Monday, December 31, 2007

Far as the curse is found

“The Incarnation changes EVERYTHING!” the young, exuberant priest kept repeating at church on the sixth day of Christmas. Just like on Good Friday when he had similarly insisted that “Christ’s death changes EVERYTHING!” I initially accepted his statement casually while I waited for the meat of his sermon to follow. But in both cases, that was the meat, repeatedly announced with urgent, bewildered joy. And in both cases, the simple statement is profoundly true.

Just as the curse of the Fall has entwined itself into the very veins of Creation, so the Incarnation reaches just as deeply under our skin with Redemption. The corrosive functions that are “just the way the world works” cannot escape a God who functions inside the world. Illegitimate children and pregnant teenagers are dignified. Pagan idolaters follow his light. Odiferous animals witness wonders. The ground that Adam was cursed to toil will sprout with Steadfast Love and Faithfulness, brought about by Eve’s cursed childbearing.

The Incarnation changes everything.
No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found…

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The very best Idol ever

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
…my first opera?

Yesterday I sat through Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which is quite an intense fete: not only are 1950s operas characterized by harsh tones and absence of melody as a principle, but I had to follow the various strands of antimelody with German subtitles.

In the Jewish composer’s interpretation of the brothers, I was surprised to be given another submersion into the thrill of the Christmas season we are celebrating. Schoenberg characterizes Moses as a Platonist, who opens the play by chanting, “Eternal, omnipresent, invisible and unimaginable God.” Throughout the opera he refers to God as “the Idea,” and writes triumphantly upon the wall “I think God.” He comes across very harshly, loathing fleshly depravity and holding to God’s intangible holiness.

Aaron, on the other hand, is the man who knows how to work the crowd. He sings the closest thing to melody Schoenberg composed, and writes “I love God” upon the wall. When the Israelites reject Moses’ intangible God in favor of their Egyptian gods who have image and substance, Aaron gives them tangible signs and wonders that they can see and touch. If Aaron is the spokesperson for Moses’ God, the people finally conclude, we will follow him into the desert.

The opera spins out of control when Moses does not come down from Sinai after forty days, and the people cannot keep following this unknown, unseen Idea that Moses had declared to them. Aaron gives in to their demands and gives them an Image that they can touch and hold and love, something that meets their present needs and cares: in Schoenberg’s interpretation, he gives them a golden ICH, the German for “I.”

In the confrontation between Moses and Aaron at the end, Aaron insists to Moses that people will never be able to follow an intangible God, nor could they ever love him. They need images. They need idols. They need to touch God. Moses is left in despair, on his knees, still clinging to his defeated Platonic notion and pleading for “the Word.”

Enter the Incarnation: the Word became Flesh.

We are a weak people, as Schoenberg’s Aaron argues to Moses. We people demand signs in the desert; we worship the bronze serpent on a pole; we demand a king to Samuel. The astounding thing that God does is that he ultimately meets their demand for an idol. Christ is the very very best Idol ever, the best tangible Image of the Idea. The people demand to Aaron that he give them a god they can see; God finally enters the world and says “Here I Am.”

I expected to come away from the opera ashamed of all the ways I have bowed down to various bronze serpents when God didn’t seem real and tangible enough to me. I find instead that I walk away bewildered by Love. God has met my frailty by providing the idol I require; when I bow down and worship relationships and feelings and ambitions, it’s really more ridiculous than depraved. God has not condemned my idolatry as Schoenberg’s Moses would expect: God has sanctified it.

The Word became Flesh, fashioned in a virgin’s womb into a crying baby. This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!

Friday, December 28, 2007

On the third day of Christmas... true love gave to me
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree
Advent comes much more naturally to me than the twelve days of Christmas. Like I said in my Ovid post, it seems to me that a sense of loss and grief is woven into man’s understanding of the world. Add a redeeming God into that sense of loss and bang! you get waiting.

But yesterday, the third day of Christmas, I was jerked out of my readings of Ovid by a song emitted from the new speakers Dad had given me two days earlier. It’s a lovely hymn which doesn’t get associated with Christmas (or much of anything, for that matter; people don’t really know what to do with this highly poetic hymn that mentions Creation in nearly every line and God in only one). A quarter of the way into the Christmas season, this was the hymn that connected my longing to my Savior’s birth:
Morning has broken
Like the first morning;
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning;
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight;
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light
Eden saw play.
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s recreation
Of the new day.
Morning has broken; light has come into the world; once again and forever, God says “Let there be light.” By the third day of Creation, the earth was sprouting with vegetation; by the third day of Christmas, I am reminded that “Faithfulness springs up from the ground and righteousness looks down from the sky.” God whose feet walked in Eden now walks on earth once again, and “Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.”

God rest ye merry, on this fourth day of Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sonnet XX of Advent

Last year's advent sonnet for today happens to involve one of my favorite Bible stories (an odd one for a favorite, I know), which my priest was teaching in his sermon last Sunday. I'm feeling pretty weak these days, and this was a story I need to remember this Advent.

