Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Dear John Rutter,

Last night we sat in church as it became Christmas. And our little church choir, which is really quite dedicated and good, sang your Candlelight Carol. It was lovely and I wanted to tell you so.

How do you capture
The wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How can you measure
The love of a mother
Or how can you write down
A baby’s first cry?

Candlelight, angel-light
Firelight and star glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing
The Christ child is born.

Shepherds and wise men
Will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him
Their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him
And sing him to sleep.

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother
That first Christmas Day.

--John Rutter

And as I sat listening in a little church in Loudon, TN, people all over the world like these singers in London, England, singing your carol in Chinese, were celebrating light and life through the birth of Jesus and what we can see because of the light he brought.

"In Him was life, and that life was the light of humanity. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not comprehended it. . . The true light that gives light to everyone has come into the world." John 1.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Dear Jesus,

On the First Sunday of Advent we heard these words read in church;
"With each new candle that is lighted, may the flame of Christ's coming grow brighter and brighter so that this Christmas may see a fresh coming of the Lord of Light into each of our hearts and into the whole world."

The Fourth Sunday of Advent we emerge from our awed and horrible silence and begin the celebration. Twelve days of celebration. On Sunday, or maybe we'll wait until Christmas Eve, we light the Christ Candle. The light of the candle at the front of a church in the morning is barely visible.

T.S. Eliot expresses an idea, though. . . and my dark self hears it before I'm swept into the light of Christmas Day. . . we need darkness to reveal the light. If we are to study, not the things that light exposes but the light itself, it must be dark.

Dark reveals the light.

In Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral he puts these words in the voices of a chorus in the last scene while a Te Deum is being sung in the background.

"We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth, . . . For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light."

(For you lovers of Eliot, I know there are many other passages of this flavor that I could quote, but this is the one I found most quickly. Survey: What is your favorite light/dark quote from Eliot?)

Eliot poses a hard idea. It is hard for us scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury, and Morgantown, and Knoxville, and Chicago, and Cut Off, and Oneonta, whose backs are bent by toil and whose knees are bent under sin, whose hands are to the face under fear. We live in a glow-starved world and we long for the dawn. It is hard to embrace the darkness that you have given us as our gift at Christmas, topped with only a tiny flame of light.

Star of the East, oh Bethlehem star,
Guiding us on to heaven afar
Sorrow and grief and lull'd by the light
Thou hope of each mortal, in death's lonely night

Fearless and tranquil, we look up to Thee
Knowing thou beam'st through eternity
Help us to follow where Thou still dost guide
Pilgrims of earth so wise

Star of the East, thou hope of the soul
While round us here the dark billows roll
Lead us from sin to glory afar
Thou star of the East, thou sweet Bethlehem's star

Star of the East, oh Bethlehem's star,
What tho' the storms of grief gather loud
Faithful and pure thy rays beam to save
And bright o'er the grave

Smile of a Saviour are mirror'd in Thee
Glimpses of Heav'n in thy light we see
Guide us still onward to that blessed shore
After earth toil is o'er

Star of the East, thou hope of the soul
Oh star that leads to God above
Whose rays are peace and joy and love
Watch o'er us still till life hath ceased
Beam on, bright star, sweet Bethlehem star

This is a song that is another of my strong Christmas memories. My mother practiced it once a year, at Christmas, picking out chords and melodies that slightly exceeded her normal-level piano-playing capabilities. And she sang it with whoever would join her in front of the cherry spinet. It is a song that echoes the understandings of Eliot.

"Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common person, Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire; Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted; Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God; Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal, Less than we fear the love of God. Christ, have mercy upon us."
So, this last Sunday, before the celebration begins, I'm reminded by you and Eliot, and Stanislaus de Lubienietski-1666 artist of the comet, and the unknown composer of an old carol of the darkness that reveals the light. Jesus, have mercy.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

A New Carol for an Old City

Christmas 2007
by Jim Burklo

O little town of Bethlehem
A wall thee now divides
Above thy concertina wire
The silent stars go by
Beyond the wall the soldiers
Aim rifles toward the sky
Militias roaming streets inside
Ignore the baby's cry

The settlements and suicides
Injustice, greed and hate,
O little town, you seem to drown
In tears for your hapless fate
But hear the choir of angels
Their great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Dead dogma burdens Bethlehem
With grudges from the past
Muslims, Jews, and Christians, too
Say their claims are the last
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

The baby's voice is calling us
To Bethlehem again,
Where walls divide may grace abide
Forgiveness enter in
The morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises ring, for Love we sing
And peace to all on earth!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Part II--The Third Sunday of Advent--Night Visitors

Dear Gustav Dore, T.S. Eliot, and Gian Carlo Mennotti,

Our imaginations are set in our child's hood by this and that. Christmas, the premier Christian holiday holds much in my mind that is set already by what Dicken's would call Christmas Past. For me that "set" includes a Swedish Lodge, a house and Christmas Eve on 13th St., Rye Bread and Egg Salad. . .

It also includes my grandmother playing an old upright piano and singing carols, including one of my personal favorites, "We Three Kings." I liked that one, maybe because it was more like a ditty than a hymn, transferable in a moment to a ridiculous picture of men with crowns smoking rubber cigars. But it includes more serious settings too.

Gustav, your image is magical, depicting not a lonely troop of three, but a traveling carnival with not three camels, but a cavalry of them. This magic is part of my memory too.

Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Eliot, your Magi are more like the ones I remember from my first experience of opera. I watched Gian Carlo's classic presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors on television. I must have seen it around 1955 on a black and white tv with a screen not bigger than a small computer monitor. The enchantment of the story, the singing, and the three kings set my musical ear for a love of opera. Though the clip pictured below (click here) doesn't include the kings, but only Amahl and his mother, it does demonstrate some of the magic of that performance and what for me is a precious and early Christmas remembrance.

Thanks for all these memories.


Friday, December 14, 2007

The Third Sunday of Advent - Part I - And Wise Men from the East

Dear Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar,

I received my first wise man card of the year yesterday. It is a nice one, fortunately, for it is that one which we must look at every day all year long above our doorframe. I didn't learn that tradition from my family, but from my mother-in-law, stepmother of my husband.

She was an odd duck. She lived by the grudge, holding fast to wrongs, real or imagined, committed against her by family members one-by-one. Were you related to her, Melchior, she might have found the perfume you presented too strong a scent and spitefully chosen, the myrrh a redundant gift (after all she just got plenty of frankincense) and, the cash, Kaspar, not quite enough.

But, lo, the grudge, formed predictably and nursed diligently, would disappear arbitrarily and in preparation for her attentions to be drawn to another hapless member of the family whose actions or non-actions were drawn into her focus.

Mom D was also a hospitable woman, a good friend to certain people, and the woman to whom we attribute the salvation of my husband's father from the clutches of Jack Daniels, so she remains ever sweet in our memories. And we think of her fondly at Christmas, wishing she were here for one last party, but she is gone now and did not go without the histrionics she found or created in life with her consecutive grudges. Her last Christmas was spent in California with her son, and on her return flight, she passed . . . not silently, not calmly, not hushed, but with drama and to do somewhere above Albuquerque.

But that is not exactly what I had started to say in this letter. I meant to talk about my family, for they are the ones for whom your names are most beloved. Each year they wait with bated breath for the gifts they might receive from Kaspar, Melchior, or the tasteful Balthasar.

But, perhaps, I must explain. My family gift tradition was most established by my paternal grandfather. He died at age 93 and apart from that last year (which was not completely pretty), he was a quiet, hard working, non-dramatic person. He made false teeth for a living, which, for those of you who cannot readily conceptualize the process, is a bit of art in porcelein and wax. It is accompanied by a memorable odor that is acrid and, for me, poignant. I say it is an art, because the final false product must adequately mimic the former teeth of the detoothelated patient. There is, and I have some knowledge of this, nothing more hideous than poorly sculpted false teeth.

