I have spent much of my life being resolutely anti-Santa Claus. In this day and age of government surveillance, it is difficult to fully get behind the inherent creepiness of the idea that a fat old man is watching you from a northern surveillance post, and that day and night his co-workers are categorizing everything that you do as either “naughty” or “nice”. It is bizarre that we warn our children to be wary of treat- bearing strangers for eleven and a half months of the year and then suddenly in mid-December insist that toddlers climb on a strange man’s lap while pictures are taken of them eating candy. As children get older, we suggest that all their dreams will come true if only they whisper their secrets to a manic fellow in outlandish attire or mail a letter to a fictional address. As a culture, we send a false message that Santa loves all children equally, when the savage truth we all know is that on Christmas morning, wealthy children will wake up to a shiny new bicycle and ipad and iphone wrapped in designer paper with glittering bows while maybe the only thing that the children in East Oakland or Marin City wake up to is a doll that was in the clearance rack of WalMart. As a child growing up in a struggling family, I had the painful sense that I wasn’t as “good” as some of my wealthier friends because Santa brought them so many more presents. The basic premise that inner goodness will manifest in material abundance is a dangerous tale I have never wanted to help perpetrate.
Beyond that, I resolved as a young mother that I would never intentionally lie to my daughter, and that necessitated the decision to omit cultural frauds. I had never gotten over the feeling of betrayal I experienced as a seven year old when I found out that there was no Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, that it had all been an adult conspiracy with me as the naïve subject. My mother was unusually creative and clever: every year, we put out cookies and milk for Santa, and even dogfood for Rudolph. I remember the thrill of magic when I was six and found the empty plate with crumbs and the letter of gratitude which Santa had left me. The following summer, my babysitter’s older, smug daughter mocked me, “You still believe in Santa Claus?”. I was ready to resort to violent action until Deidre led me step by painful step to the revelation of the irrefutable truth: the letter from Santa that I cherished was written in my mother’s elegant sloping handwriting. I was devastated: if Santa Claus wasn’t true, what else in my life was a lie? Alot of people have this same experience when the "magic" of the Bible is unwoven with historical analysis- a topic I'll return to tomorrow. If the Herod of the Bible didn't exist, what else is false? If Mary wasn't a virgin the way we hold that word now, does the entire story of the Christian faith evaporate?
I heard a story last year that made me feel quite a bit better about Santa Claus, and might be a good preparation for talking about the Nativity narratives, the subject of tomorrow's blog. One day, a dejected seven year old arrived at his grandmother’s house with tear-stained cheeks. When pressed, he confessed to Grandma Rose that he had just been told that Santa Claus was not real. Grandma Rose puffed up with indignation insisted, “ Oh, yes he is! Come with me!”. Together they drove to the mall. Grandma Rose turned to little George and said, “Do you know someone who is in real need, someone who really needs something?”. George thought for a bit and then nodded, “ I know! Kevin needs a coat. He has to stay in the classroom at recess because he doesn’t have a coat”. Grandma Rose said, “Okay! Let’s go buy Kevin a coat!”. And so they went into Target and found a sturdy and warm waterproof jacket. They placed it in a big red bag with candycanes and Kevin’s name on it, and then drove over to Kevin's run-down house. Grandma Rose told George to quietly sneak up the steps, leave the package on the dilapidated porch and ring the rusty doorbell. Together, they hid in the bushes to watch what happened next. Kevin came out, looked around, saw the package, and then burst into tears when he opened it. Shouting out to his mother, “ I got a coat! I got a coat!”, he whirled around in wonder with his little hands stuffed in the warm pockets and his small sandy head covered in the sheltering woolly hood. As grandmother and grandson climbed back into the car, Rose turned to George and says, “ Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that Santa Claus isn’t real. Today, YOU were Santa Claus”.
This spirit of Santa Claus would be recognized by a different name by Teresa of Avila, who wrote:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Does what name we call a spirit of generosity and compassion matter? I doubt it. But it may be important to separate facts from legends, historical events from mytho-poetic symbols lest the young ones amongst us and within us lose hope that everything is a lie when they discover that there is no toyshop at the North Pole and that Jesus wasn't born in a manger on December 25. I invite you to ponder these question: what are the different kinds of truth that I have known? What things have I experienced as really real that maybe didn't ever happen after all? How do I know? And how does it change my view of life if I look through a literal lens or a symbolic one?
