Full Circle

Today is the second and last time this century that Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fall on the same day. Historically, though, they’re linked. In the earliest centuries of the Church, the death and resurrection of Christ were observed, but Christ’s birth was not. However, the symbolic value of placing Christ’s conception – the Feast of the Annunciation – on the same calendar date as the day he died is actually where the date of Christmas came from: nine months after the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” Jesus was born.

God Incarnate sojourned with us, moving through the entire mortal circle of life, from conception to death. For us, that’s all there is. No immortality, no rebirth. The natural cycle for the whole created order was fulfilled by Christ on Good Friday.

An early Christian hymn declares Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We know the story, how Easter changes everything. But this language, “image of God” and “all creation” also suggests, first, that the life of Christ is not a closed circle, and further, that it has cosmic significance.

I certainly would not be the first person to map Holy Week onto the week of creation in the Genesis myth (“myth” here meaning a story with deep layers of truth beyond a literal reading). Good Friday, being the sixth day of the week…oh, dear. That’s the day God made humans in God’s image. And the day God Incarnate dies. But it’s also the day God Incarnate is conceived. So the whole mortal human life of God begins and ends with God creating human beings. That makes sense.

The seventh day, God rested.

In Holy Week, that is the full 24-hour period in which the human God is dead. In our tradition, though, he descends into hell to free all the souls imprisoned there. Well, he’s still the guy who stirred up trouble healing people on the Sabbath. Yes, Christ is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever!”

This mapping was not lost on early Christians, who saw that the week could not just turn over into another week as we’re used to them doing. Once God has been conceived in the Virgin’s womb, has been born, has lived a human life, and has died a human death, something new has to happen.

The Resurrection, we’re told in the Gospels, happened early on the first day of the week. But just as Christ’s conception and death can be mapped onto each other, so can the first day and the eighth day.

The eighth day is the day of resurrection – the new creation, in which, in the hypostatic union of Christ (fully God and fully human), God creates something new: a completely new way of being human. We’re baptized into that new way of being when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s why so many baptismal fonts – or their bases, or the platform/steps they’re on – are octagonal.

That adds another layer: Christ’s death on Good Friday is a new kind of conception (as if a virgin conceiving weren’t enough!). In his death, Christ’s human body becomes the seed that must fall to the earth so that a different kind of life can bloom.

 

I feel a little bad that I’m only getting to this now, near the eleventh hour (literally) when the fruitful* coincidence is almost over. It’s been a long day, in a busy week with so little time to think. And now with all those circles and cycles interlacing and intertwining, I fear I’ve made myself dizzy! But I did not want to let this day pass without remark.

 

*And, yes, that’s a pun. The coincidence of today’s fast and feast is pregnant, we might say, with meaning. Just like the Blessed Virgin is beginning this day on one arc of the circle.

Merry Christmas! God is with us!

Gaudete! Christus natus est! Alleluia!

Tonight God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled.

Nativity reredos painting edited

Detail of reredos in Nativity Chapel, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. Photo by the author, who is not too proud to admit this.

I love this gaudily-colored painting from the reredos of one of the side-chapels in my church. Christ is born, and everybody, human and otherwise, has shown up to celebrate! I’m reminded of a phrase from the requiem Mass (quoting from the Psalms): Ad te omnis caro veniet—“To you all flesh shall come.” As many Christmas carols—and the Bible itself—remind us, it’s not inappropriate for the mind to turn to death on this holy night. Christ’s death was inscribed into his birth:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  Luke 2.34-35

And yet, isn’t that true of us, too?

In becoming human, God the Son destined himself to die. This is no surprise if you take the Incarnation seriously: all living creatures eventually die. Through his death, however, Christ made his divine eternal life available to all flesh. No surprise, then, that “to you all flesh shall come!”

