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Filtering by Tag: Christmas

From Ache to Amen

Adele Gallogly

"Hallelujah score 1741" by George Frideric Handel 1685–1759 - Scanned from The Story of Handel's Messiah by Watkins Shaw, published by Novello & Co Ltd, London 1963. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons A few Decembers ago, I saw Handel’s acclaimed Messiah oratorio in concert for the first time. From our side balcony seats at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, my friends and I had an overhead view of the choir as well as the orchestra stage. We could only see the backs of the interchanging soloists, which worried me a little. Would the experience be lessened by this limited view? A few minutes into the show, however, I realized that we could see something that the coveted, pricier center section below could not: the face of the conductor.

This conductor was, in a word, animated. He waved his arms and wielded his baton with a wizard-like flourish to guide the skilled group of musicians. His face is what caught me, though. His features echoed the emotional tone of each movement—tight and serious in moments of lament, open and bright in moments of delight. He smiled during that famous chorus.

Anecdote has it that Handel’s own face was wet with tears after he wrote the Hallelujah chorus. His assistant came upon him crying at his desk and asked him: “What’s wrong?” To which Handel replied. “I thought I saw the face of God.”

After such a splendorous vision and satisfying creation, it is a wonder that Handel went on to write another act at all. Yet he did.

In Philip Yancey’s reflection on Messiah’s “bright and glistening theology," he recalls the various theories behind King George II standing during the Hallelujah Chorus at the oratorio’s London premiere. Some believe did so because he was emotionally moved. As Yancey points out, however, there are also those who suggest that the king in fact rose to his feet because he mistakenly believed the show was over. Apparently novices in the audience have been known to make the same error today.

“Who can blame them?” says Yancey. “After two hours of performance, the music seems to culminate in the rousing chorus. What more is needed?”

Handel had an entire act of “more” to add. A heavy act. This brilliant composer, this creative man of God, recognized that as heavenly as his chorus sounded, it was still a chorus of earth--a place where so much is wrong and so much is needed.

In what Yancey heralds as “a brilliant stroke,” the final act begins with words from a stricken Job. It seems a steep fall from ebullient Hallelujah to a story of such tragedy. But there is a brave hope in Job's persistence of belief. The Christ that Handel then dwells on is the Christ of Revelation 4-5—the slaughtered Lamb, the humble sufferer whose victory comes through surrender.

“The great God who became a baby, who became a lamb, who became a sacrifice—this God, who bore our stripes and died our death, this one alone is worthy,” says Yancey. “That is where Handel leaves us, with the chorus "Worthy Is the Lamb," followed by exultant amens.”

Messiah’s expansive view is shown in its refusal to skip over wounds and tears to get to exultations. There is anxiety. There is uncertainty. There is blood. Handel acknowledges that here, in this sin-wrung world, our cries to the Lamb do not always sound like Hallelujahs. Sometimes they sound like weeping, or groaning. Like…ache.

As Handel’s “bright and glistening theology” swirled around me live that first time, my enjoyment of the piece was rimmed with specific aches. Ache for Opa (grandfather), who passed away a few years earlier and used to see Messiah in concert with my Oma, year after year. Ache for a coworker who was, at that very moment, stricken with the pain, exhaustion, and delirium of leukemia. In years prior I heard him loudly singing along to Messiah in his office. That was to be his last Christmas; a month later he would pass away. I ached, too, with awareness of the painful arcs in so many people's lives—persecution, loneliness, war, depression, disaster. The list goes on. As does the ache in our world.

Handel’s Messiah is as honest in its agony as it is in its joy. Its chords anticipate a world restored without diminishing the woundedness of living in the not yet. This is its gift: a true vision of Emmanuel, a Lord who is not just visible to us, his children, but present with us. He rejoices with us and carries our sorrows. May we look closely, sing boldly, and listen well as we seek His face.

Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen.

