A Bleak Midwinter, Indeed

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
He’s the Good Shepherd, He is the Lamb
He is all Wisdom, He does my part
All I have for Him is my black, sin-filled heart

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Ephraim Syrus on “Holy Adultery”

For Thy sake women sought after men. Tamar desired him that was widowed, and Ruth loved a man that was old, yea, that Rahab, that led men captive, was captivated by Thee.

Tamar went forth, and in the darkness stole the Light, and in uncleanness stole the Holy One, and by uncovering her nakedness she went in and stole Thee, O glorious One, that bringest the pure out of the impure.

Satan saw her and trembled, and hasted to trouble her. He brought the judgment to her mind, and she feared not; stoning and the sword, and she trembled not. He that teacheth adultery hindered adultery, because he was a hinderer of Thee.

For holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Thy sake. Thee it was she thirsted after, O pure Fountain. Judah defrauded her of drinking Thee. The thirsty womb stole a dew-draught of Thee from the spring thereof.

She was a widow for Thy sake. Thee did she long for, she hasted and was also an harlot for Thy sake. Thee did she vehemently desire, and was sanctified in that it was Thee she loved.

May Tamar rejoice that her Lord hath come and hath made her name known for the son of her adultery! Surely the name she gave him was calling unto Thee to come to her.

For Thee honorable women shamed themselves, Thou that givest chastity to all! Thee she stole away in the midst of the ways, who pavest the way into the kingdom! Because it was life that she stole, the sword was not able to put her to death. [Hymn VII on the Nativity]

[Timotheos]

You Prepared a Body For Me

“You have prepared a body for me.”
Not out of nothing,
Though nearly so
Spirit hovering over enwombed waters

Spoken into existence from flesh and blood, a word
not unlike the very first word, begotten from eternity

“Let it be so.” You said, and it was
And it was very good, though small
This limitless power wrapped so tightly
That, at first, the Unseen remained so.

“So let it be.” She said, and
You prepared a body for me.

Black & White & Gray

Some people take refuge in the cold steel
Of a perfectly formed idea
In its right angles and sharp edges
In its immovability, immutable and austere.

Chalk it up to a lack of structure in the home,
Or a simple love of order,
Or to being the first-born

But watch, then, how they can make that motionless metal
Undulate and oscillate, shifting the blacks and whites
Until you see them in all their paletted color

And some just can’t see it, or won’t
They like the lack of terra firma
Over which they want uncertainty to walk beside them
All the way—as long as she holds their hands
And won’t let go

See, though, how that limpid ambiguity
Shifting like the late-afternoon light
Through shutters and fluttering leaves
Is always being hardened into photographs
Or paintings, or whatever can hold them still
Enough for pinning to the wall or filing in the drawer

In a Dream

In a black amphitheater, ringing with the voice of God
And of His maidservant;el-grece-saint-joseph-web
Ringing like the inside of a velvet box
Where the crystal sphere of that Message had exploded,
Embedding its slivers so succinctly
That the heavens will forever declare His glory
And the midnight sky His handiwork

For only a moment I doubted—or, perhaps, for two—
Until the messenger’s shadowy voice came also to me.
Under the same sky, still reverberating with that explosion’s echo,
He pierced my sleeping ears with two of the fine fragments,
Which reflected in their mirrored surfaces
The feathered filaments of an inconceivable fatherhood

Really?

Seriously, what is our problem?  We just have to explain it, don’t we?  We just have to blame something or someone, don’t we?  We cannot help ourselves.  We blame guns, or video games, or movies, or psychology, or no prayer in schools, and we think ascribing blame will somehow accomplish something?  We think that will help the next time?  We think we can somehow slap some superficial band-aid on a gushing artery, and then we’ll all feel safe again?  How many times does some some “horrible,” “terrible,” “unthinkable,” “worst” “tragedy” have to happen before we’ll realize we can’t fix what’s wrong with people?  A new law won’t do it; more police won’t do it; more counseling won’t do it; school-sponsored religion won’t do it.  Are we really this stupid?  How long will we deny the evil that is in all our hearts?  How long will we pretend we don’t all sing in the black soul choir?  “Well, this was a ‘soulless monster’; I would never do that.”  That’s the kind of denial that perpetuates this garbage.

