Preaching and pondering

Shepherds_Bow_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s Martin Luther on Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”:

Why did she ponder these things in her heart? Because she too was in need of preaching. Even though she was the mother and had borne the Child, she had need to ponder these words in her heart, in order to strengthen her faith and increase her assurance. She reflected how these words corresponded to those of the angel: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.” […] The quality of faith in this Virgin no words can express. If anyone has faith and thinks he knows enough, let him take a lesson from this mother and let him assemble the passages of Scripture in order to confirm his faith. If he has one passage, good, but if he has eight or ten, that is better. (Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, pp.42f.)

This shows what meditation means for Luther: “preaching to oneself,” proclaiming the gospel to yourself by “pondering in your heart” the scriptures. Note that Mary wasn’t engaged in introspective spiritual self-analysis (“do I believe? is God living in my heart?”), but pondering the things she had seen and heard.

Luther contrasts this with the shepherds, who (he surmises from the reaction to Christ’s ministry as an adult) soon forgot the message they had received from the angels and which they passed on to others:

[The shepherds] became preachers themselves and told everybody what they had learned from this Child, for the Evangelist says, “And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” Yes, but they did not remember them very long. For a quarter of a year anyone could have told how the Child had been born at Bethlehem, how the angels sang and the Wise Men came from the East. But two, three, or four years afterward everyone had forgotten. And when the Lord came to baptism at the age of thirty, no one remembered a thing about it. (p.44)

Now, whether that’s fair on the shepherds or not, there is a crucial pastoral message here. No doubt it’s unlikely the shepherds would have reached a point where they denied what had happened. When reminded, no doubt they could still have come out with the old tale about the night they heard the angels sing and saw the baby in a feeding trough. But, unlike Mary (“but Mary…”), they had lost that living connection with Christ through the ongoing preaching and proclamation of the gospel.

And that’s the lesson here: it’s not enough for any of us merely to retain our allegiance to the gospel as a concept or to the church as an institution. We need to hear the gospel proclaimed to us repeatedly in word and sacrament – including the gospel as proclaimed to us in our own meditation upon it, pondering it in our hearts. To say “I can remain a Christian without going to church” (that is, without a preached gospel) is thus to fall into the same trap that Luther ascribes to the shepherds. If even Mary “was in need of preaching”, then how much more are we.

The image used in this post is a very jolly Ukrainian icon from the late 17th century


Ero cras: "I come tomorrow!"

The “short responsory” from Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours for 24 December:

Tomorrow the wickedness of the earth will be erased.
Tomorrow the Saviour of the world will reign over us.

Some Christians have had the practice of saying “perhaps today!” – referring to the possibility that Christ might return in glory today, and thus encouraging themselves to “live in the light of his coming”.

I wonder, though, if the above responsory takes a more psychologically realistic approach. Because as we all know, “tomorrow never comes” – and certainly many, many Christian generations have passed without that final return of Christ, even if we remain assured that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. But equally, as the song says (and I apologise in advance for the #earworm): “Tomorrow is only a day away.” 

So the church does not say “perhaps today!” – with its risk of becoming a gritted-teeth denial of what one honestly expects – but (definitely, assuredly) “tomorrow!”. That “tomorrow!” may not arrive as quickly as we’d like, but it is always just round the corner. And the literal “tomorrow” of 25 December is a reminder of that greater “tomorrow” that is still waiting for us, always tantalisingly out of reach, but giving us a continuing hope.

In Dulci Jubilo: from angels and Lutherans

Image: Wikipedia.

In Dulci Jubilo is one of my favourite Christmas carols – and also the best example of one of my favourite words, “macaronic”, meaning a hymn that combines Latin with a vernacular language.