Christmas Gifts

Joy and Matthew Steem

 "ChristmasEveOhio1928" by Father of dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - You have probably heard the over-used saw, “tis better to give than to receive.” Now aside from the advertisers who glibly employ it for entirely selfish reasons (may they be sent for a week to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell) here is my annoyance: a gift with a motive is no gift at all, unless it’s to make the receiver thrilled to their booties. Romantic friends with pure intentions know that warming glow felt deep in their hearts as the beloved opens up some carefully chosen little treasure. Parents also know a similar feeling – or so I am told, not yet partaking in parenthood – of watching a twinkly eyed tot ogling over their gifts. I rather doubt that the parents were secretly plotting in the corners of toy department how best to psychologically manipulate their children into being better behaved, or quicker memorise their classical education. If they did, the gift would cease being a gift.

And so, I find myself troubled when one of the greatest Deific gifts offered is seemingly proffered with a large string. Maybe it’s just me, but so often during the holidays I hear, often performed with beautiful voices in song and hymn, that the Christ child has been given to the world as God’s heavenly priceless gift. I feel the tingles now just thinking of it. In the second breath coming from the preacher though, we are told that we owe this divine sovereign something in return. I am bothered.

Sure. I suppose that is the truth. I guess the tot who has just received the gift from pleased parents should feel indebted to her or his familial guardian. (Though, isn't it funny how often the parents look happier than the child!)  And yet despite that being the case – maybe – I think if we were to ask the gifting parent whether their child should primarily feel obligation, that parent would suggest that we had never been a parent, or at any rate a true parent. They might even give us a rude look from over a shoulder as they left us standing by the punch bowl.

And so back to the well-meaning religious types who proudly proclaim God’s best gift to humanity ever, ever in one breath, but then in the next espouse how unrighteous we are if we don't hold up to our end of the gift.

Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.” But is that what we humans were given at Christmas, a deal?

G.K Chesterton speaks very fondly of Christmas and of gift giving and goodwill, but also of the nature of the grandest giver of them all. He cleverly uses the name Santa, but all the adults will know exactly of whom he is talking. During the holidays, he says,

[As a child]  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them.... I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus ... was [a] benevolent agency... [that gave us] toys for nothing. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, ... but the name of a god is a mere human label. ... [As a child] I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet ... Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it.

So why did “Santa” give him the gift of existence? “It was,” says Chesterton, given in “a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” No strings attached. Except maybe thankfulness.

The Case for Krampus

Christina Lee

"Vintage Christmas Postcard Krampus" by Dave / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons Good holiday stories need a villain. Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, Hans Gruber. And of course, Krampus.

Krampus is having a moment—he’s acquired a Los Angeles fan club with a pretty spiffy web page, he’s been featured on the Colbert Report, and he’s even starring in a film. This half-goat-half-devil Austrian folk creature dates back, most believe, to Norse mythology. He’s St. Nicholas’ other half—he handles the kids who’ve been nicht so gut. 

He’s horrific, yet Austrians seem to view him rather fondly. They send kitschy cards stamped with Gruß Vom Krampus!" (Greetings from Krampus), and host Krampuslauf (Krampus runs) in which hoards of young men don devil-goat costumes and drunkenly run the streets on the eve of St. Nicholas’ visit. 

It feels a bit goofy to ascribe deep symbolism to Krampus, a character dreamed up largely to terrify children into behaving. If we’re looking for meaning though, it seems obvious that Krampus and St. Nicholas act as foils—the evil preceding the good. As Mental Floss puts it, they form a “Christmassy Yin and Yang.” Krampus reminds us there is darkness as well as light in the holiday season. 

North Americans generally prefer their holidays free of ancient goat devils. Our classic tales, even the really good ones (think Charlie Brown or Miracle on 34th Street) involve only one horror—a lack of the holiday spirit. (Die Hard, it should be noted, is a refreshing exception to this rule.)

