Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pericope of the Week: A Christmas Carol

One of the reference works that I frequently consult is The Oxford Companion to the Year: An Exploration of Calendar Customs and Time-Reckoning, ed. Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). It is a treasure-house of information about marking time and keeping seasons. Daily reading from this large book--along with a reading or two from that other, larger, more important book--is yet another way one can "number one's days" so as "to gain a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90).

The entry for December 25 reminds the reader that this date was observed in ancient Rome as marking the winter solstice and thus was regarded as the day to remember "the birthday of the Sun." Many Romans worshipped the sun as the true godhead, "of which other gods were mere facets, and the authentic guarantor of the Empire." In the third century the emperor Aurelian officially ruled that the date was forever after to be celebrated as "the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun."

Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence
In the first centuries of what would become the western catholic church, Christians did not celebrate Christmas as a festival on its own. Rather, they acknowledged the birth of Jesus in connection with his baptism, which was celebrated on January 6. Thus, this celebration, "the Epiphany of the Lord," is actually about three centuries older than the first celebration of Christmas. Only after Christian worship was legalized by Constantine the Great in the year 313 did Christians begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. What had been a date that focused on the birthday of "the unconquerable Sun" now was focused on the birthday of "the unconquerable Son." Christians who had previously despised the divine birthdays in the pagan Roman world now transformed the solar feast into the Feast of Christ's Nativity, the birth of "the Sun of Righteousness" (Mal. 4:2). Gradually the new Christian feast spread throughout the Western church, but not so in the east. (Arminian Christians still do not celebrate Christmas.) After the Reformation, many Protestant groups also refrained from observing the festival, ostensibly because it lacked Scriptural support. (Lutherans are not among these. We say, "Why not celebrate the birth of Jesus?")

After a quotation from Dickens' A Christmas Carol ("'…If I could work my will,' said Scrooge indignantly, 'every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!'"), The Oxford Companion presents many poems and tidbits about the modern, secular "holiday" that has replaced the Christian feast, which was itself a transformation of a pagan celebration. There are recipes and customs and nostalgic observations about this and that "yule-tide" tradition. Still, creeping into the secular litany is the occasional hint of the earlier Christian moorings of the date. Near the end of the entry is this marvelous English Christmas carol from the fifteenth century. It will serve as the pericope for this first week of Christmas. (Hint: read it aloud, slowly.)

Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu; Alleluya.

For in this rose conteynyed was
Heuen and erthe in lytyl space, Res miranda [a wondrous thing]

Be that rose we may weel see
that he is God in personys thre, Pari forma [with the same form]

The aungelys sungyn the sheperdes to:
Gloria in excelcis Deo. Gaudeamus [Glory to God in the highest. Let us rejoice]

Leue we al this worldly merthe,
And folwe we this joyful berthe; Transeamus [Let us cross over]

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