the candle

A hodgepodge of beauty, truth, and goodness.

The adoration of the shepherds

Angelo_Bronzino_Adoration_of_the_ShepherdsAdoration of the Shepherds by Il Bronzino (1503-1572)

As we prepare to celebrate the feast of Christ’s Nativity, consider again St. Luke’s beautiful account of the angel’s annunciation to the shepherds and their subsequent adoration of the Baby Jesus:

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Lk 2:8-20)

We are in much the same position as those shepherds on that first Christmas. We have heard the good news. What will we do with it? The shepherds took action. They left all they had to worship the newborn Lord. They risked humiliation sharing the strange message with others. Will we? Do we have the courage to live like the shepherds?

In defense of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’

Grigory_Gagarin_ChristmasChristmas by Grigory Gagarin (1811-1893). Not pictured: little drummer boy.

When I was a kid I loved “The Little Drummer Boy.” Maybe it was all those “pa rum pa pum pums,” or maybe it was just that I’d learned a fun version of the song on the piano, but I couldn’t get enough. As I got older, though, I started to find all that pumming a little ridiculous, and the lyrics started to seem rather insipid (“the ox and ass kept time,” really?), and I was pretty sure I’d outgrown the silly little song.

I don’t remember what made me reconsider my disdain for “The Little Drummer Boy,” but during my sophomore year of college I started thinking more about the lyrics, and I found them almost painfully beautiful. Don’t laugh. The song is not as silly or saccharine as you might think. It’s the story of a poor boy who wants to honor the newborn Jesus, but has nothing to offer except his one humble skill. You can feel the pain and humility in his pleading, “I have no gift to bring … that’s fit to give our King.”

But when he asks if he may play for the Baby Jesus, Mary nods her approval. Timekeeping livestock notwithstanding, I always get a little teary-eyed and my heart swells at the lines “I played my drum for him … I played my best for him … Then he smiled at me.”

The little drummer boy has so little to give—he can’t compete with the “finest gifts” of others—but he gives all he has, and that is enough. The Lord is well pleased. The boy’s drumming is like the widow’s mite, and it’s a lesson for all of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, talented or mediocre—if we give all that we have, all that we are, to the Child in the manger, it is enough. That’s all he wants.

So if you tend to dismiss “The Little Drummer Boy,” give it another chance. The best recording I know is the King’s Singers’ take from their excellent album Christmas. They treat the song with fitting simplicity and dignity, and the result is truly beautiful. Give it a listen.

‘Carol of the Bells,’ futuristic a cappella style

I’m an unabashed fan of Pentatonix, the freakishly talented quintet of kids that won NBC’s a cappella singing competition, “The Sing-Off,” last year. I don’t even particularly like “Carol of the Bells” as a song, but Pentatonix’s creative arrangements (often described as “futuristic”) are almost always worth a listen. In much the same way that I marvel at the alchemy achieved with four simple voice parts in Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, I sometimes have a hard time believing there are only five voices in Pentatonix.

Incredible Christmas carol improv mashup

It’s nice having talented friends.

My friend Lawrence Lam is a pianist who has been known to record improvisations on themes like the Lamentations of Jeremiah. So a few weeks ago I sent him a Facebook message with a proposal: “I think you should record improvisations on Christmas carols and then make them available for me to download.”

He answered the call with a medley that blew my mind—twelve minutes of joyous, powerful music. I counted at least eleven songs that he weaved into his improv session, and there may be a couple I’m missing.

I asked Lawrence tonight how he’d prepared for the recording—did he have a plan? He said he’d jotted down a few carols I’d suggested on a sticky note, but when he got to the piano he realized he’d forgotten the sticky note. So he just played whatever came to mind. No preparation, one take. Yeah, there are a few rough edges—that’s how you know it’s improv—but his recording is now some of my favorite Christmas music.

So do yourself a favor and check out Lawrence Lam’s “Christmas Tinkering“—you can listen online or download it for free. Put it on in the background or take the time to savor the skill and creativity. You’ll enjoy it either way.

And if you don’t recognize the jolly tunes at the beginning and end, you need to follow the advice in this post.