Really.  If you’re not praying with the Advent Church, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus;” if you’re not looking into your own black heart in repentance; if you’re not praying the peace and mercy of Christ’s resurrection for the families of those who died today, you’re just missing the point.  Dear God, how stupid and ignorant can we be?  Repent, hear the Word of the Savior who absorbed all violence into His own wounds, and pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  Anything else is naive, idiotic, or worse.

Timotheos

I Love Advent

…but I hate Christmas.  (Listen, if you’re going to be all “I love Christmas!  I love Christmas music!  I love decorations!  I love….,” you can take it elsewhere.  I’m ranting here.)  Actually, I don’t hate Christmas, but I hate everything that goes along with it.  (Yes, “hate” is a strong word; no, I don’t want to tone it down.)  I realize I’m going to personally offend some of you, and impersonally offend others of you.  But what is the internet for, if not to personally offend people I’ve never personally met?  So if you like sappy Christmas movies about how family is the greatest gift, and Christmas muzak that has been recorded so many times that there could be entire radio stations devoted to “O Holy Night” and “Last Christmas,” and if you like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, you may just want to skip this and go back to your regularly scheduled Christmas spirit(s).  (Shut up!  I am telling you how I really feel!)

I hate every single song that has ever been written about Santa Claus.  Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus; there is only St. Nicholas, who gave Arius the ass-whupping he deserved (“temporal and eternal punishment”).  The only redeeming thing about those songs is this video for the Bob Dylan song “It Must Be Santa.”  I hate most decorations, except real pine trees and garlands.  I hate blow-up Santas and reindeer.  I want to shoot them.

Okay, more soberly: This is not about a “war on Christmas” or whatever nonsense we talk when we get upset about stores stocking stockings on All Hallows’ Eve Eve; I don’t care what the world does.  If Christians are upset about it, don’t buy stuff.  If you don’t like Walmart being open on Thanksgiving, don’t go there.  (Me, I got a nice little Blu-ray player for cheap).  They aren’t going to open if people don’t buy stuff.  Why is it their fault?  “Walmart” is not a Christian.  It is a business.  They make money.  That’s what they do.  If you don’t like them making money, don’t shop there.  (I do think you’ll have a hard time finding a store that doesn’t contribute to some cause or thing you find objectionable.)

And I find it highly ironic that Christians complain about hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about taking Nativity scenes out of public places, and then they want their churches decorated for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving.  Spare me your piety.  Either keep Christmas where it belongs, and actually have the “Mass” on “Christ-mass,” or don’t complain about “the holidays.”

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed.  The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent.  But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent… Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). [William Stringfellow]

I want Advent.  I want Advent to stay Advent.  Churches don’t want Advent, in spite of protestations to the contrary.  We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  We want exactly what the world wants: nice feelings and emotional titillation from shiny things.  Let’s not pretend we’re above it all, and then invite it up to the altar.  If we wanted Advent, we wouldn’t “make the church look festive” until the actual festival.  It’s not a coincidence that we don’t fast before the feast anymore.  We want it all now, now, NOW.  What, me wait?  Not when I can buy it all on credit now (and yes, I sometimes buy on credit).

We cannot sustain the emotion we think we want.  I am not against emotion and feelings.  They come along with all great human experiences.  I am against sentimentality.  I hate sentimentality, because it is the attempted manufacture of feelings, when they wouldn’t otherwise come on their own.  Sentimentality is what stores and muzak do.  Churches, qua Christian churches, don’t do sentimentality, because feelings come and go.  Only the Word manet in aeturnam.  Otherwise, when the manufactured feelings go, the thing itself goes (like in this King of the Hill episode [Season 2, Episode 8] where Hank tells Bobby not to get caught up in fads surrounding Jesus, because when the fad goes into the cardboard storage box, Jesus might, too).