Poetry- like music- comes in so many flavors. There are poets (like John O'Donahue) who are infinitely merciful and consoling, dispensing grace with every lilting syllable. There are others- like Rilke or David Whyte- who name our silent inward struggles with courage. There are those like Mary Oliver who call our attention to the fragile and magnificent beauty strewn recklessly around us, or Rumi, who offers an invitation to celebrate the soul while tap-dancing barefoot. I adore all these poets. Every once in awhile, though, I can use a dash of a poet who wryly offers the strong bitter draught of painful truth. I now add Scott Cairns to the short and salty list of contemporary poets who write in the tradition of the old Hebrew prophets, calling us to accountability and fearlessly saying what needs to be said, holding up a mirror to our cultural warts and flaws. Here is a bracing poem, an eye-popping chaser that will purge your palate of the lingering sticky-sweet aftertaste of Christmas carols...
Possible Answers to Prayer
by Scott Cairns (b. 1954)
Your petitions — though they continue to bear
just the one signature — have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties — despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value — nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance — all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment — is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you --
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passion.
Below is the most moving and mystical piece for Christmas I know, O Magnum Mysterium, by the great contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen. It never fails to move me to tears when I hear it performed live, I hope to be hearing this song (at least in my inner ear) both when I hold my daughter's hand as she gives birth some day in the future.
Merry Christmas, everyone. May you pause between unwrapping presents and feasting on rich foods to take a moment to go outside and look at the stars and see the wonder of creation. Marvel that there is anything, anything at all- and then remember all the love and beauty that has been woven through your days.
May we each find something divine being born within the circles we find ourselves into night.
By Patricia Fargnoli
If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed-down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.
Today is the feast day of St. Thomas. In the Gospel stories, he is the disciple who requires the experience of his own senses to validate the claims of his friends. Unwilling to place his trust on hearsay or stories of other people, he wants to know about the Resurrection by touching the wounds himself. This is consonant with the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas, a first century collection of sayings of Jesus that may well have beenwritten down earlier than any of the Gospels found in the Bible. Rediscovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, this ancient document contains many parables familiar from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John- but also offers a treasury of other sayings that affirm the importance of personal experience or gnosis in the spiritual journey. In Thomas, God is accessible to each human being in the depth of their heart. Grace is not dependent upon priestly authority, rather it is the fruit of long personal searching. Too often the church has stressed blind belief. I like what Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral says about this: the opposite of faith isn't doubt but certainty.
Thomas was said to have carried the message of Jesus to India, and there is a decided Eastern flair to the Gospel of Thomas. The text has no virgin birth, no crucifixion and no miracles. Rather, it is a collection of priceless and sometimes "Logions": enigmatic sayings of Jesus that occasionally have the feeling of a zen koan.
"Lift a stone and I am there; split wood and you will find me, Jesus says. Practitioners of yoga and those drawn to Buddhism may well find this the easiest doorway into Jesus's teachings, and yet the text is being more and more accepted in mainstream Christianity: there is discussion in the Episcopal church of adopting it as the "Fifth Gospel", and the pastor of the Fairfax Community Church will be preaching on The Gospel of Thomas for the Christmas Eve service.
The Church in its wisdom assigned the Solstice for Thomas's feastday. This is so appropriate, because the sayings point to the necessity of embracing the total human experience and learning to accept that darkness and light are both essential parts of life. Here is one of my favorite quotes, Logion 3:
If those who lead you say to you:
See, the kingdom is in heaven,
then the birds of the heaven will go before you;
if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you.
But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known,
and you will know that you are the children of the living Father.
But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are that poverty
To learn more, I suggest the psychologically insightful translation and commentary by Jean Yves Leloup (beautifully translated by Joseph Rowe) and the very accessible books of eminent Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels.including her personal memoir, Beyond Belief.
Today's post is a belated celebration of the great 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross, whose feast-day is on December 14. We have John to thank for that great poetic phrase, "the dark night of the soul". He knew well of which he wrote. Imprisoned in a closet and beaten daily for nine months by Carmelite friars, John began to write love poems to God when a sympathetic jailor smuggled pen and paper into his cell. He fled naked out of his cell window one moonlit night after ripping his sheet and clothes into strips. His writings are a treasure trove of the poetic path to God: in the following selection, he invites us all to consider the ways that we can make room in our hearts and our lives to give birth to the Holy. To accompany today's poem is the exquisite "Ave Maria" of Tomas Luis de Victoria, John of the Cross's almost exact Spanish contemporary
If you Want
by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy, and say,
"I need shelter for the night,
please take me inside your heart, my time is so close."