His birth, life, death, and resurrection, however, were not a “plan B” contingency for human sin, but rather the very purpose of creation: by doing the impossible and becoming a creature, the Creator, having loved creation out into existence has loved it back to Godself. St. Ireneus put it this way:

“…it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Human DNA is now in the Godhead. That is the radical truth of Christmas. Tonight (paraphrasing Ireneus), God became human so that humans may become divine.

All flesh is involved, too, because all flesh is related. By uniting creatureliness and uncreated Creator in his Person, Christ saves a cosmos that, of its own power, would tend toward extinction. Think of it as a rescue or a salvage operation; either way, creation was not meant to be disposable.

“You hate nothing you have made…” – BCP Collect for Ash Wednesday

It’s a miracle that anything other than God should exist at all. It’s a far greater miracle that God should enter creation. Again, this is no contingency plan. It was the point all along. God made us because God wanted to be with us, and God is with us, forever, in Christ.

Merry Christmas.

“O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”
– BCP Collect for Christmas

On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

Being there

“I probably shouldn’t be grinning on Good Friday,” I said to the Dean after today’s Good Friday service. But one of the features of bipolar illness is that sometimes you just aren’t in charge of your emotions. On a day like today, when I’m teetering on the edge of hypomania, sometimes I just feel giddy, no matter what. I was in that state when the first of my grandparents died. I got the news, tried to be sad, and failed miserably. So I went to the store and bought a pack of cookies, and probably ate them all in one sitting. Probably giggling, I don’t remember.

Today’s liturgy was the second part of the great Triduum, the three services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve, respectively. In a way, it is actually one liturgy broken across three days, and so it encompasses the full three days which it spans. The appropriate emotions would run the gamut of human experience, from the cozy togetherness of Maundy Thursday’s footwashing and Last Supper, to the pain of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution, through the shocked, perhaps numb, state Jesus’ friends must have felt on Holy Saturday, to the bewildering joy of Easter’s unprecedented resurrection. But few of us can muster all those emotions in three days just by participating, however fully, in the liturgies. “Were you there…?” we sang today; and even though in a way, we were, we actually weren’t. We were in a beautiful church, fully aware of the story’s arc and what happens at the Easter Eve vigil.

Then there was me, feeling giddy…able to rein it in, but unable to keep my mind from wandering throughout the service.

Which is one reason I truly appreciate our sacramental tradition. My spirituality is not something that happens in my head, or what my emotions are doing (emotions actually being much more bodily than we tend to acknowledge). Even when my mind is wandering, there is my body, in the church, sitting attentively, or standing, or kneeling, or kissing the Cross, or bowing, or, most importantly, receiving the Sacrament.

Today, we received the Sacrament under the species of bread only, reserved from Maundy Thursday’s Eucharistic celebration. Traditionally, Episcopal and Catholic churches keep Reserved Sacrament, in which we believe Christ is truly present, somewhere in the church at all times. However, on Good Friday, it is all consumed. There is no Reserved Sacrament in the church. I was reflecting on this after receiving Communion. Very dramatically, we see that Christ is now only present in the bodies of the faithful who are gathered there. Yes, we believe in resurrection, and we are preparing for it in ways Jesus’ disciples and other friends could not have done after seeing him crucified. But in his dying, as in his Incarnation, he gives himself so fully to us that we have a responsibility to be his body in the world.

And for that, as for worship, it doesn’t matter how we feel. What matters is what we do with our bodies. Show up, do the good work God has given you to do. Put one foot in front of the other and trust that God is directing your steps. Proclaim the Resurrection this Easter not only with your words, but with your body. This side of death, we already share in Christ’s resurrection in our mortal flesh, even if it’s broken or diseased (bipolar, say), even if we aren’t feeling it, even though we can’t break all our bad habits. Show up, put one foot in front of the other, do the good work God has given you to do.

Resurrection is coming.

Closing in on Christmas (an Advent poem)

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
CLOSING IN ON CHRISTMAS

I do not come bearing gifts like the magi,
or introduced by angels like the shepherds.
I have mistimed and miscalculated and misunderstood,
and the Christ I seek

is still a fetus, still developing the fingers he used
to form the world, the eyes that surveyed it,
perceiving it as “Good.”