So this man, my grandfather, sat day by day for 65 or 70 years, excepting when he was serving in Europe during World War I, artfully and quietly creating the future mouths of people across central Pennsylvania. But at Christmas, his quiet art was transformed into the chief entertainment of our Christmas afternoons. For his holiday preparation included writing poems for each of his children, their spouses, the grandchildren, and whoever else might be seated around the great dining room table. His poetry was always creative and funny and personal. It was also always signed with a flair. . .from "Old Nicky Boy," from "Old Jelly Belly," etc.

From this heritage I hail and so, when my children became old enough to read gift tags, I wished to somehow mimic the sense of Christmas art that Pap R had so generously demonstrated. I dispensed with the poems, but always chose some Christmas character from whom the gift was given. To wit, my children each year wait for the best gifts, the very special ones, chosen with love and particularity, which come from Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

Thanks for always being part of our Christmas.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Second Sunday of Advent

Dear King Wenceslaus,

When is it that a hush falls over the crowd?
In anticipation?

In awe and respect?

In loving recognition that silence is better than noise?

In horror?

Christian liturgy that tells us that in advent it is a time for quiet and waiting. We light candles one by one and the flickering glow should speak for us. We are in joyful anticipation of the Coming. O Come, O Come, Emanuel. And we, in our most childish of spirits, anticipate Christmas and all it's wondrous surprises and kindnesses which spring from the spirit you so beautifully demonstrated in your actions there in Bohemia in the early 900's on the feast of Stephen.

And the incarnation is awe inspiring. Uneducated shepherds, watching their flocks by night knew that much. But does it take a choir of the heavenly host to make us mum, or does the idea alone, that God, the ultimate instigator of existing, would assume human bodily form and could be found on earth in the most primitive of neonatal units, a manger. That should shut us up.

And does the love shown forth in the coming of the progeny of God, who so loved this world full of pitiful creatures that he extended a channel by which our offerings of belief might become eternal, bring us to rightful silence? Does it take the very need for words away? I think so.

Horror, yes, and there is horror hidden in the quiet of advent and horror is part and parcel of all that Christianity is. The horror is at our own inadequacy, sometimes called sin. But, we call it horrible and it leaves us dumbstruck whenever we see it under our own skins. This is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that we wait in quiet for Christmas. This is when the ice of our own goodnesses breaks under the weight of our own lack of pity. We are left shivering in icy horror hoping to find someone whose warm footprints can lead us home.

I think it is horror more than anthing that drives us back to the silent night, that holy night when shepherds and angels and tongue-tied folk like you and me shshed ourselves so the little Lord Jesus could sleep.

May Your Days of Quiet be Blessed,


Monday, December 03, 2007

First Sunday of Advent

Dear Gustave Dore,

It is Advent and I am back to browsing through your delicious book of woodcuts, The Dore Bible Illustrations. Today I was quite taken by the one entitled The Annunciation. The part I liked best was the face of Mary. The angel had just said, "Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favour with God," but her eyes and body language are not reacting to that but to the enormous shimmering astro-being hovering above. Favour, she is saying to herself, does not come in this flavor.

Surely, this must be a mistake.

Annunciation. What an announcement!

Lately, my husband and I have been talking about cadavers. Morbid, yes, but I'm considering a surgery on my knee that may demand the cooperation of one, so we are looking into the subject. I'm looking because as one medical source says, the current situation is "not always sufficient, and may lead to recurrent episodes of instability--a sensation that the knee may 'give out.'" So to rectify this, one might 'harvest' the patellar tendon of a cadaver, or something, and put it into the knee in question. That would be my left knee. Conversations have arisen in our daily lives about such applications of the harvested parts of cadavers. One, with a young school secretary informed us that "Sometim's they replace those with the whole bones of a conniver!" Well, that was enough for me. Bad enough to get the tissue of a cadaver, but a conniving cadaver is too much.

Words do get mixed up. And so does the word annunciation. Tracking this one down I got bounced to another work of art under the description the Enunciation of Mary by El Greco. I guess that means that El Greco's angel took more time describing exactly how this favor thing might play out. Mary seems a bit more receptive to the idea here, her arms open and eyes less skeptical.

Not to blame Gabriel though, either way, just announced or fully enunciated, the news carried a double edge and I don't doubt that Mary took some time getting used to the idea.