A little ecumenical envy

A_Festival_of_Nine_Lessons_and_CarolsChristmas Eve is just one week away, which means it’s almost time for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, which is broadcast around the world each Christmas Eve. It’s a beautiful service of choral music and readings from Genesis, Isaiah, and the Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and John. It’s almost enough to make me wish I was Anglican. The past few days I’ve been listening to a recording of the service from the 1990s, and it’s just wonderful. The carols are selected to provide commentary on the readings, and the singing is first-rate. I think my favorite piece is Boris Ord’s setting of the 15th-century Middle English text “Adam lay ybounden,” which explores the fascinating concept of felix culpa (happy fault, or fortunate fall), the idea that we’re actually better off for Adam’s fall. It’s the same idea proclaimed in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Anyway, here’s a nice video about the service, which you should be sure to listen to:

Praying for the dead

Candlelight_ComplineWe held a candlelight compline service this evening at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle for the victims of Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Praying for each of the victims by name was heartbreaking—the horrible list just kept going.

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

Photo by Jesson Mata.

Bless us all

Muppet_Christmas_CarolContinuing my unplanned string of posts about things worthy of tears, I now implore you to rewatch (because surely you’ve seen it, right?) The Muppet Christmas Carol, which I’ve been known to describe as perhaps the most wonderful movie there is. It really is a beautiful movie, and this week marks the twentieth anniversary of its release.

Considering it stars Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, and features much of the usual Muppet silliness, it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale, with most of the dialogue and narration drawn straight from the book. And of course you could hardly ask for a finer Ebenezer Scrooge than Michael Caine.

I think my favorite scene is the one pictured above, Christmas present at the Cratchit house. After Tiny Tim utters his famous prayer, “God bless us, every one,” the family joins in a lovely little song, “Bless Us All.” I always tear up when Tiny Tim sings the line, “We have so much that we can share with those in need we see around us everywhere.” It’s just so beautiful. By worldly standards, the Cratchits have so little—they are a poor family. And yet they focus on how they can be of service others. It’s another movie moment that makes me want to be a better person.

20 children dead at Sandy Hook Elementary

Words fail in the face of such horror. Prayers for the victims, their families, and all those affected by this monstrous evil.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli:
in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.
Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.
May angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your coming
and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May a choir of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

The wonderful life of George Bailey

It's_A_Wonderful_LifeI’m just not a crier. I didn’t cry at my wedding. I didn’t cry when my son was born. I once went several years without shedding a tear. But every year around this time, when I get to the end of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, I break down and bawl like a baby. I can’t help it. It’s a beautiful movie, and the last scene approaches the theoretical maximum of heartwarmingness.

The story is familiar to just about everyone in America, right? Facing financial ruin and criminal charges, George Bailey is about to jump off a bridge when he’s interrupted by an angel, who shows George how his lifetime of self-sacrifice has changed the lives of everyone around him for the better.

In the final scene, the entire community rallies around George, everyone pitching in to raise the cash George needs to stay afloat. His home overflows with grateful friends and good cheer, his brother offers a toast to “the richest man in town,” and I lose it every time. It’s just so … wonderful.

A couple years ago there was an essay on First Things‘ website that got my love for the movie completely wrong. Joe Carter wrote:

Capra’s audience flatters themselves by believing the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, and just as wonderful as George Bailey’s. … [T]hey truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I don’t get choked up thinking about how wonderful I am. That final scene gets to me not just because it’s beautiful, but because it reminds me how far I fall short of the wonderful, selfless example of George Bailey.

Throughout his life, George forsakes his own dreams and comfort for the sake of others, never seeking repayment or recognition. I’m not like that. And I wonder: If I were ever in trouble, how many people would rally to support me? Who would even care? And why should they? Whose life have I ever improved?

It’s a Wonderful Life makes me cry because it makes me want to be a better person.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us!

Our_Lady_of_GuadalupeToday is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. I’ve never had a particularly strong devotion to any of the various Marian apparitions (Lourdes, Fatima, etc.), but I love this image, which is said to have miraculously appeared on the tilma, or cape, of St. Juan Diego after Mary appeared to him in Mexico in 1531. And I love that Our Lady of Guadalupe is depicted as pregnant, which ties in nicely to my post from yesterday.