Archive for Christmas

Advent Calendar Day 24: The Ghost of Tom Joad

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , , , on December 25, 2012 by bradellison

So here we are, on the night before the day.  It’s cold, maybe, up in the hills outside of town, and lonely for the handful of roughnecks sitting around a campfire passing a bottle, hoping no sheep stray tonight.  The streets are crowded, the inns are crowded, the bars are going to be crowded too, and tempers fray some and there’s quiet grumbling about invasive bureaucracy out of earshot of any occupying troops, who are doubtless doing their own grumbling about being stuck out here in one of farthest-flung and least-hospitable backwaters in the Empire, far from the sights and sounds and smells of home.  Even a woman about to give birth right there in an innkeeper’s courtyard can’t get a room or a bed on a night like this.  In Bethlehem tonight, everyone is a stranger, even if your bloodline runs right through the great warrior-bard himself, and the descendants of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah make do with what they have, which is a feeding trough out of the way.  This night, the world isn’t much different than it was in the Hoovervilles John Steinbeck painted in The Grapes of Wrath, and it isn’t much different than it is right now.

This is where the miracle happens, and that’s not by chance.  No, this universe is a chaotic one as far as anyone can see, unfolding as it seems according to a series of rules we’ve only just begun to try and understand, but by my faith this is also a universe given shape by stories, and this is one of the dramatic climaxes of the story of stories.  If the Storyteller were a hack, this occasion would be marked by explosions and pomp and elephants and circumstance and marble backdrops and excess; a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.

God knows there’s a time and a place for that kind of thing.  He also knows there’s a time for smaller and more intimate glories.

This story’s climax has a young couple holding their newborn son close.  A handful of ranchers seeing something beyond them, something too wonderful for understanding, in the face of an infant.  A young mother storing these things in her heart.  These are the kinds of moments John Steinbeck had a mastery of, simple joys and simple hardships of simple people.  Like any master, he came close to capturing the fire with which the Almighty imbues the thing itself.

Maybe there’ll come a time when this mother has to weep for this child, when the holders of temporal power become too scared to do anything but rip him open.  Maybe, as she stands there on Skull Hill watching the blood drip from his body and into the dead earth, she thinks back to the night she first held him in her arms.  Likely she doesn’t understand, because how can she, how can anyone?  But she endures, because she’s a tough woman from tough stock, born to toil and hardship, and she knows at least part of how special her boy is.  And three days later, maybe it won’t be that overwhelming a surprise when she sees his tomb standing empty.

Steinbeck surely had the Galilean carpenter and his mother in mind when he wrote Tom Joad and his mother, saying their goodbyes in the California night.

“Then I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

Hear the Word of the Lord God, oh Israel, because this promise is made by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as well.  So if you want to look for the Nazarene today, if you want to catch a glimpse of the King and Kings, Lord of Lords, Fruit of the Seed of David, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,then you’d best look for him in places like these, because you’ll find him, with his callused hands and his scarred wrists, standing right beside the ghost of old Tom Joad.

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Advent Calendar Day 23: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , on December 24, 2012 by bradellison

When it comes to proper Christmas music, truth told, I’ve little patience for most of what’s less than a century old.  As Vlad III said, “a house cannot be made livable in a day, and after all how few days go to make a century!”  For a piece of music to become lived-in, for the sound and sense of it to become a part of the landscape, it takes time and weathering.  This one’s at least a couple of centuries old, from Cornwall mainly, and has been shaped and eroded by the passage of time from then and there to here and now.

This weathering can sometimes leach the pith from the meaning of things.  Noel is a word not much used outside this song, and there isn’t much need for it be used, or to trace it back through the French to Latin to find its roots.  Yet the roots are there, as in all things, and the discovery of them is a joy.

Eighteen centuries divide the song from its subject.  Shepherds and star and astrologers are all rolled up in a pretty melody for the King of Israel, but they’re legendary elements, bits of myth shaped to fit the meter and the rhyme scheme.  This song’s depiction of what happened in Bedlam that night likely bears as much of a resemblance to the facts as Le Morte d’Arthur has to the deeds of whatever warchief won the day at Badon Hill.  The deep snow surrounding those Palestinian shepherds is harder for me to believe in than the Incarnation itself.

Legend and myth have their place in the scheme of things along with fact, and the presence of a myth doesn’t negate the fact that may underlie it.  At the root of all these things, we have the birth itself.  The night when something amazing entered the world, subtly at first.

The first Noel.

Advent Calendar Day 22: Fairytale of New York

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , on December 23, 2012 by bradellison

Probably my absolute favorite Christmas song.  It’s ugly, depressing, and raw, a story about two spectacularly broken addicts who’ve torn their lives apart and have nothing left but each other to cling to, and the hope that maybe things will finally turn around.

It’s also incredibly uplifting, because here’s two spectacularly broken people who’ve still got each other when everything else is gone, and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.

It’s impossible for me to hear the song and not thing of the tragedy of Kirsty MacColl, who died too soon.  It’s also impossible now for me to hear it and not think of one of the high points of Garth Ennis’ masterpiece, Preacher: in the middle of an epic saga of secret societies, renegade angels, vampires (the vampire Cassidy is pretty blatantly drawn from Shane MacGowan’s blueprint, come to that), invincible killing spirits, and a more forceful call for answers from the Almighty than is found in the book of Job, the real fulcrum of the story is the love between Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare.

