Advent, Week Three: Joy

 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55, CEB)

As the Christmas advertisements become ever more frequent and the music proclaiming “Joy to the World” looped on the radio stations starts to become a little stale, let the Church be at the forefront of declaring that joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Psychologies, a British women’s magazine, describes joy as “more consistent” than happiness and “cultivated internally.  It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.”  This is not to say that joy and happiness are mutually exclusive or that either joy or happiness is somehow bad; it is to say that they draw from different sources, and as this third week of Advent calls us to joy we must be aware that that is not the same thing as telling us to be happy.

Women, in this season fraught with Sexy Santa Helpers imagery, the misuse of the Marian narrative to tell all females they are incomplete without children, and cultural stereotypes that expect a perfect Christmas dinner made by a perfect hostess for everyone who may cross the threshold, may not feel all that happy.  (The frustration around the expectations of women are somewhat painfully addressed in a Saturday Night Live skit with Emma Stone.)  They may not even feel all that joyful.  And that is a real and honest place to be in this Advent season.  Happiness is not what the Church should be asking of women; it should be enabling them, however, to experience joy.

This third Sunday is also known as Gaudete Sunday, a name taken from the beginning of the liturgy in the Latin Catholic mass; “gaudete” means “rejoice.”  Mary’s hymn (today’s Scripture reading) is known as the Magnificat (from the opening line in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” “My soul magnifies the Lord”) and the text is pervaded with a sense of joy even in the uncertainty of Mary’s pregnancy and its complications.  This Sunday reminds us that this season, women are at the forefront:  in Advent we hear of Mary, we hear of Elizabeth, we hear of women in Jesus’ family tree and say in this season, at least, women are valued by the Church.  Joy to the women! an Advent devotional proclaims, and indeed this season calls out the joy—the deep wellspring bubbling to the surface happiness—of recognizing the gifts women bring not only to culture but to the Church itself.

Yet not everyone recognizes these gifts, telling women they have no place in Church leadership despite the stories of their grace in ministry like A Day in the Life of a Female Pastor’s Husband.  At this time of the holidays, also, not everyone recognizes the need for agency in sharing those gifts and sharing of selves; pressure on both women and men to go to familial structures that may be painful and damaging in the false name of the importance of genetic connection makes many dread the season.  There is no joy in pretending happiness at the expense of your own peace and no one who loves you should ever ask you to do that which steals your joy or makes you feel unsafe.  As Mary says, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior;” from her very spirit that animates her comes the ability to rejoice, not from someone else telling her she needs to feel joy.  She is now exalted, mindfully part of the story of Christmas, of Christianity itself, because she was given the choice to say yes, I will be part of this.

Joy, like hope and peace, takes work.  It takes trust and space and time and choice; it takes an awareness of the self that may be a difficult thing to hold.  In a world and a Church that often tells women to smile, reinforcing the idea that women are only as useful as their beauty or cheerfulness, we who claim this faith must advocate for and work toward the reality where joy is what is asked and what is cultivated, where the status of the soul is far more important than a facial expression.  This season, find the things that bring you joy, and be unapologetic about claiming them as God’s great gift from Her own wellspring.

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Crazy Little Thing Called Church

Sorry this is rather late today, Reader; I’m in the middle of Annual Conference, which is kind of the United Methodist equivalent of a state senate session.  Delegates from all over my state gather together for a handful of days to worship together, to work through legislation together (we are a human organization, after all; it might be nice to say we should just live in harmony, but those of us who have read Lord of the Flies know that doesn’t quite work out on its own), and to be the Church together—in all the ups and downs that entails.

And it has its ups and downs.  There are many ups.  We had fabulous worship this morning, complete with some slam poetry psalms that made me ache to write such power myself and an address by the bishop that ended in her singing my dead grandfather’s favorite hymn—double trouble, in terms of emotional connection.  We were challenged (wonderfully!) to step outside of our worship comfort zones, to truly be present in praise, and it fed my soul when I didn’t even realize how hungry I was.  In the afternoon, we had fabulous worship of a totally different kind, working into my denomination’s recent commitment to repentance and reconciliation in regards to indigenous peoples and the part the Church has played in their genocide.  Powerful stories were told, the stories that only get sideline paragraphs in U.S. history books because we as the “greatest nation on earth” don’t want to see the ways that we lied and stole and broke ourselves and others in climbing to the top; we don’t want to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect, that we are not nothing if we are not first, best, spotless.  We as a conference committed ourselves to going back for that one sheep, that one tribe, that one person we have left out on the margins because we cannot do anything else if we are truly claiming Christ’s example.