I assumed the movie Krampus would be different, but in the film, Krampus is summoned when a boy loses faith in the season and tears up his letter to Santa. Our narrative, “be merry or die trying,” runs deep. 

If you, like me, feel sick of this storyline, please consider as antidote this Youtube footage of an Austrian Krampuslauf. It’s pretty grim. I only made it three minutes in, right to the part where one of the thousand Krampuses rips a little child from his mother’s arms and hisses in his face. I was cowering in fear at my laptop screen, but the kid? The little dude smiles. Tough as nails. He was probably brought up on a steady diet of horrifying Bavarian folk tales. 

Yes, the Krampuslauf seems awfully brutal for the holiday season. But there's a villain in the nativity story, too—Herod. And he isn’t stealing a roast beast or shouting “Bah Humbug.” He is committing infant genocide. Lurking right outside the glow of the manger is a madman, thirsting for power and control. 

I’m not saying we all need to sub out our shiny family photo Christmas cards for Krampuskarten. But it is problematic to remove all darkness from every Christmas story we tell. That’s like editing John 1:5 down to just “The Light shines.” So what? 

The holidays can seem like a very small light in a very dark world. Christmas comes in the midst of war, in the wake of tragedy, mass shootings, devastating personal loss, systemic injustice. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

With that in mind, our obsession with cheer for cheer’s sake feels just as bizarre, and maybe more pointless, than any Krampuslauf.

So Merry Christmas. And "Gruß Vom Krampus," too. 

The Little Drummer Boy and Me

Jessica Brown

Brown - Cash A few Christmases ago, I heard Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the first time—and heard words in the song I never had before. That gravelly voice brought a certain realistic cadence to the carol, the cadence of a human soul before the Son of God, lying as he is in a container that holds food for cows and donkeys. And it’s also, I realized, the cadence of a musician, an artist, giving what he has. (The video of Cash singing the carol is well worth watching.)

How can I not picture the man we know as Johnny Cash into the persona of the drummer boy? For here is Cash, singing first-person about the little drummer boy who had nothing to give but his drum-playing. When Cash sings the line “I played my best for him,” it’s hard not to compress all the songs he sang in all those jails into such passionate, self-giving words. This is the privilege when craftsmanship and faith infuse—they spur each other on, with whatever material we’ve got—paints, words, muscles, pebbles, flour, sound.

But there is a line in “The Little Drummer Boy” that says more about this faith-craft connection. The drummer boy, in the first verse, is called to bring a gift to the king. The second verse starts with the drummer despairing—

Little Baby, pa rum pump um pum I am a poor boy too, pa rum pump um pum I have no gift to bring . . .

I am a poor boy too. When Cash sings this line, he somehow gets the whole meaning of the word poor—not just without coins or trinkets—but poor as in poor in spirit, in need of help and courage and a way forward.

There’s days when I have a kind of zest for the craft work of fiction writing—figuring out a plot, re-tackling a dialogue exchange for the twenty-third time, researching how beeswax candles were made in the fourteenth century. But other times it frightens me how empty my well is. Exhaustion seeps into the edges of the page, turning my words into inky and confused puddles. Ideas feel brittle and old. Why is the story so frayed, my vision so fuzzy? Will I be able to make what I yearn to? What do I really have to give?

After the drummer boy admits his poverty, he picks up his drum and plays. Any craftsmanship I’ve practiced is certainly a gift I can give—but I wonder if I’m wrong to assume I should give from my strengths. What if I were to create from my poverty? What if it’s okay to make, fashion, create, labor, from a place of having very little? I am poor. I am in need. I don’t have the right words or the right story; my opaque heart makes it hard for me to be honest, even on the secret white page. But all this, the blurred edges and scared inadequacies, is part of the gift.

To create from this place of being “a poor boy too”—what else does it yield?

