child." 
O then bespoke the baby within his mother's womb:
"Bow down then the tallest tree for my mother to have some."
Then bowed down the highest tree unto his mother's hand.
Then she cried, "See, Joseph, I have cherries at command!"
O then bespoke Joseph: "I have done Mary wrong;
But now cheer up, my dearest, and do not be cast down.
O eat your cherries, Mary, O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary, that grow upon the bough."
Then Mary plucked a cherry, as red as any blood;
Then Mary, she went homewards all with her heavy load.

Another old carol, this one from Ireland, makes the unusual choice of asking the angels to shut up and the star to stop shining (but as you'll see, it's for a very good reason):

Oh! cease, ye blessed angels, such clamorous joys to make!
Though midnight silence favors, the shepherds are awake;
 And you, O glorious star! that with new splendor brings
From the remotest parts three learned eastern kings,
Turn somewhere else your luster, your rays elsewhere display;
For Herod he may slay the babe, and Christ must straight away. 

This interesting angle might just be due to the temperament of the hymn-writer, though, which appears to be rather dour. Another verse suggests that maybe we ought to be mourning rather than rejoicing, because Jesus had to be born in such unfitting circumstances:

But why should we rejoice? Should we not rather mourn
To see the hope of nations thus in a stable born?
Where are his crown and scepter, where is his throne sublime,
Where is his train majestic that should the stars outshine?
Is there no sumptuous palace nor any inn at all
To lodge his heavenly mother but in a filthy stall?

Here's a carol ("The Holy Well") that reflects on Jesus' boyhood, narrating an episode in which the young Savior is goes out to play with the neighborhood kids. But they bully and taunt him because he was "born in an ox's stall." He returns to Mary with tears "trickling from his eyes like waters from the rock" and explains what happened. Mary then responds with a rather alarming suggestion. We pick up the story as Jesus returns from being bullied:

Sweet Jesus turned him round about,
To his mother's dear home went he,
And said, "I have been in yonder town,
As far as you may see:
I have been down in yonder town,
As far as the Holy Well,
There did I meet with as fine children
As any tongue can tell.
I said, "God bless you every one,
And your bodies Christ save and see!
And now, little children, I'll play with you,
And you shall play with me."
But they made answer to me, 'No,'
They were lords' and ladies' sons,
And I the poorest of them all,
Born in an ox's stall." 
[Mary:] "Though you are but a maiden's child,
Born in an ox's stall,
Thou art the Christ, the King of heaven,
And the Savior of them all!
Sweet Jesus, go down to yonder town,
As far as the Holy Well,
And take away those sinful souls,
And dip them deep in hell!"

Thankfully, the carol doesn't leave the story at that rather startling act of Marian judgment. It goes on to record Christ's response, along with a cameo by the archangel Gabriel:

"Nay, nay," sweet Jesus smiled and said,
"Nay, nay, that may not be,
For there are too many sinful souls
Crying out for the help of me."
Then up spoke the angel Gabriel,
Upon a good set steven,
"Although you are but a maiden's child,
You are the King of heaven!" 

Finally, here's another old hymn which is generally conventional and altogether lovely, except that the meaning of one of the words it uses has changed since it was written. This is from verse 3 of "A Child This Day":

Then was there with the angel
An host incontinent
Of heavenly bright soldiers
Which from the Highest was sent.

It makes you wonder why we ever stopped singing these, doesn't it? Here's wishing you a merry (and continent) Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Sweet Child of Bethlehem, grant that we may share with all our hearts in this profound mystery of Christmas. Pour into the hearts of men the peace which they sometimes seek so desperately and which you alone can give them. Help them to know one another better and to live as brothers, children of the same Father. Awaken in their hearts love and gratitude for your infinite goodness; join them together in your love; and give us all your heavenly peace. Amen.