And there have been downs:  the anger and tension over the General Conference (global, every-four-years gathering; kind of a UN summit meeting for the United Methodist Church, in a way) decisions and lack of decisions simmer under everything.  There are some pastors and laity—“right” and “left” in terms of polity—who continue to push rhetoric and motions that needlessly jab at those who do not agree, who continue to demand words that wound in the name of clarity and accountability.  Truly, Reader, these piss me off.  I don’t care whether you’re left, right, or center; I don’t care how angry you are about whether the Church is or is not doing what you are so sure is right.  To shove people’s faces and spirits in language and rules which don’t bring demonstrable change but do highlight how right and godly you are and how wrong and prejudiced “they” are is just selfish.  We skitter, in some ways, on the edge of schism—not because the vast majority of the UMC wants to split but because those at the extreme ends keep pushing their opponents’ buttons like four-year-old children cruelly searching for the breaking point.

Capture

Conference is exhausting; perhaps it is more so this year, coming off of being in a wedding last weekend and having another wedding in the middle of things this weekend and dealing with work and transition in and through.  Conference is exhausting because it’s one long networking session:  this, barring serious changes, will be the conference to which I return after I finish seminary, so these are my future colleagues and bosses and employees and congregation members.  These are the people with whom I will serve on committees, to whom I will turn when I need a hand in my church.  Conference is exhausting because I wear uneasily the mantle of my future career even while I am at present a lay representative.  Conference is exhausting because it’s non-stop, and my introvert self needs a day off.

Yet, crazily, I do not regret taking time off of my paying job to do this work.  I believe from the bottoms of my feet that it matters, even on the days when I sit in a meeting listening to people question whether or not parliamentary rules allow someone to make that kind of motion now or if it has to be introduced by a separate action.  I don’t know why Crazy Little Thing popped into my head earlier today, but I’m running with it.  No, I don’t advocate attempting to be in a romantic relationship with the Church (for one thing, Valentine’s Day is going to be disappointing every year), but that sense of not really understanding but going for it anyway is totally applicable.  Conference—Church administration in general—is weird and inexplicable and tiring and yet something that (for some) is also energizing and fascinating.

And is sometimes something you need to leave for a while, get on your motorbike and get away from until you’re ready.  I’m glad of having another wedding this weekend to break up Conference for me because I, too, am not totally in love with what the Church is doing to itself at the moment.  I am frustrated with what we’re not saying, with the assumptions we’re making, with the petty skirmishes of power and elevation that distract us from our purpose as God’s people to be light to the world.  Yet after the ride, after shaking off the frustration in the humid summer night air, I still pray that all of us can return to our seats the next day willing to look at what we do and see it to the glory of God.

And may we be brave enough to call ourselves out if it is not.  What a crazy thought.

 

 

Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”  Paul and Barnabas took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.  The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders.  The church sent this delegation on their way.  (Acts 15:1-4a, CEB)

Becoming a Born Storyteller

Oh, my dear Reader, guess what?

I preached for the very first time this past Sunday.

It’s still unutterably bizarre to say that simply because those who preach are other people.  I don’t preach.  I am not a preacher.  I felt this way when I was not a teacher but I taught, when I was not a writer but I was published, when I was not a runner but I completed a 5k, when I was not a soloist but I sang by myself in front of an audience.  It’s not so much that I don’t believe I’m capable of any of these things as I simply don’t see myself in those roles—don’t people realize I’m still an unreliable 15-year-old?  Surely I can’t be doing accomplished things; other people do accomplished things, people who have their shit together.

