Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

I have a friend, a former student, who was telling me about her five-year-old. They just got a kitten, and this little boy loves it. For his recent birthday, he said he wanted to become a cat. So they got him some cat pajamas, with a little cat tail and cat feet slippers, and he loves it. Running around the house, making cat noises. But then, my student told me, he was racing around, and slipped, and slid across the floor of their house, right down the stairs, thump thump thump to the landing below. She ran to the stairs to see if he was okay. And then she heard his little voice, saying “Okay. One life gone, eight more to go.”

I can identify with that little boy actually. This last year, I’ve definitely felt like I’ve used up at least a couple of cat lives myself. But thanks be to great doctors and hospitals and nurses, I’m doing much better. And when I think back on 2017, what I remember are moments of joy. The things I love most in life, friends and family, theatre and movies, books, and above all, music have sustained me, even in times of difficulty.

And as I’ve had leisure to think about it, I realized that illness and pain and difficulty are only to be expected and accepted. Suffering, disappointment, diseases and their symptoms, depression and loss, were always part of the deal. Mortality is a test, after all. It had to be that way. It had to be hard, to obey, to serve, to grow, to be kind. There also had to be unfairness, unwarranted suffering, undeserved pain. Life wasn’t fair for Job. And we believe that the atonement will reconcile everything, will heal every hurt and right every wrong.

But as I’ve contemplated this, something else occurred to me. Pain’s essential; Beauty may not be. The ability to experience the loveliness of Earth, and even to create beauty ourselves; that may not necessarily be required. It may just be a blessing. Look to our north. Check out Timpanogas. We don’t have to see it as beautiful. It could be, to us, nothing more than a great stone barrier, fallow ground, bad for crops and rotten for travel. But we don’t. It’s glorious. And that’s just one mountain, just one sight, amid the infinity of wonders we call our home. Annette and I once had a calling in the nursery, and we were supposed to teach the kids lessons. Two year olds; lessons. But the manual for the class was terrific. One lesson: Trees show how Heavenly Father loves us. That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But doesn’t all beauty, all loveliness, all art, all music testify of God’s love? They’re extra, they’re free gifts. They’re not necessary parts of the test. But they’re wonderful, because that’s also who Heavenly Father is; wonderful is one of His names. And the greatest gift of all, I think, is music.

Hold that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow we celebrate the arrival of the Christ child; the birth of Jesus. And yes, it was the beginning of atonement, the essential moment when Jehovah received his mortal flesh. But it was something else too. An ordinary thing, a young couple, making a journey, a young woman giving birth.

Why do we not think of Christmas as a women’s holiday? Why is it not a feminist celebration? Is there anything more uniquely and spectacularly female than giving birth? And consider this: Mary was the first woman, in the history of the world, to know one thing. She knew that her baby would live. Angels told her that her baby would live. I love that thought. Not that we should ignore poor Joseph. His part was colossal; male role model for Deity. How do you nurture that nature? But Christmas is about Mary.

And a journey. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Judea; Bethlehem was in Galilee, perhaps because some inflexible bureaucratic regulations required them to go there for a census. We usually picture Mary riding a donkey, but it’s unlikely they could have afforded one; in all likelihood, they walked. It’s seven miles as the crow flies, probably closer to ten by foot; it’s a rocky and difficult terrain. Probably took two days.

They were poor. As I understand it—I don’t speak Greek– Mark and Matthew use the word ‘tekton’ to describe Joseph. Tekton can be translated ‘carpenter,’ but more often, it’s translated ‘laborer.’ It’s the lowest rung in Roman society; Luke, writing years later, gave him a promotion to ‘peasant.’ And Nazareth was, literally, the punch line to a joke.

They arrived in Bethlehem exhausted. There was no room for them in the inn, because there is never room for the poorest of the poor. And then Mary went into labor, in a stable, the only shelter they could find.

We don’t just appreciate beauty, we create it. Which is hardly surprising, given who our Heaven Parents are, and who we are meant to become. As Sister Gayle Rice recently posted on Facebook, “as we awaken to our own creativity, we open ourselves to the power of God, and His influence and direction.” She would know; she’s a wonderful artist. So when we think of an event like the nativity, so simple and so packed with meaning, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists have chosen that moment, in that Bethlehem stable as their subject. One of my favorites is a painting by Brian Kershisnek. Tucked into the corner of a huge canvas, are the holy family. Joseph, looking terrified, as though he’s just begun to understand what he’s taking on. Mary, exhausted, of course. Baby Jesus. And filling the rest of the canvas, hundreds upon hundreds of angels. They also have a dog. The dog’s the only one who can see the angels. He seems quite delighted by them. It’s hanging at the BYU Museum of Art: check it out.