Mary, you grow this human God inside you.
Eternity now bears your DNA.
Here, at the navel of the cosmos,
you prepare a place for him.

Holy Mary, Gestator of God,
I can only wait with you.
But tell me:

is the kicking I feel inside me
also Life? Is the emptiness around me
at work to make him room?

Your presence is the Lord’s coming.
Let me linger here and learn from you;
for soon you will be wearied with new motherhood,

and all the world will come to suckle
at your breast.

Favorite Christmas albums

Happy New Year!

We’re still in the midst of the Christmas season (those 12 days many know only from the song), so there’s still time to enjoy this wonderful music outside of the context of shopping malls and people trying to induce you to buy stuff.

Having just said that, I’m going to link to amazon.com for each of these. Maybe you’ll want to buy an album here, but the reason is really just to provide you with more information, and amazon does a pretty good job of that. Often they have samples to listen to as well.

1. The Chieftains—The Bells of Dublin

Album cover, The Bells of Dublin

This album is always the first Christmas album I listen to each year. It’s the Chieftains doing what they do so well—collaborating with musicians from a variety of different styles and genres. I love that it opens with church bells, which is a great way to start the Christmas music. But the album also has so many classic Christmas hymns and carols, along with a couple modern offerings, such as Elvis Costello’s “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” and Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” The album has several movements (of a sort), including a few carol medleys, and ending with what feels like an abbreviated Lessons and Carols service (beginning with the boy chorister’s solo on the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”). Much of the album just feels like a rollicking good party, while other portions are remarkably reverential.

Highlights: “Il Est Né/Ca Berger” sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle; “O Holy Night” sung by Rickie Lee Jones (my sister once commented that she sounds as if she’s just seen an angel); and “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil,” first narrated in English by Burgess Meredith and then sung in Irish by the Chieftains’ own Kevin Conneff.

2. Bruce Cockburn—Christmas

Album cover

I always listen to this album second. If you don’t know Bruce Cockburn’s work, this is as good a place as any to jump in (and it’s one with samples to listen to on the amazon page). He is himself an excellent musician, and also manages to surround himself with excellent musicians. While T-Bone Burnett didn’t produce this album (Cockburn did), he did turn up in the studio to hum on “I Saw Three Ships,” apparently. Burnett’s then-wife, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter Sam Phillips, also joins Cockburn on a track (see “Highlights” below). The range on this album is more than you might expect from a folk-rock singer/songwriter: traditional, spiritual, and an original composition; songs in English, French, and Huron (all of which fit nicely with the fact that Cockburn is Canadian).

Highlights: “Riu Riu Chiu,” which is given a deliciously rich folk treatment here; “Down in Yon Forest,” of which Cockburn says in the liner notes, “If there were a contest for the title of spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”; “Iesus Ahatonnia,” a.k.a. “The Huron Carol,” which he sings in the Huron language; and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which was arranged, in a minor key, by Sam Phillips, who also provides backing vocals. Cockburn writes, “Her clever and simple devise of shifting the song to a minor key enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in away that made me wish I’d thought of it. The next best thing was to sing it that way—so here it is.” Alsoa highlight: Bruce’s liner notes! He comments like that on every song.

3. Annie Lennox—A Christmas Cornucopia

Album cover

Here’s a rather new album, after those two early-’90s offerings. But it’s quickly become a favorite of mine. Even if I can’t stand the cover art (sorry…maybe it’s just the photo of her, the dress maybe? or is it the pose?). Like several of the ’80s alternative pop stars whose Christmas albums feature here, she opens the liner notes with an I-don’t-actually-believe-this-of-course disclaimer: “While I don’t personally subscribe to any specific religion, I do believe that the heart of all religious faith has to be rooted in love and compassion, otherwise it serves no purpose. … Through listening to a Christmas Cornucopia, I hope that people will discover a fresh perspective.” No matter. I believe this stuff, and I enjoy this album tremendously. It’s Annie Lennox! She can sing.

