Sacred Music Sunday: How Far is it to Bethlehem

DSC_001117Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?  I have too many to name just one.  You probably do, too.  For me, Christmas music is the best thing about this season.  This month the music that’s most on my mind is the English carol “How Far is it to Bethlehem.”  I memorized it because I’ll be directing a dozen kids in singing it for sacrament meeting next week.

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Memory, Traditions, Christmas

Granny Jammies

I have been thinking a lot about memory lately, and a lot about traditions. The first is because of a very big book I read out loud twice while I was pregnant, called Memory, History, Forgetting. It is by the French phenomenologist, Paul Ricouer. He starts it by saying that the Greeks had two words for memory. One of them described the simple memories that just come to us without trying. We hear, or see, or smell something that reminds us of something else. The other term described memories that don’t necessarily come simply. Instead, they are the memories we actively search for, that we try to recollect. One of the main ways we do this is through telling stories, and essentially asking dear ones, “Remember when?” They might say “Yes,” and the story builds. It could also remind us that the same story can be recounted differently. For Ricouer, there are ways to recount a story so unfaithfully that they do violence or injustice, but there are also times that it is helpful to “recount otherwise,” to tell a different story. Remembering as story-sharing does something else. It helps answer a question some philosophers have had about memory: is it individual or collective? While one could make a case for either, it often seems to be both. We remember as individuals in a community, with narrative serving as the tie that binds. For us as Latter-day Saints, this also plays out each week when we sit in a room with those we call sisters and brothers and effortfully try to remember Christ. One of the ways we might attempt this, is by re-collecting the stories we have heard or read about Christ, including the ever meaningful, ever hopeful story of his birth.

I have been thinking about traditions, because I often think about traditions in December. I love remembering the way that my family celebrates Christmas and asking others the ways that their families do. I can feel close to my family, even when I’m an ocean or whole large landmass away. I feel part of something big and beautiful and sometimes messy, and I feel the warm feelings that I’ve come to associate as the spirit. (Or home. Or love.) Other’s traditions can feel a tiny bit foreign to me, but they can be wonderful to learn about, too. Sometimes I gain new insights, or new eyes to see those insights–to see inside something I have been looking at for a long time.

This happened to me on Sunday, but not quite with family traditions and rememberings of Christ’s birth. It happened with something slightly broader. My husband and I tried to sing along with friends, as we all tried to sing along with Handel’s “Messiah.” It was the first time for me, and because I am not a strong singer, it was hard. It was also beautiful and powerful, and a fitting tribute-tradition to our Savior’s birth, that I was grateful to experience first hand, in a chapel that I was grateful to sit in first hand, that was so different than the room I generally worship in.

A little while after that, my husband and I went with our sleeping babe to another church’s recreation of the journey to Bethlehem. It involved a 45 minute walk through a wooded path on a dark and frigid night, with a series of guided stops. There were two that gave me pause in the best way. One was to the shepherds watching their flock by night. They spoke amongst themselves, normally, casually, then a light appeared from a place that I wasn’t expecting, and I saw three angels. They spoke gentle, familiar words, and sang via a gentle (if still powerful), familiar song: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” And I started to cry. Not because I love the song, though there might have been a measure of that too. I started to cry because each of those speaking, singing angels was a young woman. Aside from a small number of beautiful paintings, I can’t remember ever seeing angels depicted as female. (All of the named angels in the scriptures are male.) The other soul-stirring moment was at the manger.

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Poetry Sundays: Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

Art by William BouguereauIt is increasingly difficult for me to separate the miracle of Christ’s birth from the sorrow of His death. Maybe age does that to us as we move from the first half to the second half of life. Maybe it’s something about Mary. No doubt, on its deepest level, the message of the atonement offers joy–ultimate, celebratory joy. I believe we will all be freed from the effects of sin and sorrow in the eternities. Yet, in a mortal world of violence and heartbreak, that joy often seems far off.