Maybe a gentleness towards ourselves, working as we can in the edges of the day. Maybe a gentleness towards others making what they can, be it poems or children’s lunches, in tiredness and constraint. Perhaps too, to create from a place of lowliness means creating out of a deeper human awareness towards those who feel they have nothing to give. The little drummer boy, empty of a gift, saw that Jesus was poor too, and this gave him courage to play.

This meekness of Jesus at birth curls into the heart of craftsmanship. We can pick up our worn drums and play the best we can, and play whatever we can, under the stable’s low eaves.

Doubting at Christmas

Jean Hoefling

nativity-icon1. . . But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband— that is quite another matter.C.S. Lewis, Miracles

Christmas: God breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics to snatch the cosmos from its ultimate decay. In other words, a miracle of upward mobility. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity teems with the theology and symbolism of this upswirl, this “redemption of the universe:” the ascending pull of light over the landscape; the bright celestials straddling the razor edge between time and eternity; the ethnic diversity of the Magi, God’s redemptive scope encompassing all peoples and all creation. And in the postures of Mary and Joseph we see the full gamut of human response to this event that couldn’t happen, yet did.

Here the figure of the Virgin is appropriately spacious and central. Mary casts her eyes not toward the babe but away from this one whose swaddling clothes and cradle resemble grave wrappings and a sarcophagus. Her restraint is a reminder, for who can look upon the face of God and live? Yet any minute Mary will pick up that normal looking baby and stare into omnipotent holiness, her soul taut with paradox. Mary’s power of belief is organic to who she is, a chemical and spiritual grace.

Yet in the figure of Joseph the Betrothed in the lower left we witness the other effect of miracle, the Church’s concession to the difficulty of grappling with blissfully mangled universal laws. A study in body language, Joseph slumps in the throes of mental torment, questioning the baby’s alleged origins. He’s under direct assault from Satan, come to once again sow his tedious doubts, this time in the guise of an aging shepherd. The shepherd’s short tunic and rigid profile symbolize duplicity and gross inadequacy—this father of lies who would keep Joseph’s eyes in the dust with no reference to the divine. (See: “Becoming Two-Eyed”)  

In the battle to make peace with mystery, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to see blank sky where in fact shines a sight-giving star. The downward drag of psychic inertia is ever present here among the shambles of the Second Law. Yet though God may approach with “infinite speed,” his home is no longer a manger, but our embrace.

Advent and the Absence of God

Jean Hoefling


In the bleak mid-winter, Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone. 

– Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter

The raging, fertile excesses of summer are long gone and the world lies deep in Advent, this wending of the human heart in prayer and penance before the Nativity of Christ. In the spare gray-gold light of these mornings just shy of the winter solstice, we might sit where we sit each day to “meet with God,” our Bibles, rosaries, or prayer books at the ready. Outside, bare branches clatter against a wide, windy pewter sky, nature’s brittle resonance with the bewilderment and hardness of heart toward God many of us feel, hardly knowing where to begin to find his presence amidst the external noise that seems to increase around Christmas time.

We worry about having God’s presence, like it’s something to own. And in Advent, adventus, the season of coming and arrival, shouldn’t I expect even more of this presence, like a sparkling early Christmas gift sliding into my hands? We are consumers and we gotta have that presence, just like we gotta have a bunch of other things to feel significant and successful. But what about God’s absence? This Advent, I’m considering that Christ’s perceived absence is as much a gift as presence is. In his heartbreaking and passionate meditations on God and prayer, Prayers by the Lake, the Serbian bishop Nikolai Velimirovich says this about God’s absence: “You promised, and I bear the seal of Your promise in my soul. If You have not come yet, it is not Your fault, but mine. You are tender and compassionate, and would not wish to make me ashamed of my unpreparedness. Therefore, you approach slowly, and continuously announce Your coming.”

Relinquishment to God’s perceived absence seems to have very much to do with the nature of Advent itself. The natural world lies in faded dormancy, its glory stripped until spring. We too can accept dormancy, until in God’s good time the manger of our hearts is filled with the holy One who will make us fit for heaven.