“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.

“Herod then with fear was filled, ‘A PRINCE?. . . ‘“ or, attention will be paid

Do you ever wish you’d paid attention in school?

Not the dreaded “rhetorical question! I don’t care if everyone who’s ever written about writing arguments says it’s a good beginning for an essay. It’s disingenuous. If you know the answer, say it, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s a trap. Reminiscent of a lover saying, “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you.”

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I wish I’d paid attention in many places other than school.

That’s how you begin an essay. Repeat strategic ideas in strategic places. Yes. Repeating important words helps hold an argument together—and keeps your audience’s attention. It’s a device of good preachers.

If you want someone to pay attention to what you’re saying, repeat nouns and verbs. See? I’m giving you a lecture on writing an argument, and you didn’t even realize it because I have seduced you into paying attention.

In the 1990s, The New Interpreter’s Bible was published. My dad was in his 80s, but, being forever curious, he subscribed—twelve volumes delivered over a year. What would a retired Baptist preacher in his 80s want with this set of books? He wanted to keep up with scholarship in case he had to preach. He was a man who paid attention to what was going on around him.

I pay attention sometimes. When Dad and Mom were moving to a new much smaller assisted living apartment and he was getting rid of his books, I paid attention and retrieved the NIB so they are on my bookshelf, and—believe it or not—I use them quite a bit. Usually to find critical information about some fine point of Christian or Biblical history I want to know about.

Like the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Martyrs) on the calendar of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal Churches. Pay attention! You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you had really been paying attention, you would have guessed it from my title.

All Christians know the story. The Wise Persons from the east show up in Bethlehem looking for the king they know has been born (from looking at the stars—Christian history IS based on astrology, after all). So they arrive at the king’s palace (Herod) and ask where the new king is. Herod says he doesn’t know, but he’d like to pay him homage, so when the Wise Persons find the king, please come back and tell him. An angel tells the Wise Persons just to go on home—and tells Joseph to get Mary and the child off to Egypt because Herod is going to slaughter the baby boys in Bethlehem to get everyone’s attention to remember he’s the puppet king set up by Rome.

This story exists only in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s in none of the secular histories of Herod’s reign. However, it’s not an unlikely event because Herod did lots of similar things, killing many of his own people and the like to get the attention of the ones who were left. But, of course, Matthew had a theological agenda—to show how the life of Jesus paralleled the history of Israel, so he’s the Messiah. The prophet Jeremiah said, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children . . .” Rachel is one of the wives of Jacob, helping to establish the Biblical ideal of marriage in which a man has two wives (sisters) and they each give him a concubine to bear children for him that they will raise as their own. You know, monogamy.

Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, but you can’t get there from the East, where the Wise Persons came from, because the Apartheid Wall and the IDF won’t let you through.

I hope you’re paying attention to all of these layers and layers of meaning, politics, and theology because it turns out the Slaughter of the Innocents (today, December 28, the Fourth Day of Christmas) is pretty important if you’re following and believing the story of the Incarnation.

In Baptist Sunday School decades ago, we learned about Herod killing all the little boys. We had to because it’s in the Bible. We didn’t say the prayer for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, however.

We remember this day, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

I remember the story most clearly because in college we sang the little carol, “Unto us a Boy Is Born.” And J. William Jones had us emphasize the incredulous question of Herod, “. . . ‘a PRINCE?’ he said, ‘in Jewry.’” For years I had a recording in which, if you paid attention, you could hear us shouting that word. It’s quite effective. (Here all I can do is detach and try to accent the note.)

A funny thing, paying attention and memory. Something about this little carol lives in a special place in my (conscious and) unconscious mind. I don’t think about it often, and when I do, I don’t “believe” any of the story. But it gets my attention and helps me think about what I do believe, what is real, what is eternal. Those realities that have more levels of meaning than I can possibly sort out.

Oh, in case you missed it, this essay is about paying attention.

(See “notes” below video)

I have removed the shepherds from the nativity scene and left the Wise Men. Also, you may notice three wooden ornaments in the little tree. They were carved by the Salsa family of Bethlehem — the carving industry is nearly ended because of the Apartheid Wall around Bethlehem.

“Old Jewry” is a street in the financial district of London (still). “Jewry” is a Renaissance word for “ghetto,” so it is logical that the carol would use the word.

Unto us a boy is born,
King of all creation:
Came He to world forlorn,
Lord of every na – – -tion.

Cradled in a stall was He
Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
He all men surpass – – – es.

Herod then with fear was filled:
“A PRINCE,” he said, “in Jewry!”
All the little boys he killed
At Bethl’em in his fu – – – ry.

Now may Mary’s son, who came
Long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
To the joys a – – -bove us.

—The words and original melody are in a manuscript of the 15th century There are many variants in other manuscripts. The melody in this form is from Piae Cantiones of 1582. The words are from the Lateinishe Hymen of the same year. The harmony is by Martin Shaw for the Oxford Book of Carols.