Highlights: “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” which she sings to the tune (“Gloria”) most US Americans know for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” But it’s such a great hymn, with great theology; “See Amid the Winter’s Snow”—she sings this song with such gusto and passion you can’t help but be transported when the chorus comes ’round: “Hail, thou ever-blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!”; “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)”—This one she sings with an appropriate harshness, given its subject matter, even though “By by lullay lullay” is supposed to be just that—a lullaby; “As Joseph Was a Walking (The Cherry Tree Carol),” which is actually not the Cherry Tree Carol. It’s a strange carol I didn’t know, though, and has the amusing verse, “He neither shall be christened / In white wine nor in red /But in the fair spring water / With which we’re christened.” Anyway, I like how she sings it.

One of the reviewers on amazon calls it “the ANGRIEST Christmas album” they’d ever heard. It really does kinda come across that way, at least on the first few songs. I would love to put “Il Est Né” in the highlights, but even though I love the brashness of her arrangement, her pronunciation and scansion of the French annoys me. On balance, still an enjoyable track, though. Her obligatory original track, “Universal Child,” is rather uninteresting in my opinion.

4. Sting—If On a Winter’s Night…

Album cover

What? If on a winter’s night, what? Never mind, it’s a gorgeous album for Christmas and the winter season. It’s also another with samples on the amazon page.

The back of the CD carton (it’s one of those paperboard deals rather than a jewel case) there’s a little blurb calling winter Sting’s favorite season. The album, it says, “takes traditional music from the British Isles as its starting point and evolves into a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries (including two of Sting’s own songs).” Even if you’re not particularly a Sting fan, though, give this one a listen. It’s also fairly new (2009), but quickly became a favorite of mine, one that’s fourth in line in my 100-disc changer (stop laughing; I know that’s so last century,but it hasn’t broken yet, why replace it with a docked iPod?).

Highlights: “Gabriel’s Message”—that wonderful carol about the annunciation. I first heard a version of this from some Christmas special that Sting participated in; a coworker of mine had it on her mp3 player and shared it with me. This version is a little different, but just as magical; “There is No Rose of Such Virtue,” which is a favorite Christmas hymn of mine, and Sting sings it beautifully; ditto with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; “Balulalow,” which is Peter Warlock’s setting of the traditional carol—a contender in Cockburn’s imaginary creepiest Christmas song contest; and “Cherry Tree Carol,” which actually is the Cherry Tree Carol, in which Joseph snaps at Mary to “let the father of your baby gather cherries for you” and the cherry tree miraculously bows to the Virgin so she can pick its fruit. Sting’s rendition is about as good as it gets.

5. and 6. Various Artists (Projekt Records)—Excelsis: A Dark Noel and Excelsis vol. 2: A Winter’s Song

Album cover (Vol. 1) Album cover, Vol. 2

If you like your Christmas music on the darker side, darkwave label Projekt has (had? Not sure if they’re still in print) a couple albums you will love. I’m including both in one listing, for some reason that’s not entirely clear to me either. While the second album is titled “Volume 2,” the first was not. Presumably, the second album only materialized because the first was a success. I’m going to refer to them as “volume 1” and “volume 2” anyway.

Not all the songs are Christmas songs; Projekt founder Sam Rosenthal’s band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, offers “Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah” (volume 1), and Faith and the Muse bring “A Winter Wassail.”

Highlights, Volume 1: Arcanta’s “Carol of the Bells”—well, anything that guy sings is going to be phenomenal; FuchiKachis Etbu, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”; and the two end tracks, back to back: Autopsia’s “Stille Nacht (g)RAVE remix” and Attrition’s “Silent Night.” Those last two blend together seamlessly, it, um, seems.

