In Medieval times, the twelve days between Christmas Eve and January 6 were marked by special forms of celebration. Plays and musical comedies were presented at courts and castles --a lingering tradition that was responsible for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night . Felix Mendelssohn's family adores staging Shakespeare plays during Twelfth Night, and it was for this occasion in 1826 that he penned his enchanting "Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream" , first performed as a piano duet with his beloved sister Fanny. Both Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream are variations on theme of mistaken identity and loss of identity, themes that were particularly resonant with one of the most rambunctious traditions of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": the Festival of Fools. On this day, the world would be turned upside down: the kings and nobility were to serve at table, while the peasants were to partake of an abundant feast. Whoever was crowned as the Lord of Misrule would preside over a scene of riotous debauchery, with echoes of the Roman custom of Saturnalia: wine, (loose) women and (very loud) song were the order of the day, with absurd commandments requiring absolute obedience.
Perhaps the most surprising master of this sort of ceremony in history was the son of a cloth merchant from Assisi. The youth's rule, capped off by a drunken auction of women, was so scandalous that the Pope finally outlawed the festival. That hedonistic ruler later became known to the world as St. Francis. As a more mature man, Francis never gave up on the idea of fantastic celebrations at Christmastime, but instead of the party of his youth, he created the roots of the nativity celebration, a theatrical event held in the open air filled with real animals. Francis presided over these festivities with the singing of hymns in the common language of the people -- which is why we have Francis to thank for the tradition of Christmas caroling.
I love how St. Francis continued to symbolically live into the spirit of the Lord of Misrule, turning the world upside down by rejecting all the values of his time in order to uphold the values of his heart and soul. In order to find his truth and live out his calling, he abandoned the prestige and riches of his ambitious family to serve the lowliest lepers in his village, giving away his finest cloak, dancing barefoot in the forest and joining the voices of peasants and aristocrats together in song -- all in an effort to make his world turn right side up. In following his topsy-turvy path that began as the chief of ceremonies for a Saturnalia, Francis ended up becoming a beacon of light, hope, healing and inspiration for the world.
At a symbolic level (whatever your religion), Twelfth Night suggests some profound themes for contemplation, questions that bind together St. Francis with the topics I will be exploring in workshops and classes in the next two months: Dante's Divine Comedy and Carl Jung's Red Book.
Dante (who ended his life as a Franciscan oblate) knew exactly what it was like to have his entire world upended. On the wrong side of a political battle, his wealth was confiscated and he was sent into permanent exile from his family and Florence, sentenced to death if he ever stepped foot in his home again. It was while wandering throughout Italy as a refugee dependent on patrons ("doomed to know the bitter taste of borrowed bread" , as he puts it) that he began to write the Comedy as a way to deal with his loss, grief and rage: the first act I know of Narrative Therapy. In the poem, his character travels through the Inferno only to discover when he emerges on the banks of Purgatory that what he thought was down was in fact up. Hell, the poem suggests, is the place where our perceptions are completely disordered and upside down, and it is only when we can arrive on the Shores of Humility that we can begin to have the proper perspective. When Dante encounters disciples of St. Francis in the circle of the sun, he learns that Paradise is the place where you can tell the story of your enemies with reverence and honor- and they tell yours with empathy and respect. Imagine that.
Carl Jung's midlife crisis was another underworld journey in which everything became topsy-turvy. He wrote that at the age of 40, “ I had achieved honor, power, wealth, knowledge and every human happiness. Then my desire for the increase of these trappings ceased, desire ebbed from me and horror overcame me. The vision of the flood seized me and I felt the spirit of the depths, but I did not understand, yet he drove me on with unbearable longing. “. His long and courageous journey to grapple with his emotional breakdown led him through the Red Book to understand that midlife flourishing emerges only when we claim and love what we once rejected as foolish, childish or worthless. Our energy, vitality and creativity in midlife is utterly dependent on becoming the servant of our soul rather than the steward of our ego.
Twelfth Night encourages us to consider the world we have made, and how it might need to be re-fashioned. What needs to be turned topsy-turvy in your life? Where are the places in your life that are upside down and need righting? How can you make a feast for the lowliest and cast off parts of yourself? What has ruled your life that now needs to become a servant of your soul instead?
Antiphons are short pieces of music meant to preceded the singing of the Magnificat. during the service of Evening Prayer. The last seven days before Christmas have special antiphons, often called the "O Antiphons", because they all begin with a gasp of wonder. The following link will take you to one of my favorite settings of the Antiphon to Wisdom- by Estonian composer Arvo Part.