Except that’s not true at all; anyone who tells you they have their shit together only has their ability to lie together.  We are all of us tripping over our own sets of mismatched baggage, hoping no one else notices the duct tape on that corner where the zipper always slides open just a little bit.  So for me to say that of course I don’t preach when, in fact, I have, is kind of silly.

And Reader, you know what?  ….it was pretty awesome.

I don’t say that to ignore all the parts that weren’t awesome.  I preached three different services on Sunday and shook like a leaf through every one.  I woke up at 2:15 in the morning (the first service starts at 8) because I was wound so tightly that I simply could not continue sleeping.  My anxiety was through the roof as I imagined all the ways I would screw something up, let someone down, or—absolute worst of all—simply not say what God needed me to say and substitute my own words instead.

For certain I have much yet to learn, but I’m willing to spend a lifetime learning it because at the end of the day I was flat exhausted but content, happy to have been doing something that fit like a glove you know you’ll grow into.  And part of that was, as I said in the sermon itself, that I got to tell stories.

You may have noticed, Reader, that I love telling stories.  I’ve been telling stories since I knew how to string events together.  It’s my favorite thing, really—that and listening to stories.  I love hearing the stories that others tell of their first date, their favorite dog, the character they made up in the 6th grade, the dream they had when they were 25, the moment they found the right job, the reason they’re people of faith.  Some people are born storytellers, knowing every place to pause and all the right gestures to create a scene somehow everyone can see.  Other people grow into it, feeling out their own understandings of themselves and their narrative pace.  Still others never find their groove at all, getting lost in rabbit holes and tangents and never able to finish their tales.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have stories, though; just takes a different kind of listening.

The thing about preaching is that a huge portion of it is learning to tell stories.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been telling them for twenty years; preaching is telling stories for a new purpose to a new audience and also a fair amount of getting out of the way of the God Who has a much grander story to tell.  One of the hardest things I found when writing my sermon was letting go of the things I wanted to say.  I had all these stories I wanted to tell—but they didn’t fit, and I knew they didn’t fit, even if I couldn’t have told you what I was trying to make them fit into.  In preaching, I have to learn to craft God’s stories rather than rehearsing mine.

The constricted freedom of this blog is definitely part of learning that, Reader, and I thank you for coming along with me and for helping shape how I understand this kind of communication.  This weekly challenge to pay attention to the God-moments of my life is fabulous practice for listening, and your comments on how you connected (or didn’t) with my stories help me understand that I can’t talk just to hear myself speak.  I have to keep learning how to pull apart the extraneous bits to get at what needs to be said.

Today in the Jewish calendar is Passover, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt when the Hebrew people were “passed over” by God’s Plague of Such Desperate Measures that Children Died from It.  It is an annual holiday of Jewish people remembering who they are and challenging themselves to be something different—seder ends with “next year in Jerusalem,” that next year the Jewish nation will be together again in the land God promised them.  I get to go to a seder tonight at a local temple (srsly, I’m super excited) and listen to their stories, to the way they tell it for the first time and the fiftieth.  And that will likely make it into a sermon some day, because their storytelling will teach me how to tell stories, making me better at that craft.

Even though I was totally born with it.

 

 

And He told them a parable… (Luke 21:29a, AMP)

Christ Is Risen, Indeed

Happy Easter, Reader!  Christ is risen!

It’s an old tradition (no, I don’t know how old, but I do know that “the lorde is risen in dede” shows up in Tyndale’s Bible in Luke 24, and that dates to 1526) for Christians to say this during Eastertide (Easter season, Easter, however you want to say it; it’s not just one day, in case you didn’t know, it’s 50.  Seriously.  We party ’till Pentecost) and expect the response, “Christ is risen indeed!”

