I’m not letting go of the Christmas season yet. Here’s the King’s Singers with their arrangement of the traditional French carol Noël nouvelet.
Reading today, I happened upon a passage that strikes me as very appropriate for the feast of Epiphany. From Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion by John Polkinghorne, pp. 95-96:
If the quantum world requires its own form of logic, one might anticipate that everyday habits of thought may also require some revision when one engages in the task of seeking to understand divine reality. In addition to that general consideration, there are also particular limitations to be expected in the degree of success attainable in the specific case of theology. The infinite nature of God is never going to be exhaustively contained in the finite categories of human thought. The mysterious ineffability of the divine, emphasised by what is called apophatic theology, must always be borne in mind in the course of honest enquiry. Yet the mystery card should be the last one to be played in theological discussion, for Christians believe that God has acted to make the divine nature known in humanly accessible ways, particularly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For Sunday’s feast of Epiphany, do yourself a favor and go here to listen to a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his wonderful short poem “Journey of the Magi.” It starts out like this:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
And it only gets better. The third and final stanza is quite thought-provoking, and haunting. Read and listen to the rest here.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Happy Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God! This is a video a few friends and I recorded on this date last year at beautiful Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle. Please excuse the background noise and the less-than-perfect singing on the bass line. Singing are, from left: Kevin Birnbaum (bass), Alan Stout (baritone), Doug Fullington (tenor 2), and Jesson Mata (tenor 1).
Man, the Holy Family is amazing—there’s not a weak link in that chain. You’ve got Joseph, the patron saint of the Universal Church. You’ve got Mary, the spotless Queen of Heaven. And then of course there’s Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity.
But even for this most holy of families, things were never easy. They got off to a rough start when Mary turned up pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s. They got past that, but then when it was time for Mary to give birth, she had to do it in a barn because they were on the road and couldn’t find a hotel room. Then a jealous, conniving king tried to murder the baby, so they all had to flee to Egypt. The only episode we know about from Jesus’ childhood involved his parents panicking after they lost him in Jerusalem for the better part of a week. Joseph died while his wife was still young. Then, to cap it all off, Mary had to stand by and watch as her only son was tortured and unjustly executed. No, things were never easy for the Holy Family.
Many Christians seem to believe that if they try to follow God’s will, things should go well for them. But holiness has nothing to do with an easy life, except perhaps to militate against it. If we are truly striving to live holy lives, we should expect to face tough decisions, difficult circumstances, mockery, persecution, and even death.
If the Holy Family could not escape such trials, why should we?
Eric Whitacre is the rock star of the choral world. His innovative “virtual choir” is a phenomenon, watched by millions online. And this lovely piece, “Lux Aurumque,” is perfect for the Christmas season.
The text is a Latin translation (by Charles Anthony Silvestri) of an English poem, “Light and Gold,” by Edward Esch:
pura velut aurum
et canunt angeli
molliter modo natum.
warm and heavy
as pure gold,
and the angels sing softly
to the newborn babe.
It’s easy to forget, among all the idyllic imagery of the Babe in the manger, and the shepherds and the angels, and the Wise Men and the star, that the story of the first Christmas gets pretty grisly and gory. But the Church doesn’t let us forget. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, those babies slaughtered by Herod the king in his jealous attempt to assassinate the newborn King.
When the Wise Men did not return to Herod to tell him where the baby Jesus was, he flew into “a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). It’s hard to imagine anything worse than the murder of innocent children. And yet, somehow, the Christian tradition has drawn beauty even out of this horror, as in the 16th-century “Coventry Carol”:
P.S. The best recording of this song I know is a suitably stark and terrifying rendition by the King’s Singers.
Today is the feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist. John’s Gospel is great reading for the Christmas season, even though John, unlike Matthew and Luke, wrote no infancy narrative. Instead, John tried to explain the significance of Jesus’ birth, and to put the incomprehensible fact of the Incarnation into words. John’s Gospel famously begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). There’s enough substance and mystery in those few words for a lifetime of prayer and reflection.