Some of us struggle to believe in a God who would allow the unspeakable cruelty that exists in this world. I imagine everyone who ever lived will at some point find herself wondering how to hold on to faith when a child is lost to disease, a friend is killed in an act of senseless violence, or even when a good soul is taken home at the end of a long life.

I chose today’s poem because Mary Karr is not shy about telling the truth. She speaks our fear that perhaps, “some less than loving watcher watches us.” She is not afraid to visit the darkest places each of us will visit some day, or to say Christ was not a only God, but also a man when he hung there. I chose this poem because, for me, one of the greatest gifts Christ gave us was the comfort of His last words on the cross: His testimony that a kind and nurturing parent waits to receive us home.

 

Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

To be crucified is first to lie down on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes fix you into place.

Once the cross pops up and the pole stob sinks vertically in an earth hole, perhaps at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt but your own self's burden?

You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you. You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard trinity of nails holding you into place.

Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up to breathe until you suffocate. If God permits this, one wonders if some less than loving watcher

watches us. The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels his soul leak away, then surge. Some wind         sucks him into the light stream

in the rent sky, and he's snatched back, held close.

An earlier version of this poem may be read here.  Mary Karr’s “Sinners Welcome” the volume from which the poem was selected can be found here.

 

 

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Christmas Series: We Are The Sound Of Water

Image by Jenna von Benedikt used with permission

::

Eddies of light twirl in silence when a star passes between us.

Mary does her work. Joseph keeps his word. Jesus comes against odds.

Daybreak moves through dust-laden air, but we’re not there to see the stable,

or feel the straw. We’ve made our way to a time and place where nothing

magic seems to happen anymore. Caught in the current, we are swaddled

in mystery. [But we were before the stars.] We are the sound of water

.

beneath grass on a hillside where shepherds watch their flocks.

We are eddies of redemption flowing around sand and rocks,

down the Kidron, to a basin where Jesus washes feet.

We are clouds and thunder, a prayer in the rent sky.

We are the noise in darkened heavens, each her own lullaby,

while the baby sheds His tears, cries midnight out of this world.

::

Art: Distillation of Matter by Jenna von Benedikt.

*Kidron valley, Kidron brook.

 

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Christmas Series: Young Women Lesson: How Can I Invite Others to Come Unto Christ?

Click for French Translation/Traduction en français

There are no Easter or Christmas-themed YW lessons and I think it’s a shame there aren’t outlines for these Sundays, especially since holidays are times when people who would otherwise not come to church are there to worship. So in preparation for Christmas, I’ve taken one of the December lesson plans and Christmas-ified it so that you can have a Christmas-themed lesson the Sunday before Christmas.

Here is a link to the manual for How Can I Invite Others to Come Unto Christ?

The Christmas story could be considered as a series of invitations from God to humans to come to Christ. I think it would be a good idea to step through the Christmas story and talk about how God is inviting people to come to Christ. As you read or discuss each story, as the class a few questions:

  • Who is God using to testify of Christ? Who is being told of Christ?
  • How is the news of Christ received? What does the person/people do with the news?
  • What traits do each of these people personify? (maybe lists these on the board for the class to think about).
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Christmas Series: The Parable of the Nativity

Guest post by Quimby

 

“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us – That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved.” (D&C Section 76)

nativityMy son was born on Christmas Eve. His birth came the year after our family’s most disastrous Christmas ever – a fairly remarkable statement, considering my extended family includes evangelical Christians, fundamental Muslims, and militant Atheists. My heart was still heavy with the events of 12 months prior when I cradled him in my arms and thanked a loving Heavenly Father for giving me this child, at exactly this moment, to soothe my troubled soul and let me find, once more, the beauty of Christmas. I looked into those slate-blue eyes and saw he already had all of the wisdom of the world, and he was anxious to share it with me. I kissed that soft spot on his head and cooed, “It’s alright, little one; we don’t have to worry about that just yet.”

Of course I couldn’t help but think of another mother, who had also cradled her newborn son one Christmas long ago. I marvelled at her courage and wondered if she did not rail at the injustice of it, that her child – so perfect – would have to carry such a heavy burden for us all.

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