Saturday, 27 December 2008

Venite Adoremus Dominum!

During the last week before I went home for Christmas, I was travelling on the tube in London and saw a very pleasing sight. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers and exhausted tourists, there stood a man leafing through a well-thumbed and ancient-looking breviary. He then proceeded to say evening prayer silently as the tube rumbled along. Having fought my way through Fortnum and Mason (to take advantage of the free samples in the Food Hall, rather than to part with any cash!) and been harassed by countless busy and determined shoppers, the sight of a man quietly bearing witness to what the whole thing is about in the first place was particularly inspiring just at that moment. Days later, I rather wish I’d told him just how inspiring I found it.

Of course I didn't, because engaging strangers in conversation on the tube to tell them how much you're enjoying watching them pray is not always considered 'the done thing'. However, I can't help feeling that, if this had taken place on Christmas night I might well have done so. On the way out of church after Midnight Mass I found myself suddenly talking at length with a middle-aged man who was sporting a baseball cap covered in badges from various countries and continents. I might never have spoken to him, but for wishing him a ‘happy Christmas’. He was alone and looked rather keen to tell someone how he intended to spend the Christmas season (which included a trip to Amsterdam to see his son play bass in a band on Boxing Day!). I found that I had a sudden confidence as I walked out of church which meant I could speak to anyone about anything: any inhibitions or guards of which normally I would have had to consciously rid myself were gone. The beauty of the Christmas story (which, incidentally, overpowered the misery of the liturgy!) and the hopeful buzz amongst those leaving the church created an atmosphere in which the normal rules of life were temporarily suspended. Anything was possible on this night – something miraculous had been made possible in that stable in Bethlehem – and something of this miraculous possibility was in the chilling air of the early morning of Christmas day.

In any of the dozen or so screen adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which have been broadcast over the past few days, we see Ebenezer Scrooge cast off the fetters of worldliness, cynicism and selfishness and leap and dance at his new-found joie de vivre. It is his confidence in mankind’s worth and his loss of inhibition which enables him first to ask the urchin passing his house what day it is (the reply: ‘Why, Christmas day, o’ course!’) and then to change his ways for good. Scrooge is transformed and has the confidence and glee to go out into the world and do good. In the 1951 film of the book, the redeemed Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and cries ecstatically: 'I don't know anything, I never did know anything, and now I know that I don't know, all on a Christmas morning. I must stand on my head, I must stand on my head!'. There's something about Christmas which gives us the chance to stand on our heads, to see the world turned upside down and to do as we never thought we might.

This Christmas I sent a card to a couple whom I met several years ago, who were very kind to me and with whom I’d lost touch. I decided to try writing to them out of the blue, using Christmas as my excuse: ‘because it’s Christmas and so one is permitted to do such things’ (this, I am reliably informed, is a like well-known line from the film Love Actually which just goes to show the widespread acceptance of the idea...!). This sense in which Christmas provides us with a chance to act differently, to mend our ways and to put right our wrongs comes, I think, not from the saccharine tales of individuals having the job of Father Christmas thrust upon them, or Polar Bears being saved from a life of loneliness, or the temporary suspension of feuding in soap opera families across the nation, but rather (predictably, though probably not predictably enough) from the story of the nativity. Every figure in the Christmas story is required to undertake something unusual, unexpected or undesirable. Yet they all embrace the call they receive and, in saying ‘yes’, they do the extraordinary which God asks of them. The moment when history is transformed, when the human and the Divine are met in one, gives us the chance to do so many remarkable and unexpected things. This sense of possibility which reaches a real height at Christmas, when we remember the birth of Our Lord, watched by the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, and Our Lady pondering it all in her heart, reminds us that we can do anything God asks of us. What joy might we see if every day could be so filled with that gentle hum of hope and possibility which crackles in the air on the holy night of Christmas. As old Ebenezer swears, 'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.'

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Nowel! Nowel! Nowel!

Out of your slepe arise and wake,
For God mankind nowe hath itake,
All of a maide without eny make,
Of all women she bereth the belle,

And thorwe a maide, faire and wis,
Now man is made of full grete pris:
Now angelis knelen to mannis servis;
And at this time all this befell,

Now man is brighter than the sonne;
Now man in Heven on hie shall wone;
Blessed be God, this game is begonne,
And his moder Emperesse of helle,

That ever was thralle, now he is free;
That ever was smalle, now grete is she;
Now shall God deme bothe thee and me
Unto his blisse, if we do well,

Now man may to Heven wende,
Now Heven and erthe to him they bende:
He that was foo, now is oure frende.
This is no nay that I yowe telle,

Now blessed brother, graunte us grace
A Domesday to se thy face,
And in thy courte to have a place,
That we mow there singe, 'Nowel',

From a 15th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library (MS. Arch. Selden B.26 f. 14b). A version in slightly more modern language may be found here.