“Indeed” isn’t a word that gets a whole lot of play these days; it’s often thought of as stuffy or proper, easily replaced by “seriously” or “really” or, if you’re a youngerkind, “for realz.”  (Why yes, I do sometimes say that.  Try it.  It’s actually pretty fun.)  “Indeed” itself doesn’t even have a meaning other than amplification, usually—or does it?  I went searching in the Oxford English Dictionary (it’s a favorite hobby of mine) and found some interesting things:

indeed, adv.
1a.  In actual fact, in reality, in truth; really, truly, assuredly, positively.
1b.  Freq. placed after a word in order to emphasize it; hence, with n.=actual, real, true, genuine; with adj. or adv.=really and truly.
2a.  In reality, in real nature or essence, opposed to what is merely external or apparent.
3.  Used in a clause which confirms and amplifies a previous statement.
5a.  In dialogue, used to emphasize the reply (affirmative or negative) to a question or remark.
7.  As an interjection, expressing (according to the intonation) irony, contempt, amazement, incredulity, or the like.

Reader, how apt!  The call-and-response ritual becomes affirmation, becomes expression of amazement, becomes the spoken recognition of the impossible.  Christ is risen—indeed?  How on earth (or off it) can that happen?  This central miracle of the Christian faith is utterly outrageous; Death wins, no one comes back from that (unless they’re super creepy and otherworldly).  I mean, check out this graphic I found about how resurrected folks fare in the popular mindset:

Obviously on a historical and faith-based level I take tons of issue with this, but in terms of recognizing how crazy the thought of following a risen human is I find it pretty accurate.  There is no way this should work.  Christ is risen—say what?  How does that work?  Is He a zombie now?  And surely He isn’t actually alive; somebody just took the body.  April Fools’.

Which, of course, is what the original folks tried to say.  Check this out—Matthew 28:11-15:

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

Later addition?  Likely; it’s not like Matthew sat down and wrote the gospel the day after Easter, anyway.  But immediately people said no way, this can’t be real.  Christ isn’t risen; dead people stay dead unless something nefarious is at work.  So when Christians get together and say, “Christ is risen!”  “Christ is risen indeed!” they are making a hell of a statement.  The impossible has happened, we say to each other.  Yes, the impossible has happened!  How crazy cool is that?!  So what?

Ah, “so what.”  Why does it matter, other than being a slightly creepy but really neat magic trick?  After all, Lazarus came back from the dead.  So did Jairus’ daughter, and that widow’s son.  And even outside of the Gospels, Elijah resurrected a guy, Elisha resurrected a guy, Paul resurrected a guy, Peter brought Tabitha back; in point of fact, it seems like people couldn’t really manage to stay dead in the ancient world, so why does it matter that Jesus did?

Because He predicted this; nobody else said yeah, I’m going to snuff it but it’s temporary, brb.  Nobody else had any idea that Death could be anything but final—check out how made Lazarus’s sisters were that Jesus hadn’t come sooner.  They were totally sure that dead meant dead, even though their own history had stories where that wasn’t the case.  But also because Jesus didn’t have any help.  In all the other stories, somebody had to go get the dead person and bring him/her back, but Jesus was alone from start to re-start.  This is both incredibly awful and marvelously fantastic because it means that Jesus is stronger than Death.  He doesn’t need anybody else’s help because He is the help; all by Himself, he took the one thing none of us can defeat and walked away (with scratches).

And lives!  Not only is Jesus alive, but He’s alive in a real way—not as a zombie or Dracula or anything, but a breathing, eating, functioning person every bit as human as He was before.  That…that’s mind-boggling, is what that is.  And it’s the core of Christianity; that we celebrate with each other the reality that the Guy we venerate went through the ugliest and most painful death and then came back and had breakfast.

That’s style, when you think about it.  I mean, God most certainly has a wry sense of humor, but really.

So in this Easter season, if you find yourself or someone else doing the Easter response, listen to it.  Hear what an incredible thing it is that we say Christ is risen—and then respond in incredulity and hope and wonder that yes, He is risen.

Indeed.

 

Now it was Miriam from Magdala, Joanna, the Miriam of Jacob and others together with them who were telling these things to the emissaries.  But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Leaning in, he sees only the linen cloths. And he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.  (Luke 24:10-12, TLV)

The Who (and the Why)

It is the last week of Epiphany, Reader, the last week before we turn our steps to the wilderness wandering, holding tightly to the warmth of a stable that seems unreal in the midst of the chilled winds of Lent.

At least, that’s how it feels for me.  Lent pulls all of my self out, and this year has the added bonus of being the time in which I need to choose a school and set the course for at least the next year if not three of my life.  No pressure, of course.