And what if you can’t quite muster the feelings, even with all the trappings of the “season”?  What if you’re dying, or depressed, or destitute?  What is left for you then?  You’ll find no place in the modern Christmas conjurings.  But Advent!  Advent seeks out the dying, depressed, destitute and all the rest, and says, “Lift up your heads, your redemption draweth nigh.”  Advent prays the prayer of all of those who have no family with whom to celebrate, no good health, no festive meal, no decorations, no presents, no blow-up Santas and reindeer: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Advent is for those in hospital beds, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.  Advent is not for the self-satisfied, the complacent, the full-up, the always-happy, the Joel Osteen-smilers.  Or, rather, it is for them also: because Advent means death to my ancient Adam.  It means a clear-cutting and carpet-bombing preparation by the Lord’s Messenger for the Lord Himself.  Advent is all about death before life, and it will be meaningless to those who think they are alive and well.

So am I surprised that Advent is all but gone from most churches?  No.  But I suggest that if you keep pushing “Christmas” into Advent (which makes you no different from the stores you like to blame), you will soon not have Christmas either.  Not the real Christmas.  Not Christ in the Mass, because that might offend the people who fill the church to make it “feel like Christmas.”

I know this all sounds harsh, and it probably is, because my misanthropy seems to ramp up this time of year.  I’m tired, and small things set me off.  But I don’t want to hear any more Christians complaining about taking Jesus out of Christmas, when they want to take Advent out of the Church Year.  Do your decorating, etc. in your own house, and leave the Church Year alone. [\rant]

Ah, forget it.  You probably think it’s all an overreaction.  Never mind.  I told you not to read this.

Timotheos

Totally Not Christmas Muzak

I can’t stand most holiday music.  It’s too gimicky or cheesy or just unimaginative.  Do we really need 86 more covers of Joy to the World and Silent Night?  I think not.  All such renditions manage to do is dull the actual message and make the sacred of one piece with the secular: Santa Claus is Coming to Town alongside O Come All Ye Faithful?  Why not?  It becomes background noise, elevator music to fill up the blank space because it gives you that special holiday glow (or maybe that’s just the chunks of ice that the Northern Minnesota wind is blowing against my cheeks).

I hate sentimentality.  Keep it in the stores where you’re trying to get rid of a few more dollars (I don’t like the music there either, but at least it fits the materialistic mood).  I have my own nostalgia for Christmases past, but it really has nothing to do with the Nativity of our Lord.  If nostalgia is the only reason for the candlelight on Christmas Eve, you can keep it; I’ll have the Eucharist instead.

Nevertheless, there is good Christmas music out there; you just have to look hard, or have it fall without warning into your lap (let it fall, let it fall, let it fall).  The following albums manage to make songs and hymns sound as if you hadn’t heard them 8,000 times, and, at their best, they preserve some of the terror of the Incarnation (think: “Good Christian, fear; for sinners here/The silent Word is pleading” (Lutheran Service Book 370:2).  In no particular order:

I also recommend Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels (get it with Darkest Night here), but not everything on there is as good as everything else (“Here it is” and “We’re Gonna Pull Through” are worth the price alone).

Down with muzak!

Timotheos

Krauth on Truth and Error in the Church (FTW)

“When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that that the estates of its progress are always three.  It begins by asking toleration.  Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of others.  The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions.  Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights.  Truth and error are two balancing forces.  The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality.  It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth.  We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship.  What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental.  Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential.  Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church.  Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.  From this point error soon goes to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy.  Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated and that only for a time.  Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points.  It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it.  Their recommendation is that they repudiate that faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.”  (Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, 195-196)

“The awe-inspiring humility of God”

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference.  The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.  We are all aware of the commercialization of Christmas; we can hardly help being involved in the frantic business of buying and sending gifts and cards.  We shall without doubt enjoy the carols, the decorations, the feasting and jollification, the presents, the parties, the dancing and the general atmosphere of goodwill that almost magically permeates the days of Christmas.  But we may not always see clearly that so much decoration and celebration has been heaped upon the festival that the historic fact upon which all the rejoicing is founded has been almost smothered out of existence.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance.  For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man.  Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility.  There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble.  In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman giving birth to her first baby.  I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for a pregnant woman–and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries.  Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture.  [J.B. Phillips, “The Dangers of Advent” (in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, 21-23)]