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes there, under the dome of your being
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim - the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help:
for each of us is his beloved servant, never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with Light and sing.
Some of the most gorgeous music ever penned was written by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. As a farmboy, he was discovered for his angelic voice by singing while he sold his family's vegetables. Taken to Rome, he flourished: first, in the Papal choir, and later as a composer. He has been called the "Savior of Music" by the Catholic Church for his compositional reforms during a time of cultural crisis. I will spend the rest of my life absorbing as many of his 105 masses, 140 madrigals and 300 motets as I possibly can, but let me introduce you to this Italian Renaissance genius by way of his superb Ave Maria.
Today is the birthday of Hans Hassler- hardly a household name. Yet we have this German Renaissance composer to thank for one of the most moving and versatile melodies of all time. Written originally as a secular love song, Hassler adapted his haunting melody to become the hymn "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" . Over a century later, Johann Sebastian Bach took this same melody and arranged it for his monumental St. Matthew's Passion. The hymn appears five times at pivotal moments, creating a profound sense of musical architecture that deepens the experience every time the melody returns, transformed by different lyrics and accompaniment.
Four hundred years after Hassler penned this tune, Paul Simon also found within it the seeds of inspiration for one of his most cherished songs. Listen to these three recordings to see just how far a good melody can go: Hassler's chorale, Bach's setting from St. Matthew and Simon's "American Tune".
Today is the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most important alcoholic, angry deaf man in history. Physically and emotionally abused by his own alcoholic father, Beethoven's life was one of unremitting anguish and enormous loneliness. And yet, very few people can claim to ever have made more gold with the dregs and despair of their lives. Beethoven defines- and some would say, even created- the very idea of the Heroic Artist by transcribing his inner experiences into artistic expressions that ultimately changed the world. He died never married, rejected by the many women he pursued, a social failure. "Beethoven can write music," the composer wrote of himself, "Thank God: he can do knothing else". Desperate for a family, he adopted his nephew Karl but drove the boy to the brink of suicide with his irascible temper and bullying. And yet, his music became the symbol of the voice of humanity: over one quarter of the population of Vienna turned out in the rain for his funeral. Despite his own social difficulties, his Ninth Symphony became the clarion call for the brotherhood of man. It is evoked time and time again as the call for transformation and hope: performed as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, as students faced army tanks in Tienenman Square, and as millions of bewildered and grief stricken citizens poured into concerts halls of the world in the wake of 9/11.
"Prepare the way" is one of the themes of Advent. In the decades that Beethoven labored on what was ultimately to become his most famous work, he experimented with other forms that pointed the way to the Ninth. The inventive "Chorale Fantasy", a quasi-piano concerto is one prototype; the Missa Solemnis, written between 1819-1823 is another. Beethoven could not be called conventionally pious. Though he was occasionally quite morally conservative, his own spiritual inclinations were ambiguous and impossible to pin down. A child of the Enlightenment who had pantheistic leanings, his personal library contained many works of Eastern philosophy, while a close look at the text of the celebrated "Ode to Joy" reveals that it is actually an invocation to Dionysus, with copious references to the Orphic Mysteries.
NPR music critic Jan Swafford has adroitly described the Missa Solemnis as "the greatest work never heard". A sprawling and musically taxing 90 minute chorale work, it is impractical for the concert hall and too massive for a church service. And yet, hovering in this liminal space are moments of incandescent beauty and luminous splendor. Below is an excerpt depicting the Incarnation, all the more poignant and astonishing when one realizes that Beethoven wrote it all during a period in which he couldn't hear a single note.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig. You point the way for all of us, daring us to dream the impossible, to break any barriers necessary, and to open our arms to embrace the heartbreak and the glory of being human.
Perugino's vibrant masterpiece, above, is another Advent painting depicting the coming birth of Christianity through the marriage of Jewish monotheism and Greek mystery religion. Six Old Testament prophets line the left side of the canvas as the bridegrooms: Isaiah, Moses, Daniel, David, Jeremiah and Solomon. On the right are the brides: six of the sibyls of the Ancient pagan world, (from Erythrea, Persia, Cumaea, Libya, Tibur and Delphi).
The Spanish version of the Song of the Sibyl is performed by Hesperion XX in the video below. Originating sometime between the 12th-14th century, the song has been named a Unesco Heritage treasure of oral tradition. In churches throughout Spain a young woman with a sword processes down the darkened aisle by candlelight to sing this arresting music to inaugurate the Christmas Eve liturgy.