O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
Thou encirclest the world from one end to the other,
Thou orderest all things with might and mercy:
O come to us and reveal the way of wisdom and of understanding
Christmases were - and are- difficult for me. As an adult, I gathered together the best of family traditions from my mother and grandmothers. I did love the way the pine tree mixed with the aroma of freshly baked cardamom bread, I whiled away the afternoon decorating a gingerbread house with my daughter, but like so many people, I tried to make up for a hole inside my heart by buying too many presents for the people I loved. For years, the spirit of Christmas was lost on me because I thought that presents were somehow proof: proof of being loved, proof of loving someone else. There was all the anxiety of getting it right, and the sinking feeling inside when that didn't happen.
There were times in my life where I felt a deep sense of lack, of not-enoughness, of never-good-enoughness. But miraculously that really evaporated when I began to really pay attention to a question Brother Roger Schultz, the founder of Taize, asked himself every day. "Who is the neediest amongst us?". When Brother Roger first asked himself that question, it was in the midst of World War II, and as a young monk in France, his answer was immediate: the Jews, who were being deported to concentration camps. So young Roger risked his life to escort them to safety in Switzerland, an act of heroism that placed him on the Nazi wanted list. They broke into his simple home while he was on one of his missions delivering them to safety. The soldiers destroyed all his belongings and set a guard to report his whereabouts. He got word, and waited out the war in Switzerland. After the war, Brother Roger returned to Burgundy and asked himself the same question: who are the neediest amongst us? And this time, his answer was also clear: the German POWs. Brother Roger received permission to invite the prisoners to his home on Sunday evenings, to feed them soup, to sit in prayerful silence and to sing together simple chants. And he began this form of worship with the very same soldiers who had wanted to send him to Auschwitz.
Somehow in the midst of terrible hurt, suspicion and anger, he found a path of peace through silent prayer and simple song, and Taize grew to become a destination for thousands of pilgrims every year, of all faiths, pilgrims who were searching for hope in the midst of despair. And every year Brother Roger would continue to ask his question. Every year it brought him to spend a few weeks in a different place- in Calcutta, India where he became dear friends with Mother Theresa, to the slums of Brazil, to places beset by fear, violence and terror. He would live with the lowliest and sing and pray and listen. And then he would compose his end of year letter that was sent out to the world, a meditation on hope written from a place of witnessing horror.
I am no Brother Roger, and I am no saint, But I have found that when I began to ask Brother Roger's question at Christmastime, my own world began to look a lot less bleak. My most meaningful Christmas Eve was definitely the one when I bought a warm jacket and scarf to bring to Tara, the broken-toothed woman addicted to meth who sat on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I found her after midnight mass, and the way her face lit up with the presents I brought and the cookies I had baked outdid any Christmas tree I've ever seen. My favorite memory of Christmas morning is the one when the choir I directed, along with my daughter, went caroling at a senior care facility specializing in Alzheimer's and sang, including my favorite Christmas song, "In the Bleak Midwinter", with its concluding stanza:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.
In the coming weeks, I will be offering a candlelit evenings of Taize chanting at St. Paul's Episcopal in Healdsburg on Thursday, December 17 at 7 pm and on January 1 at 7 pm (with a labyrinth walk) at St John's Episcopal in Petaluma. No matter what happens on December 25, I know that I will find Christmas spirit alive and well in these gatherings of Taize, where we will come together to give our hearts and to remember what truly matters: music, love, compassion and sharing with the most needy amongst us. I hope you will join me.
Advent is the Season of Mary- a chance to revel in the depths of the feminine. The most recent edition of National Geographic proclaims Mary "the most powerful woman in the world", and it is indeed staggering to consider the extraordinary amount of inspiring art, architecture and music that has been created in her name. Mary has been hailed throughout the centuries as the symbol of mercy, peacemaking, forgiveness, love, tenderness, acceptance- not just within Christianity. I was shocked to learn that the Koran declares that Mary is the most virtuous of all women, to be venerated even above the Prophet Mohammad's own wife and mother. Dante felt that she was the exemplar of every virtue and extolls her as the Queen of Heaven.
There is actually preciously little written about Mary in the New Testament, but her longest speech, known as the Magnificat, and found only in the Gospel of Luke, is indeed powerful and inspiring. I invite you to consider whether it really depicts a woman who is "meek and mild" or if it is, as some theologians have suggested, an exultation of long-sought for justice and a turning upside down of the established social order- Mary as the spiritual revolutionary whose message was mirrored later by her son in the Beatitudes.
My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
The Magnificat was one of the very first Christian hymns. In the coming week, I will post musical settings throughout the ages, from the Middle Ages through our modern times. The first is the setting sung every evening as part of the Vespers service of Evening Prayer by the Daughters of Mary, a group of Catholic nuns who have recorded it on their album A Day in The Cloister. I invite you to light a candle, listen and contemplate what the words might mean for you in your life right now.