The best bit is, of course, Our Lady's title 'Emperesse of Helle'. Fantastic! Now, as Christ is King of Heaven and, through his death, has conquered death for us, then, of course his mother, is Queen of Heaven and also of Hell. Am I correct?

But, to provide me with some Christmas afternoon entertainment, does anyone know any more about the origin and use of this title?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

And is it true?

Now let’s see if I can be the first to post a bit of Christmas Betjeman this year....

I have lived in London all my life and for most of it, I have read and loved Betjeman’s poetry too, to the scorn of my friends with English degrees! His description of a city Christmas reminds me of those of my childhood. Fortnum’s windows and lights on Oxford Street are Christmas for me, not snowdrifts and bunches of holly and yew. So this, other than the Dorchester Hotel, is rather familiar and I am sure that I fall into the derogatory category of a “girl in slacks”, though I do remember that I have my Dad to thank for my taste in poetry.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

More so, in that, as for most of the Christmases in my life, I wasn’t a Christian, they really were all about the family love that Betjeman compares here with God’s love by which his son is “become a child on earth for me”. So, as Christmas, for me, was until last year, mainly about that family love and, of course, family traditions, I now feel torn. I would dearly love to be able to go to midnight mass and the mass of the day in my parish church, but it will probably be mass of the vigil and then home to my parents on the last train to decorate the cake and make stuffing and do all those things that I have helped with since I was big enough to reach the kitchen worktops. Don’t think I’m complaining –my Christmas will be a very happy one, as it always has been, but I would like to do both, which is impossible. But whatever I do, I feel as if I am neglecting someone, my family or God, and the end of the poem pricks my guilty conscience, that presents and food and celebrations shouldn’t be more important than God at Christmas.

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

But we can always find a compromise. Last year, in the end, I went to the church closest to my parents’ house on Christmas morning. And because it was raining, Dad drove me there, and then he said he may as well come in, and then he stayed for the whole service. At the end, he said “Do you know, I think I can understand now why you like going to church so much”.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

(“O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”)

“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”(Isaiah 7:14)

Monday, 22 December 2008

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

(“O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.”)

"For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(“O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”)

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:2)

Saturday, 20 December 2008

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(“O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.”)

"I will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open.” (Isaiah 22:22)
“His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Friday, 19 December 2008

O Radix Jesse

Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.

(“O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”)

“But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (Isaiah 11:1)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

O Adonai

13th century icon of Isaiah and Mary, mother of God of the burning bush

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

(“O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.”)

“But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” (Isaiah 11:4-5).

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

O Sapientia

I was told sternly the other day that I was not to put up the crib until the O antiphons start. I then realised that, other than the names of each one, I had little idea why or what they were. And even my idea of the definition of an antiphon was somewhat hazy.

So for those who wallow in ignorance similar to mine, Fr William Saunders explains:

"The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil."

Right, now I see. And each of these is named after a title for the Messiah and refers to one of the prophecies of Isaiah. So, today we start with:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

(O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.)

"The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” ( Isaiah 11:2-3).

I'm still not sure why the crib had to wait til today though.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Trumpet shall Sound!

I've just enjoyed (or endured, depending on your view!) my first performance of Handel's 'Messiah' this Advent. It was a good, solid performance with some excellent young soloists, although disappointingly the tradition of the audience standing for the Halleluiah chorus was only continued by two people!

As I listened to the performance, I was struck once again by the beauty of one of the final arias: the bass's 'The trumpet shall sound'. The soloist sings the recitative: 'Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet'. This is followed by the aria: 'The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality'. Here’s a video for your enjoyment!

It's a glorious aria, with the trumpet part accompanying the singer who has to tackle technical difficulties and who needs a great amount of stamina (although I'm sure you'll agree that the singer in this recording, Alastair Miles, makes it look like a walk in the park!).

I find the aria so uplifting as it seems to offer us two causes for joy: firstly, the promise that, after death, we shall indeed be changed, entering into eternity in God's kingdom. Secondly, there is the more subtle reminder that we have been made new in our knowledge and love of Our Lord. When we embark on the Christian journey, when we let Christ into our hearts, we become changed by His grace: our old way of life, particularly for those of us who have not been brought up as Christians, is transformed. A new way of living is offered to us in the example and teachings of Jesus and so in a very real sense we have been changed already in the knowledge and love of Him.

Handel's musical interpretation of these joys is triumphant and reminds the listener of the power and love of God. During the reflective quiet and preparation of Advent, it offers a glimpse of the joys of Easter and finally to the Last Day when He shall come again with glory and, as the soprano soloist proclaims earlier in the 'Messiah': ‘and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep’.