- John XXIII

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 21

          Joe knew that any battle to take a fortified city could be a long, protracted affair. As it turned out, they didn’t have long to wait. The day after the armory-master defected, the sound of rolling drums from the walls scattered the singing birds at dawn. The gates and drawbridges thundered open, and out of the streets of Arrens poured battalion after battalion of soldiers, their burnished armor shining in the morning light. Prince Hallomer’s leaders had been right—the Steward had seen the smallness of the invading army, knew the invulnerability of his walls, and sensed an opportunity to overwhelm the loyalist camp across the western fields.
          “What should we do?” asked Captain Drave.
          Prince Halbrinnon narrowed his eyes as he regarded the approaching army. “Make ready,” he said.
          Sir Kobi and the other leaders turned and started walking through the camp, issuing orders. There was a general clamor as men raced back and forth through the maze of tents, hurrying to strap on their armor, seize their weapons, and take up positions in ordered ranks. It didn’t take the Prince’s army long to gather in their places, not even the new recruits from the city and the wilds. They stood proudly, shoulder to shoulder, the fierce courage of the moment shining in their eyes. But as the children looked over the loyalist troops, they could see that there simply weren’t enough there. As impressive as was the host that had sailed over from the Great King’s land, it could not compare in numbers to the endless ranks that were streaming out from the city of Arrens.
          Sir Mack stood beside Prince Halbrinnon, looking back and forth between the two armies.
          “Normally,” said the old knight, “I would say that this was not a winnable war. But we have you, my Lord.”
          “Your faith is as great as your courage, Sir Mack,” the Prince answered.
          “But is faith enough?” asked Kobi, who had rejoined the leaders at the fore.
          “Faith is the whole battle,” said the Prince.
          He paused, looking out at the oncoming army across the vast fields of grass. “How long before they are close enough to attack?”
          “An hour to march,” said Kobi, “and another to draw themselves up into the positions they want.”
          “Two hours…” Mack chimed in. “It gives us time to improve our position, too. We could withdraw a little further up into the foothills. There’s a ravine just behind that ridge that will give us an easily defensible position. Their advantage of numbers won’t help them there.”
          “Any vulnerabilities that come with that terrain?” asked Drave.
          “Only one,” said Mack. “But only an old knight-errant like me would know about it. There’s a small pass on the far side that would turn the ravine into a trap if they knew they could encircle us. But I’m fairly confident they don’t know, and so the pass will serve as a way of retreat for us if we need it.”
          “I’m sure you’re right,” said Kobi. “There was never anyone in the Citadel who knew the lay of these lands half as well as you, Sir Mack.”
          “Do we have your order, sir?” Mack asked the Prince, who nodded quickly.
          “Yes, take up your new position. There’s no sense risking lives by staying here on open ground.”
          Joe and Sim listened to this exchange with interest. Lady, for her part, was standing mesmerized, looking out over the sea of waving grass, at the men whose polished armor flashed like jewels in the mounting light of early morning.
          “I don’t think I want this battle to happen,” she mused softly.
          Prince Halbrinnon must have heard, for he turned her direction and sank down to one knee.
          “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “This is my battle. I will fight it, and I will win it. Just remember to trust me, no matter what happens.”
          She nodded bravely. “I already do.”

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Pilgrimage Memoir: Praising and Pausing in Caesarea

(Click here for an introduction and previous installments in this series)

"There is not a blade of grass that does not grow within the Church, not a constellation that does not gravitate towards her; every quest for truth, for justice, for beauty is made within her."

- Olivier Clement

~ ~ ~

                Our next stop in Caesarea was only a short walk away: the remnants of the old Roman amphitheater, now rebuilt and used as a modern venue for music and theatrical performances. This was one of the grandest surviving pieces of the ancient city, and as we walked through the stone entryway it was easy to imagine the scenes that had played out in that arena. How many times had Cornelius walked these paving-stones? How many of the martyrs of the Great Persecution had met their end here, in front of a jeering crowd, as they firmly declared their faith in Christ?

                But it wasn’t just ancient Christian history that met us there; the modern faith was just as present. We, and dozens of other Christians from all over the world, gathered on those stone seats and paused to reflect. It was there too that we spotted Michael W. Smith, the musician who was something of an American Christian celebrity, apparently setting up for a concert to be held later. I greeted him briefly as we passed each other in an aisle, but made no attempt to intrude on his work. I did, however, make a suggestion when Norah asked us what we wanted to sing to experience the sound dynamics of the amphitheater, that perhaps we should sing “Friends Are Friends Forever” just to see if we could get his attention. In the end, though, we settled on singing “Amazing Grace,” which I led from where we sat. After we had sung, one of the other groups sent down a singer to the floor of the amphitheater to sing the same song in their own language. It was not the only time that we would have the experience of praising God together in multiple languages, and it was a beautiful reminder of the living unity of the far-scattered Body of Christ.

                It was also there that the long, haunting sirens sounded to signify a minute of silence in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Norah had prepared us for this moment, and we stood and removed our hats as we paused to consider the world-aching sorrow of that great tragedy, which the Jews call “the Shoah.” It was sobering to think that we were standing, at that moment, in an ancient symbol of oppression against the Jews—a locus of the Greco-Roman culture that had aggressively tried to subdue, both culturally and militarily, the people of Israel. And yet there in that moment, we were standing on ground that belonged once again to the sons of Jacob, and two thousand years after Herod’s kingdom and its imperial backers had vanished from the earth, the Jews were still there today. With a silent prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy in the midst of even our greatest sorrows, and an intercession for my brothers the Jews, I replaced my hat and followed the group out of Caesarea.

                I think it was in that moment, as we reboarded the bus in that parking lot swamped with tour groups, that Norah offered us a bit of perspective on the busyness of the sites. She acknowledged that it would be easy enough to get frustrated with the crowds and the lines, the inconvenience and the dreariness of having holy places made to feel like tourist sites. But then she said, “When I see all these people here, from all different countries of the world, it reminds me of the prophecy from Isaiah, which says that all nations will come together and go up to Zion to worship the God of Israel there.”

                Immediately, the awkward annoyance of crowded lines was transformed for me into a repeated experience of joy. Everywhere I went in the Holy Land, I saw the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. I saw the promise of God made manifest: that His light would reach to the farthest nations, and that they would come together to worship Him as one people. We counted more than two dozen different countries represented as pilgrims there in Israel, from western Europe, eastern Europe, north Africa, subsaharan Africa, India, southeast Asia, east Asia, the Middle East, North, South, and Central America, Australia and the Pacific Islands. Because of Jesus, the nations were saying to one another, “Come! Let us go up to the house of the Lord, and worship Him together.” As much as any of the sites themselves, the experience of the living Body of Christ, gathering together from all nations, made a powerful impact on me during my days in Israel.