In contemplating this recently, I’ve been aware of a space between God and I, a dearth of conversation as I get deeper and deeper into Church work.  It is a paradoxical thing, but the more involved I get in the Church, the easier it is for me to ignore the God Who wants me there in the first place.  I first encountered this when I worked the slides during worship at my last church; I realized that I never actually paid attention to the worship itself because I was working, and that work needed attention.

Which it did, but not at the cost of my connecting to the community and offering myself and my praise to God.  The same is true now; I do firmly believe God is calling me ever deeper into His Church, but never at the cost of my connection to Him.  I am a perfectionist, a detail-oriented administrator who will readily get so buried in the “what” and the “how” that I completely miss the “who” and the “why.”

I was at a worship conference this past weekend which is, in some ways, the height of Church work in that it’s thousands of people coming together to swap ideas of how to understand and do worship and the connectivity of the Church.  It’s a fabulous resource, but I was tired and disconnected—even more so by mixing the conference with an overnight for my middle schoolers (I would advise against ever trying that, Reader, especially if you’re an introvert.  I’m still tired from the people overload that was).  I was getting very useful and handy information, but I wasn’t so much paying attention to why I needed it.  I was absorbed by the “how.”

Then I went to vespers, worrying along the way because the vespers for which I had signed up was a play entitled “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  There is nothing quite like the theatre for me; I worked in theatre for nearly ten years, some professionally, and still have my fingertips trailing the edge of it.  I love the theatre, love its ability to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary possible, love the energy and passion of it.  I have the greatest respect for actors (I was much better at being a techie) and their ability to pull from themselves the depths and heights of humanity without losing their own centrality.  So I went to this vespers because I knew that even as the story would be a suckerpunch for me, I had to know how it would be staged, had to know the “how.”

What I got instead was the “Who” and, far more than I could ever have imagined, the “why.”

I have seen a great many Passion plays in my life.  I have been to many Easter vigils, I have spent the majority of my scholastic career discussing the theatrical representations of the Crucifixion in medieval England, I have read the Passion narrative in all four Gospels many times over.  I have always had my heart ripped out by it, coming to Easter with an emotional limp bearing the scars of Good Friday even still, never quite made whole in this glorious Resurrection.  Yet this play hit me square in the soul with its incredible use of the word “but.”

An odd choice, to be sure, this adversarial conjunction, upon which to hang a spiritual dose of cold water.  Yet there it is; I had never connected the death and the life so viscerally before.  If you have 25 minutes to spare, Reader, I highly recommend you see what I’m talking about; the play I saw was performed again, later, at a church in a different state.  It begins here at 8:50 and continues here, ending at 15:50.  If you haven’t 25 minutes, than take five alone and watch the second video starting at about two minutes in.  The “but” that so attracted my notice is at about the seven-minute mark.

Perhaps it is a spoiler to tell you what happens, but the play was indeed the Passion narrative continuing into the Resurrection and the walk to Emmaus and the Assumption of Christ.  The “but” announces the mystery of an empty tomb, the wonder of a risen Jesus; “but,” the actress says, her face shining in joy that the story does not end there.

This is the “why,” Reader:  the story does not end there.  It pauses there, but for me so often that pause becomes a resting place, a halfway house that stretches into fullness because I do not get up and keep going, because Sunday is so far away from here on Friday evening.  That play reminded me, told me for the first time, redrew for me the outrageous nature of Christianity:  we follow a God Who beat Death.

What a thing that is!  What a miracle!  What a marvel!  What mind-bending joy to dwell in that space with all of these other conference-goers as all of us shared in the laughter of these disciples that our Friend Who was dead is now alive, that we have hope, unyielding and incredible hope because the One we follow is utterly unstoppable—that His love is utterly unstoppable, even by our very best efforts at ending all that He was.

And this God, this Jesus, this resurrected brother is calling my name.  He knows it, knows me, and wants me to serve with Him, for Him, to be Her child and care for His children and yes, I do what I do for the Church because I am in love (in a complicated way) with the Church and with Her people, but I do what I do because I am in love with the God Who called me.