Highlights, Volume 2: El Duende’s “Gaudete, Gaudete,” a favorite Christmas song of mine; The Crüxshadows’ “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” sung like they really mean it; Unto Ashes’ “Lord of the Dance,” the chorus of which is to a different tune than you’d be expecting (not “Simple Gifts”); Faith & Disease’s “Silver and Gold,” which shimmers; Thanatos’ “Silent Night”—his rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” might have you expecting a strange twist to this traditional carol, but it’s just his usual stripped-bare style; Lycia’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (I love everything they do, together and individually); and Human Drama’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

Runner up for the highlights: On Volume 1, Eva O contributes a strangely beautiful goth version of O Holy Night, but it’s irreparably marred by her, and her backing vocalists, singing “pinning” instead of “pining” in the first verse. And apparently no one involved—none of the musicians, recordists, producers, etc.—caught it. It’s mind boggling. I still enjoy the track, but wince at that point every time. Or laugh. Sometimes it strikes me as funny.

I’m sorry there aren’t samples on the amazon pages for these, but maybe you can find some on youtube or something. Don’t be put off by the bands’ names…

PS: It appears Projekt has also released a “best of” version of these two CDs, with 4 unique tracks, confusingly titled A Dark Noel. It seems to be in print, though. The others you can probably find used—online being your best bet.

7. Loreena McKennitt—A Winter Garden

Album cover

Now we’re into territory where I’m not really numbering in order of my favorites. To be honest, this one is slipping in my favorites list, but I still love it. Getting the link for amazon, I see she has other Christmas albums, too. I should check those out.

Highlights: There are only 5 songs on the album, so not a lot to choose from. “Coventry Carol,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Good King Wenceslas” are brilliant.

8. Sarah McLachlan—Wintersong

Album cover

It opens with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and then includes Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which isn’t actually a Christmas song (just because it mentions the holiday doesn’t make it a Christmas song) but there are plenty of standards too. I actually like hearing “River,” though, and she sings it well. I just want someone to give her a stole or jacket in that photo! Brrr!

Highlights: “What Child is This? (Greensleeves)” is, contrary to her title, not sung to the tune of Greensleeves, although that tune is buried in there somewhere; “The First Noel/Mary, Mary”—I love her take on The First Noel; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”; and “Silent Night.”

9. Various Artists—The Edge of Christmas

Album cover

With a 1995 release date (according to the back cover, anyway), this compilation has been around a while, and no doubt you know some of the tracks, if not the collection itself.

Highlights: Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas”—I never knew I liked a Queen song, until I checked the back of this CD to see who was singing this first track on the album; David Bowie/Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one you probably know. It’s a very interesting duet; The Cocteau Twins’ “Winter Wonderland,” which you probably hear on the canned music in the mall, but I love it. Really these tracks are enough reason to own this CD.

10. Over the Rhine—The Darkest Night of the Year

Album cover

Another with samples on amazon!

OTR has at least one other Christmas CD out (which I have), but this one is far better. They bring their typical charm and expertise to many standard Christmas classics with and without vocals, with a few original songs as well (including a couple more instrumental pieces). The album art is fun, too. (Their album art is usually more artsy-fartsy, in a good way, and always high quality.) The album is perfect for a quiet evening with a few friends, maybe some good wine…just keep the lighting dim.

Highlights: “Silent Night,” which is set to an original arrangement (which may come as a relief to those sick of that particular hymn) and almost book-ends the album (tracks 2 and 10 out of 13); “Coal Train,” a moody little instrumental piece written by Ric Hordinski; “Mary’s Waltz,” a sad song that really shows off Karen’s vocal abilities; and “Amelia’s Last,” another original piece, another sad song, with a lovely tune. The instrumental work on this album is what makes it so perfect for a dark and quiet evening in December or early January.

