Caroling in the Dark: A Christmas Meditation

"And a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6)

“And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herod then with fear was filled.
(Medieval carol)

The first Christmas Eve, in the old legends, was “so hallowed and so gracious” a time that flowers bloomed in the Bethlehem snow, kindly beasts knelt to warm the Child with hay-scented breath, the birds of dawning sang all night long, and angels bent near the earth to sing of peace.

Oh that it were so again! Desperate to exit the gloom and foreboding of the present time, “we too would thither bend our joyful footsteps”–to see the birth of New Possibility, to welcome the marriage of heaven and earth, to recover hope for what we might become. But the Christmas story is not about escaping this broken world. It is about repairing it.

The Incarnation began with unconditional acceptance of the human condition. To know our griefs and carry our sorrows, God began mortal life as a refugee from political violence and ended it as a victim of torture and capital punishment. Risk and violence were not confined to the latter days of Jesus. They were there from the start.

That is why, only a few days after singing “Silent Night” at the holy manger, the Christian calendar insists that we take time to remember Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. We are allowed no illusions about how the story goes: Love is born into the world, and the powers try to kill it.

Only Matthew’s gospel records Herod’s monstrous act. Its clear parallel to the Exodus story, where Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew children fails to eliminate the child of destiny, suggests some narrative invention. There are no other historical accounts to corroborate Matthew’s tale. But who cannot testify to the truth it contains? The powers will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. That, too, is part of the Christmas story.

Julia Hartwig, a Polish poet, gives a harrowing account of the massacre. It seems haunted by memories of Auschwitz, but reading it today I think of Aleppo.

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces

But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown this
and not the monstrous uproar on a street drenched with blood
the wild screams of mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soldiers
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm with milk

Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescue
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful numbness of despair

At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place…[1]

And the good news? The coming of God means the shaking of the powers. Even as a baby, the incarnate God struck fear into the hearts of rulers and oppressors. And when Jesus grew up and began to bear witness to the purposes of God, he made it impossible for the powers of this world to claim divine sanction for their monstrous behavior. They still try. Even “pious” rulers can do terrible things, as we know all too well. But the incarnate God has torn the mask from power’s face. By dying at its hands, like all the other victims of hatred, violence, and abuse, the Word made flesh has made absolutely clear which side God is on.

Like the women of Bethlehem weeping for her children, we are not easily consoled in the face of so much human suffering. And yet, even in the worst of times, we must never forget the kind of story we are in. It is, ultimately, a story of mercy and possibility:

I am going to tell of God’s kindness to the people of Israel… All of God’s deeds of mercy… All of God’s many acts of faithful love. (Isaiah 63:7)

Isaiah wrote these encouraging words in his own darkest hour. His people were in exile from the land of promise. Hope was dead and gone; their story had reached its bitter end. And yet, said the prophet, it is precisely in the place of desolation and loss that we are called to make our song. It is how we resist.

Sixty-three years ago, such a song was composed on a scrap of paper in a Soviet labor camp by a Latvian prisoner, one of 50,000 Latvians condemned to exile and imprisonment in Siberia under Joseph Stalin, a twentieth-century Herod, after the Second World War.

When the Kings College choir was touring Latvia in the summer of 2007, singer Emma Disley spotted the carol, scrawled on its original piece of paper, in a museum. She transcribed it and brought it back to England, where it was arranged for four-part choir and sung, in Latvian, in that year’s worldwide Christmas Eve broadcast.

The text was by a Latvian writer in exile, Valda Mora. As for the woman who composed the tune, we know neither her name nor her fate. All we do know is that she wrote it down on a scrap of paper as a handmade Christmas card for a fellow prisoner, Marta Zalaiskalnson, on Christmas Day 1953. Marta, who had been in the labor camp since 1945, sewed the paper into the lining of her dress so that her Soviet guards wouldn’t find it.[2]

The history of this carol has a lot to teach us about faith and hope. Born in a time of terrible darkness, it concedes nothing to the powers. Instead, calmly and assuredly, it sings of only one thing: the Light which has come into the world, a Light which the darkness can never extinguish.

On this holy night earth and heaven shine,
On this night the heart and stars commune,
And enmity fades, each loves the other,
And o’er the stillness warm wings hover.

On this night your footsteps glimmer;
This night transfigures doubt to hope;
This night must banish every sorrow,
And teach you to forgive and love.

On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other;
On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other.

On this night the gates of heaven open,
Above earth’s darkness arc the burning stars,
And softly on each person’s head this night
The Lord in blessing lays His loving hand.

 

 

 

 

Photograph adapted from an uncredited image of a demonstration against an Islamophobic national registry. Source: MoveOn.org email 12.22/2016.

[1] “Who Says,” by Julia Hartwig, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

[2] Translation by Mara Kalnins. The carol was arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The 2007 Lessons and Carols bulletin is at http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapel/festival-nine-lessons-2007.pdf

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!