Psalm 40, 54, 51
Isaiah 10:5-19
II Peter 2:17-22
Matthew 11:2-15

I’ve waited patiently for him, and now
Am half inclined to think he heard my cry.
But prison reeks of doubt upon the brow
Of me, the reed the bends as winds blow by.
Excuse my doubts, but mud and mire are old,
So have you come, or shall I wait some more?
Please excavate my ears, for they grow cold
And sacrifice falls hollow on the floor.
So bring me body, ears and heart, though all
I offer is this broken spirit’s plea,
Extending just the doubting, fearful call
To him whose goodness makes the blinded see.
The violent take the kingdom using force,
But yours is built with weakness and remorse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Not without hope we suffer and we mourn

I am finally reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I wonder where it has been all my life. What other gems might I discover out there in my quest to turn myself into a “master” of literature?

My impression after spending the morning in the first two books is that just about every tale is one of sorrow. The end of each story seems to involve some character left in grief, some virgin unable to escape the clutches of a ravisher, some man unable to attain his woman (cleverly, those are often the same tale), some parent morning the loss of a child. Even before we are given specific characters we are given grief, as the golden age turns into the silver and then to the bronze and then to the iron… there is a sense of a loss of greatness woven into the fabric of great mythology.

And it is Advent. The Christian story is not unique in its story of a Fall, or in the sense of mourning that it carries with it. Rachel is left weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more just as surely as the sap that bleeds from Roman trees speaks of Clymene’s daughters whose grief for their fallen brother Phaethon transformed them into those trees. Who can look at a Raven without suspecting the ominous treachery that brought Apollo to kill his beloved with his son within her womb, anymore than he can look at a serpent without suspecting Eve’s deceiver?

Rather than a rival to paganism, Christianity seems to answer the hopeless cries of Io who suffers for a treachery larger than her mortal scope had concocted and deeper than her mortal strength can escape. Christ’s coming meets the pagan wailer just as completely as the Hebrew wailer, though the former had not known he was waiting for redemption as the latter did. His coming meets this fundamental piece of our humanity: our sense of loss.

Advent is a reminder that we are the Hebrew and not the Pagan; we are in on the secret that redemption is on its way. The wind that blows against the wailing reeds by the riverside may as well tell the tale of Pan and Syrinx; Paul declares that creation has been groaning with the pains of childbirth until now. But we groan with hope, the hope that our groans are heard, that they have-been-are-and-will-be answered, that God has felt our grief as much as the gods did, but actually has power to redeem it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sonnet XII of Advent

On a more positive note, I was reading the Advent sonnet for the 12th day of Advent that I wrote last year. I don't intend this blog to be a poetry-outlet for me, but this collection of sonnets had been a listening tool for me last year. They are poetic summaries of the lectionary readings for each day of Advent. The one for today was a good reminder that Christ is preparing my heart even when I am not as attentive to prepare it:

You’ve sent us out in preparation, to
Prepare our hearts, a banquet room to dine
Within. We wander on ahead of you
And find that you’ve prepared our bread and wine.
For you who send us out to find a place
To dwell have gone before us in the land,
And the inheritance is that of grace,
For you’ve established steps and blessed our stand.
And you who sent us in captivity
Have named our sons “A Remnant will Return,”
And urged us not to fear our enemy;
For we won’t stand unless we’re standing firm.
Give ear to older eyes who stand unshaken,
For never have the righteous been unshaken.

Psalm 31, 35
Isaiah 7:10-25
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Luke 22:14-30


Papers are over for the semester. If I can try to get away with calling the past few weeks of solid-reading-and-writing part of Advent preparation, cleaning my academic tasks off my schedule in preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth, then I am finally moving on to the next phase of preparation. My paper was turned in and presented on by noon, and since then I’ve cleaned my house, gone grocery shopping, made cookies, written a long-overdue letter to an old friend, returned library books, sold textbooks, and an fitting in my first blog entry in weeks before heading to prepare for a poetry-reading event at my cottage tonight.

But yesterday I was given a reminder that my scurrying around is not necessarily preparing my spirit to celebrate Christ’s coming.

I essentially never get sick, but there have been many times that my body starts attacking me when I am not taking care of my spirit. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. The symptoms are always the same: I get terribly disturbed about something, a headache starts coming on, the headache turns into throbbing agony followed sometimes by vomiting, and in a couple hours I am fine again. It never relates to anything I’ve eaten (I often haven’t eaten); it never involves stomach pain; it never involves a fever. My body just occasionally lets me know that I need to take care of something inside.

Normally I know what that thing is. The last time it happened, a dear friend had just moved away, and I have never been good at goodbyes. But it happened yesterday, right in the narrow window of time I had scheduled myself to be finishing my last paper. Was it the stress of the end of the semester? Was it some other issue I’ve been ignoring as I’ve been wrapping all my mental energy into papers? I don’t know, and that bothers me.

So without anymore papers between me and Christmas, I pray I become more attentive to the need to prepare my spirit for his coming. It is easy (and sometimes even fun, if your name is “Industrious”) to get wrapped up in tasks that feel significant, but we must be reminded not to let the unseen things slip. Yesterday was my reminder.