This old article from Credenda Agenda provides some fascinating background on the carol, starting with its reported origins:

The origins of this carol are unknown, but one fourteenth-century writer reported that the angels sang it to the mystic Heinrich Suso (d. 1366), who, upon hearing the music, took up dancing with the angels. That’s one of the best how-I-thought-of-this-tune-stories that I have ever read. But it does give us insight into the writer’s estimation of the tune. How else could we get such delightful words and music? Six hundred fifty years later it continues to delight us.

The carol was originally written in Latin and German, and the earliest manuscript dates from 1400:

In dulci jubilo [In sweet jubilation]
Singet und sit vro. [Sing and be joyful.]
Aller unser wonne [All our delight]
Layt in presepio [Lies in the manger]
Sy leuchtet vor die sonne [He shines as the sun]
Matris in gremio [On his mother’s lap]
Qui alpha es et O. [You Who are Alpha and Omega.]

I love the earthy and concrete language of this: “Sing and be joyful” is so much more, well, joyful than “Let us our homage shew”.

The first printing of words and music together are found in a 1533 Lutheran hymnal, and had three verses: verses 1, 2 and 4 in our modern version. Our verse 3 appeared twelve years later, in 1545, in another Lutheran hymnal. This verse was probably written by Martin Luther, and at the very least it certainly reflects both his theology and his ability to express that theology in simple, direct but attractive words.

Here is Luther’s verse, in the Latin/German original. The square brackets give the English translation of the Latin lines, and J.M. Neale’s English version of the German lines:

O Patris caritas! [O love of the Father]
O Nati lenitas! [O gentleness of the Son]
Wir wären all verloren [Deeply were we stainèd]
Per nostra crimina; [Through our sins]
so hat er uns erworben [But Thou for us hast gainèd]
Coelorum gaudia. [The joy of heaven]
Eia wären wir da! [O that we were there!]

Which gives both us and the angels plenty to dance about!

De-Grinching Leithart (and Wright)

Fra Angelicalo NativityPeter Leithart has reposted his 2009 essay, How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas, in which Leithart describes how Dr Wright had diminished his enjoyment of Christmas by highlighting the disjunction between Advent and Christmas in the church’s hymnody:

Advent hymns are about Israel. They are deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. […] Jesus is David’s Son, but how many Christmas hymns mention Abraham? It’s as if the whole history of Israel has not happened. Christmas hymns do not seem to fulfill the longing expressed in Advent hymns, but some other longing.

I especially like Leithart’s identifying the three songs from Luke 1 & 2 as the Bible’s Christmas carols: carols for which the fulfilment of those Advent themes is central. It’s not that N.T. Wright stole Christmas, he concludes, but just a “de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas” to which Leithart bids a robust “good riddance”.

Leithart concludes:

I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.

All good, clean fun, and Leithart makes some excellent points. However, I read his essay just before Midnight Mass last night, and during the mass it occurred to me that the bias of Christmas carols towards the apolitical and universal is only a problem if all you’re doing is singing Christmas carols. But the church doesn’t just sing Christmas carols: it also reads the Scriptures, including passages like last night’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 9:1-7):

The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase; they rejoice in your presence as men rejoice at harvest time, as men are happy when they are dividing the spoils. For the yoke that was weighing on him, the bar across his shoulders, the rod of his oppressor, these you break as on the day of Midian.

For all the footgear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood, is burnt and consumed by fire. For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.

Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end, for the throne of David and for his royal power, which he establishes and makes secure in justice and integrity. From this time onwards and for ever, the jealous love of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This is full of the “Advent fulfilled”, Israel-centred themes that Leithart is calling for. Hearing this – in the Jerusalem Bible’s stirring and (to me) unfamiliar translation – only minutes after reading Leithart’s essay left me audibly exclaiming (and germinated this post).

The New Testament reading (Titus 2:11-14), though, shows how the “universalised” understanding of Christmas goes back to the very beginning of the faith:

God´s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour Christ Jesus.

He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.