It is so hilariously appropriate that this should be the takeaway for me just before Lent, that this time of darkness should be so firmly bookended by Light.  Good Friday will come, but.

So will Easter.

Thanks be to God.

 

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  (Luke 24:1-3, ESV)

Advent, Week Four/Christmas, Day One: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It’s technically Christmas even though I haven’t slept yet, and I’m super excited and running off of the energy of how awesome my church is at Christmas and incredibly much I love Christmas and yes, you can throw all of the Elf references at me you want (although my excitement skews in a much different direction).

So what better hymn to bridge Advent and Christmas?  Why, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, of course!  It has the added bonus of lyrics by Charles Wesley, one of the founding brothers of my denomination (United Methodist) and author of literally over 6,000 hymns.  Of course, he originally wanted it slow and stately, which isn’t my cup of tea for this song.  It’s a whole song of joy that Christ is finally born—get your party on, y’all.

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Christmas is my favorite holiday.  It always has been, actually, though for different reasons throughout my life.  But nowadays, I love Christmas to pieces because it is overflowing with joy and hope and starlight.  This song has it:  these angels are singing that “God and sinners [are] reconciled.”  Reconciled!  We are no longer set apart from God!

Not super into atonement theory?  Okay; how about “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity”?  I love that one of the things people found super weird about Christianity in the early days was that a god would be stupid enough to trap himself in a human body—especially when he then got killed for it.  That’s not to say that there aren’t sacrifice narratives in other early religions (there’re a lot of them, actually), but it is to say that God became human, from the squalling infant who couldn’t even focus on images in the cradle to the bleeding Man who refused to step outside of the mortal process until He broke it in half.

Still not seeing the joy?  Then try this on:  “Light and life to all He brings / Ris’n with healing in His wings.”

Reader, you can’t possibly tell me with a straight face that you aren’t excited about the possibility of light, life, and healing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me; this isn’t my attempting to convert you to Christianity (although if you want to have that conversation, please know that I AM SO TOTALLY DOWN FOR IT and would welcome your questions and conversation most heartily).  It is, however, my attempting to show you why I danced my way across the chancel (stage) at one service tonight in front of God and everybody, and why I went to two services after having worked a full day, and why I’m still not in bed even though it’s half-past one in the morning and I have to get up in a few hours to drive to a family Christmas, and why I want you to see that joy can include happiness even if happiness is not the same as joy.

BECAUSE HOLY CROW CHRIST IS BORN.  Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!  Hail the hope of an end to strife!  Hail the One Who was born a king even though His cradle was a manger!  Hark—listen!  Hwæt!  (That one’s Old English, because I may as well get all my nerdery on.)  The angels are singing, challenging the nations to rise joyful in triumph that God broke His own differentiations to chase after Her confused and beloved children.  God tucked all of God’s Self into the form of a human baby boy; hell, God suffered puberty on our behalf.  That’s some love, right there.

God came to earth and understands fully what it is to live as we live—not to drive cars as we drive or to to fear gun violence as we fear or to eat McDonald’s as we eat McDonald’s, but to love as we love and cry as we cry and hurt as we hurt and laugh as we laugh.  He came to tell us that She was willing to do whatever it took to get our attention and return us to the relationship He had wanted from the very beginning when She breathed life into us and called us, called us good.

Hark, the herald (messenger) angels are singing!  Do not be afraid, for they bring you tidings of great, deep, and abiding joy.  Merry, merry Christmas.

 

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, good will toward men.”  (Luke 2:13-14, KJV)

 

Advent, Week Two: Masters in this Hall

I hope to goodness your week has been more fun than mine, Reader, and I thank you for your patience since this is a later-than-usual post.  Let’s listen to Christmas music together; hopefully that will help with pep and zest and hope and such.

Masters in this Hall (also known as “Nowell, Sing We Clear”) is not one of the well-known carols, I admit, but I’ve been pretty stuck on it ever since hearing the tune on a Celtic Christmas CD in middle school.  Then my choir sang it in college and, well, it’s been rolling around my head ever since.  It’s very bouncy, which may be part of the problem.  What else do you expect from a late medieval French dance tune, though?