Is there a moral to this love story?  Maybe that love’s a two-edged sword.  Maybe that if each other’s all we’ve got, we’d best look to it that it’s enough.  Maybe it’s that we’ll never be enough, not without help from outside.  Or maybe, if nothing else, it’s that next year if we’re lucky we’ll get another shot, and we can make the most of it.

I don’t know.  Let Shane and Kirsty speak for themselves, and take what you find.

Advent Calendar Day 21: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , on December 21, 2012 by bradellison

This song is old, far older than most of the other musical trappings of the season, and far more solemn.  The English words come from the 19th century, but they’re a translation from the medieval Latin, and the music is not less than five centuries old.  An Advent hymn, it’s a cry for deliverance from those in darkness.

We have heard the prophecy of salvation, redemption from captivity, and we believe it, but nothing is certain save that here and now we’re in darkness, beset on all sides, exiles in the night.  And so we cry out for our redeemer.

Advent Calendar Day 20: Bless Us All

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by bradellison

Not even gonna front here: I tear up single time I watch this.  Every single time.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major Muppet production after the passing of Jim Henson, and it’s a good epitaph for him, ranking among the best work the Muppets ever did.  Henson appeared to Steve Whitmire in a dream the night before Whitmire was to record Kermit’s songs, and told him he’d do fine, so there’s a Christmas Miracle for you.  Henson’s characteristic warmth, optimism and compassion are certainly showcased in this film as much as they were in the ones he made himself.  It’s got Michael Caine doing arguably his best work portraying Scrooge, whose creation was arguably Dickens’ best work.  It’s a startlingly faithful and affecting adaptation of what’s probably the best Christmas story since the original.  And it gets that Tiny Tim’s “God Bless Us, Every One!” is a fulcrum on which the whole thing swings.  Here’s the moment where the last walls around Ebenezer’s heart fall like the gates of Jericho.  It’s in this scene, not the final horror of his tombstone, that Scrooge’s salvation is assured.

I dare say this may be the finest plea for blessing in the English language, and someday the Archbishop of Canterbury will be swayed by my demands to incorporate it into the Book of Common Prayer.  This, not the Prayer of Jabez, is what should be on our lips and hearts every day.  This is a prayer for blessings far more valuable than the expansion of our borders; for love, for family, for virtue, for light, for reason, for peace and for grace.  For everything, indeed, that Scrooge (who had his territory enlarged a great deal without ever praying for it) sorely lacked.

I’ve heard a lot of sermons that failed to express such a clear understanding of what really matters.

Advent Calendar Day 19: O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , on December 20, 2012 by bradellison

You know I think one of the reasons people love Ol’ Blue Eyes is that he was decidedly a sinner more than a saint.  He made into The Godfather through the conductive medium of Johnny Fontane, a character whose Corleone-assisted contract re-negotiations were inspired by the stories about certain incidents early in Sinatra’s career.  Classic bad boy, undeniably cool as a cucumber, and he is, ushering us into the Palestinian night with words lade down by an Episcopal priest who spent some time as Bishop of Massachusetts.  Of these two men, Frank Sinatra and Phillips Brooks, one was the son of a lightweight boxer from Hoboken and one came from a long line of Boston clergy, and you can guess which was which.

On the streets of Bethlehem, and in the eyes of Jesus, they stand equal, and so do all the rest of us.  And mark it, we do stand on those streets.  The hopes and fears of all the years, met in thee tonight.  O Bethlehem Ephrathah, least of the clans of Judah, from you comes the one who is to rule Israel, the one come from the days of old long gone.  Here’s the fulcrum hope may swing on, in this backwater of backwaters.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!

No ear may hear His coming,
But in the world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

So these nights find us, insignificant motes in a big universe, walking the narrow streets of an insignificant town, looking for a little quiet redemption.

Advent Calendar Day 18: O Tannenbaum

Posted in Music, Religion with tags , , , , on December 19, 2012 by bradellison

The popular legend, which I believed until I sat down to do my traditional pre-post Wikipedia sweep 10 minutes ago, has it that Martin Luther wrote this song, a legend presumably established by poorly educated Protestants who knew that the song was German, Luther was German, and what more do you freaking want, anyway?

So the shiny penny of truth has derailed the express freight of my original intentions, which would have allowed me to post the song that the hard-drinking poop-flinging* founder of the Protestant Reformation actually wrote, the awesome anthem “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Which hymn, it should be noted, has much more interesting lyrics than this Christmas tree business.

Of course, the other part of the legend is that Luther invented the Christmas tree, to commemorate Christ’s birth in a manner entirely free of papist idolatry.  Once again, history says nope.  This is in fact just one more pagan ritual, like the mistletoe, the holly berries, the Yule log, and so forth.  Dig up the foundations of the cathedral, and you find the remains of the temple that preceded it.  If you can’t handle it, you can always go sit in the fun-hating no-Christmas-having corner with Cotton Mather.

The Fir tree is evergreen.  Like Christ (and Balder, Mithras, Osiris, the Green Man and company), it does not die, reborn anew each year.

It endures.

It keeps the faith.

It may be slightly perverse, actually, to cut down a symbol of eternal life and display its corpse to commemorate this holy festival, but all that means is that there’s a little Good Friday waiting for us if we look at Christmas close enough, and I say that’s all to the good.  In the midst of life, we are in death.

Of whom can we seek succour but thee, o Lord?

Jesus Christ, evergreen, ever faithful.  Chop him down, and he comes back up.

It’s a Christmas Miracle.

*In fairness, to the best of my knowledge he only threw poop at the Devil, who certainly had it coming.