11. She & Him—A Very She & Him Christmas

Album cover

Another new addition, released in 2011. She & Him are M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel (you don’t have to be a hipster to like them), who make a fantastic duo for 20th century Christmas standards. You won’t hear anything devotional on this album, but that’s OK. If you want to hear some of the songs I’ve highlighted below sung by someone who’s not a member of the Rat Pack (or Elvis), you will be very pleased—just check out the samples on amazon. M. Ward keeps his guitar playing relatively simple but interesting, and Zooey Deschanel’s voice has just a hint of reverb and the perfect amount of cheer. There’s alsopiano, organ, uke, and percussion, but it’s all used sparsely. The CD insert is designed like a Christmas card, and is in a little envelope glued inside the (cardstock) cover. Along with the appropriately-mid-century record cover design, it’s a nice touch.

Highlights: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”; “Silver Bells” (she plays the ukelele on this track); “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the typical vocal duet; and “Blue Christmas.”

12. Douglas Nelson—Our Hopes and Our Fears

Album cover

I know this guy! He’s and his wife volunteer on the Altar Guild I direct. I can vouch for the fact that he means every word he sings here. You can hear samples on amazon, but can’t buy it there.

Highlights: “Do You Hear What I Hear”; “Away in a Manger,” which isn’t in the least bit twee here (as it so often is); “Chasing the Bethlehem Star,” an original composition from which the album title is taken; “What Child Is This”; and a punk take on “Silent Night”!

13. Fernando Ortega—Christmas Songs

Album cover

This is a gorgeous album. Just gorgeous. I’d never heard of this artist, who’s apparently a Christian musician. The amazon link describes him as a “classically trained…pianistbut also steeped in the Hispanic tradition of his New Mexico homeland.” That’s a good way to communicate the style. Anyway, I found the CD in a bin in a used CD store, and was attracted to the artwork. I’ve discovered a lot of great music that way, actually. But when I saw the track listing, I was sold.

Highlights: “Carol of the Birds”; “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”—the hymn, which isn’t exactly a Christmas song, but it does speak of Christ taking flesh. This is a stunning version which you could enjoy year ’round if you put it on your mp3 player; and “Angels We Have Heard On High,” which has an interesting rhythm.

14. African Christmas: Christmas Favorites with an African Beat

Album cover

It’s not clear to me whether this is an ensemble that got together for this record, or whether it’s a “various artists” compilation. The back cover says, “A collection of holiday favorites featuring some of South Africa’s finest talents—including Bongani Masuku, Mandisa Dlanga, Max Mthambo & Vernon Abdul—in vibrant Zulu-flavored renditions of some of the season’s best-loved Christmas carols.” I like this album, but I prefer it in a mix rather than listening to straight through, and I could do without “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” YMMV.

The above link to amazon has samples to listen to, but when I tried it just now, it was playing the wrong tracks. However, my internet’s acting kinda funny at the moment…

Highlights: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” the opening track; “When a Child is Born”; and “African Christmas Acappella.” [sic] These will run through your head, as will “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

15. Various Artists—Christmas: The World Rejoices (National Geographic Music Series)

Album cover

This is another CD that’s particularly nice in a mix. It features songs from various geographic and national areas (listed thus on the CD): Spain, Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, Norway, Andes, Cuba, France, India, Caribbean, Hawaii, Bulgaria, USA, and England. The songs range from folk tunes to classical, but all are exuberantly performed. The CD also includes a pull-out, folded map showing those regions (for the geographically challenged), which also describes some of the Christmas traditions from those areas and lists holy days from 1 Advent through Candlemas (for the liturgically challenged). It also seems to have been packaged a bit differently and under the slightly different name, Around the World Christmas: The World Rejoices.

Highlights: I’m not going to do highlights for this one. I’d have to list almost every track. There’s just so much variety here!

Now, this is about 1/5th of my Christmas CD collection, which also includes several recordings of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and several other classics, like Johnny Cash, a couple Motown collections, that sort of thing.

What are your favorite Christmas albums? And, seeing what I really like, what do you recommend I try to pick up by next Christmas?

Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.