For me it might be more fun to sing than hear because you get that sort of drinking-song vibe going and you get to do a lot of jovial belting.  The song is also like O for a Thousand Tongues in that there are elebenty billion verses even though most people don’t sing all of them; if you want to tell the whole story, it’s there for you to do so.

Because this song is a story.  The lyrics—whether of the short version or the long one—are the narration of a shepherd who has burst into a hall somewhere (presumably in England, since it was written by an English dude and they always write their music as though Jesus was born in Devonshire) and is telling the story of the shepherds coming to the nativity.

Note a few things, Reader.  Firstly, the tune is medieval but the lyrics are not, for all the fact that words like “hind” (a term for a female deer, pretty much out of use by the 1870s) and “holpen” (a Middle English past-tense version of “help”) and “nowell” (another Middle English borrowing, itself an Anglo-Normanization of the Old French “nouel”—why yes, I do have a tab of the Oxford English Dictionary open, how kind of you to notice) are used.  We like the folksiness of oldey-timey stuff, and our generation isn’t the first in that preference by any means.  Lots of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries romanticized the Middle Ages (looking at you, Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and felt that borrowing a sense of honor and chivalry was a great idea, especially when placed in the Christian narrative for this most grand and chivalrous Lord of all.

Secondly, the relationship of this.  It’s a shepherd announcing the news of Christ to masters, and while I get that I just said this isn’t truly medieval, let me explain why that would not work.  Shepherds have never been the creme de la creme of, well, anywhere, or any time.  In both the Middle Ages and the time of Jesus, they were pretty near the bottom rung of society, homeless vagabonds hired on to take care of property usually not theirs.  It’s a continual laugh that so much of the imagery of the Bible is pastoral (in the original sense involving pastures, not the clerical office sense) when nobody of any rank or awareness would get caught hanging out with shepherds.  On top of this messenger being a shepherd, he’s announcing this whole song to masters of a hall.

The late Middle Ages had less of a hall fetish than the early Middle Ages did, what with the Normanization of the Angles and Saxons and such (think Beowulf and the hall imagery there), but there was still a very clear distinction that a master in his hall was not someone to mess with.  It was certainly not someone to burst in on and announce this whole crazy scheme of talking to deer and fawning over a baby who’s supposedly God.  Also, it would be terribly unwise for a shepherd—most likely not rich since he’s still a shepherd, which is not a terribly well-paid profession—to tell these masters—comparatively rich folk—that God has come to “raise the poor” and “cast down the proud.”  (Unless you change the lyrics to make them more palatable and less, well, impacting.)

Which is kind of why I love the song—this shepherd has to tell his story.  This shepherd is so freaking exited about actually having seen the human God that he goes over the sea and sings this whole thing to these masters, speaking of the “good news” of God’s Presence.  “Masters, be ye glad!” he exhorts them.  “God is here!  Christmas is here!  No one should be sad!”

Which, while we’re still here in Advent and while we’re still in the mortal world, isn’t easy to hear, but this singer is just brimming with joy.  Societal expectations be damned, he has seen Christ, has gone to the manger with the rest of the shepherds and been told by Mary herself that here is the Savior, here is the King.  No one should be sad when that has happened, no one who hears that could think it anything other than gospel—literally “good news.”  (“Gospel” is a modernization of “godspel,” an Old English rendering via Latin of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, euaggelion, from which we get “evangelist,” or messenger of good tidings.  I have no idea why I’m so keen to get my linguist on tonight, Reader, but I’m really glad you’re sticking with me for it.)

It’s funny that this is now usually a tune taken on by massive choirs showing off their skills and sound considering it’s written as this single shepherd addressing a panel of his societal betters.  But it’s one of those Christmas songs that celebrates here is the good news, the great news, the overwhelming news that must be shared no matter the costs and no matter the obstacles because Christ is born, God is here.  We sing loudly that now all people on Earth are helped.  “Wondrous joy had I,” says the singer.

May we all find joy that wondrous this season.

 

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.  For this day in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (the Messiah).”  (Luke 2:10-11, AMP)