What is it that links the particular and political Advent promises of the Old Testament with the universal message of Titus 2 and our Christmas hymns? Answer: the gospel reading, which begins with a highly specific delineation of time and place:

Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David´s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

But ends with:

a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favour.”

So I’m going to carry on singing all the Christmas favourites very happily, but I’m grateful to Leithart for prodding me into making sure I also sing the Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis with especial fervour, listen to those wonderful Christmas Old Testament readings with fresh attention, and so understand how our “universal” Christmas can only be understood properly in the light of the “particular” Advent whose hope and promise it fulfils.

This Christmas Night

This Christmas NightIf you’re looking for some new music to listen to this Christmas, I can highly recommend This Christmas Night, a new release from the choir of Worcester College, Oxford.

It’s a collection of contemporary Christmas carols from the second half of the last century and the beginning of this, including one piece specially commissioned for the recording (the opening carol, Joseph and the Angel, by Hafliði Hallgrímsson) and several world premiere recordings of carols by composers including Judith Bingham and (of all people) Peter Maxwell Davies.

As the Telegraph’s review put it:

the entire sequence, wisely chosen and sung with the utmost expressiveness and skill, is a pure delight.

While it’s a bit early yet for me to single out particular favourites – partly because the whole album is gorgeous, partly because it’s mostly unfamiliar – one highlight from a Lutheran point of view is Geoffrey Bush’s ‘Twas In The Year That King Uzziah Died, a setting of Martin Luther’s Sanctus hymn Isaiah, Mighty Seer.

While it’s 50p cheaper on Amazon, I recommend grabbing it direct from the record label, as Resonus Classics deserves support for putting out material of this quality.

Praetorius - Lutheran Mass for Christmas MorningWhat you may want to download from Amazon, though, is what remains my favourite ever Christmas recording: Praetorius’s Lutheran Mass for Christmas morning (see this 2004 blog post for more details). This includes Luther’s Sanctus hymn – which may be where Worcester College Choir got the idea from, as I can’t see what particular link it has to Christmas otherwise…

In which John Betjeman asks a quick question of Alain de Botton

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true. — Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

From John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Bored, Alain?

Christmas myths and merriment

Alastair Roberts has a great post on the recurring question at this time of year: Is Christmas stolen from the pagans?

You’ll want to read the whole thing (much of which quotes a thorough debunking from a pagan forum), but here are the key points that leapt out at me on reading it:

  • Christmas is “the Feast of the Nativity,” not “Jesus’s Birthday.”: “While modern fundamentalists typically claim it’s Jesus’s ACTUAL birthday because they’re theologically and historically ignorant, mainline denominations have never so claimed.”
  • Why Christmas trees, holly and the rest? Not because they’re “stolen from the pagans”, but because church law required (and still requires) green plants to be in the church for all services as an expression of creation and life. And in northern Europe, in December, that means “fir trees, evergreen boughs, and holly.”
  • A reiteration of William Tighe’s argument that December 25th was chosen for Christmas only because it was nine months after March 25th, which the early church had concluded must be the date of Christ’s conception.

As Alastair points out, though, in many ways the whole argument rests on the pretty fatuous notion that “the origins of a particular tradition or practice have some privileged claim upon its ‘meaning'”. The “meanings” of cultural traditions are as changeable as the meanings of words.

Alastair’s conclusion is one I agree with entirely, which is why I enjoy both the “secular”, “commercial” elements of Christmas, and the specifically Christian aspects:

Within contemporary Western society, Christmas means more, but considerably less, than the ‘meaning’ Christians find in the feast. The ‘real meaning’ of Christmas in contemporary Britain is shaped by commercialism, pop culture, British and Western European cultural traditions, and many other forces besides Christianity. I don’t believe that we can maintain that Christians have some exclusive claim upon its celebration. Rather than seeking bland acknowledgements of the rightfulness of our claim from an indifferent society, we are better off enjoying the celebration for what it is, while maintaining the peculiar and unique place that the celebration holds in the lives of Christians.