Art enhances, magnifies, intensifies, reinforces. Art can also distort; it’s a powerful force, and needs to be wielded carefully. And there are many paintings of the Nativity. But what I love most of all is the music.

And so I’m drawn to holy scripture. Specifically to hymns numbered 201 to 214 in the hymnal we open every Sunday. And when I look at those hymns, a couple of things strike me immediately. First of all, there are no LDS hymns among them. They’re all from the European or American Protestant tradition. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it reminds us that Christmas really is for and about everyone. Our hymnal should appropriately expresses an ecumenical generosity of spirit.

And each hymn takes some small aspect of the Christmas story and amplifies it, directs our attention to it, urges us to contemplate it. The first hymn, 201, is Joy to the World, which is hardly about the nativity at all. Instead it looks forward, to his return, to the time when “Jesus reigns, and saints their songs employ. When “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” It’s a triumphant imagining of an event that hasn’t happened yet. So we start with a comprehensive look at the entire mission of our Savior. 202, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, reminds me a lot of Kershisnek’s painting. Someone had to get all those angels there. It’s in the voice, I imagine, of the choir President, making all those reminder phone calls. Come along, everyone! It’s happened! Come, all of you, to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Come, let us adore him.”

203, Angels we have heard on High, takes a different tack. We’re not in the angelic choir anymore; we’re bystanders, wondering what’s going on. Oh, look, shepherds; they might know. “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What the gladsome tidings be, which inspired your heavenly song.” And we get an answer, but for some reason it’s in Latin. Gloria, in excelsis, Deo.

And then comes 204. Silent Night. I love this hymn. And here’s the thing; childbirth is never silent. And we don’t want it to be. We want newborn babies to cry, it signals vitality and strength, we want our new child to be healthy. But afterwards, after the mess and confusion and pain of childbirth, there comes a moment when the new mother holds the infant in her arms, and both of them, finally, rest. Silent Night is about that moment, as a bewildered but staunchly supportive Joseph stands watch, as Mary and her heavenly child enjoy a moment of reverential repose. And while a heavenly chorus was undoubtedly rejoicing musically, I hope they sang sotto voce, a focused and intense pianissimo, letting mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, get some sleep.

I don’t have time to go over the rest of our Christmas hymns. But I want to call your attention to the last hymn in the cycle, number 214. You’ll be invited to join the choir in singing it later in this meeting. It’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day, a lovely setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow wrote it in 1863, at the height of the brutal slaughter of that horrific exercise in incivility, American civil war. Longfellow had long opposed slavery, but the war depressed him mightily. Adding to his depression, his beloved wife Frances, known as Fanny, died shortly after the war began, in a house fire. Then his son, Charles, very much against his wishes, enlisted, and in his first battle, was badly wounded. The accumulation of political and personal tragedies find expression in the song’s third verse. “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” When our choir sings in just a moment, pay note to the beautiful arrangement by brother Curtis Winters of that powerful verse. And which of us wouldn’t be similarly overwhelmed. By the horrors of war, by the hatred of people who had once been united, and by the death of a beloved spouse, and terrible injury to a beloved child?

But that is not the meaning of Christmas bells. That pain, that sorrow, though understandable, belays the hope that came to earth in that Bethlehem manger.  No heartache can exist that the atonement cannot heal. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right will prevail. And the message of this Christmas season, the meaning of all Christmas seasons, is peace on earth, good will toward men.

The great and everlasting atonement is an all encompassing purpose. But it wasn’t the only message Jesus brought. Christmas does not just urge upon us a generosity of soul and spirit, but physical, temporal, active generosity of action. As James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote in a recent LA Times editorial, “Is it any surprise that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger?” The child born in a Bethlehem manger was also born into the most abject poverty. And that choice, and it was a choice, was made for him by our Heavenly Father. And it was a magnificent event, a beautiful event, made even lovelier through the music by which we celebrate it. But let’s not be blinded by that beauty. The nativity also imposes on us an obligation, even unto the least of them, our poorest and most deeply suffering brothers and sisters. Remembering that obligation is perhaps the truest meaning Christmas has.

2 thoughts on “Christmas talk, 2017

  1. Dennis Clark

    Actually, according to Karen Lynn Davidson, “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” is an LDS Christmas carol. Both text and music are by John Menzies Macfarlane, a Mormon choir director living in St. George in 1869, who needed a new carol for that year’s Christmas program. She tells the story in “Our Latter Day Hymns : The Stories and the Messages.”

    J. Spencer Cornwall tells a similar story, in “Stories of Our Mormon Hymns.” He credits George D. Pyper’s “Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns.” Davidson’s source is an unpublished family history of Macfarlane.

    But I agree. We need more Mormon carols, and hymns, and fewer battle hymns of the Republic.

    Reply

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