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.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Photo of the Week

Here we know that Christ our brother 
Binds us all as by a cord: 
He was born of Mary mother 
Where the mountains praise the Lord!

- from verse 2 of the hymn "Now the Joyful Bells A-Ringing"

(Photo: Altar and artwork in the Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Nothing can make a man truly great but being truly good,
and partaking of God's holiness."

- Matthew Henry

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Non nobis Domine!—

      Not unto us, O Lord!
The praise or glory be
      Of any deed or word;
For in thy judgment lies
      To crown or bring to nought
All knowledge or device
      That man has reached or wrought.

And we confess our blame—
      How all too high we hold
That noise which men call fame,
      That dross which men call gold.
For these we undergo
      Our hot and godless days,
But in our hearts we know
      Not unto us the praise.

O Power by whom we live—
      Creator, Judge, and Friend,
Upholdingly forgive
      Nor fail us at the end:
But grant us well to see
      In all our piteous ways—

Non nobis Domine!—

      Not unto us the praise!

- Rudyard Kipling