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The Words of the Season

Words of the Season

    Thanks to the suggestion of George Simmons our house has been filled with Christmas music, classical variety, sun-up to grandpa down these past several days.  The music, everything from Wesley to Bach-like Torme, is "streamed" through WQXR online.  That station no longer belongs to The New York Times; its call letters and most of its staff have been co-opted by WNYC public radio.

    A line from one of the old war-horse anthems of the season, "O Holy Night," has lodged in my brain and found me mulling it over as a I lay me down to sleep.  The line, in the first verse, celebrating Christ's birth, credits Christmas's consequences, that "the soul felt its worth."  I like, I really like, that slant on the Incarnation, that God's full assumption of our flesh ennobles it, gives it to understand its everlasting value.

    Of course I had to know more about the worthy soul who penned those words.  The music is Adolphe Adam's, a Frenchman commissioned in 1847 to set to music a poem by Placide Cappeau, "Minuit, chretiens" (Midnight, Christians).  The words were then translated/transposed into the English rendering with which we are familiar, by John Sullivan Dwight.  Dwight was a Unitarian minister who devoted his life, not to parish ministry, to classical music criticism in Boston.  His heritage would seem to qualify him for writing lyrics for the Nativity: his father was Timothy Dwight, hymnist of "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord," president of Yale, and founder of Andover Seminary; and his great-grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the Northampton divine during the Great Awakening of the 18th Century, best known and unfairly caricatured for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

    Which brings me back to that phrase that captivated me while listening to streaming noels on WQXR, how with Jesus Christ born "the soul felt its worth." 

    Go with me with that thought in two different directions.  First to the personal psychology of most of us, who spend the long stretches of our lives combating feelings of inferiority.  Yes, there are those who harbor illusions of their own grandeur, but they are rare birds more to be pitied than to be envied for their plumage.  Long, long ago a psychology professor at college corrected my personal evaluation of a student in my charge, that he suffered from feelings of superiority.  "No such thing," Professor Rouse declared.  He was and is, of course, correct. Sports champions raising their forefinger in triumph usually spend the next season or the one after that wondering where their excellence went.  King of the mountain is a sometime reign. Most of the time we wander around in John Bunyan's "slough of despond."  That is, this poor soul of ours needs all the friends and boosters it can get. Bethlehem, where Christians posit the birth of God, among us as one of us, is heaven's seal of approval upon our humanity.  Who are we to despair of our ourselves if God doesn't? 

    The worth of the soul is carved into the floor of the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, at the memorial to Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The line, which I am fond of quoting, especially on Easter morning, reads in fuller text than at the Abbey:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond. 

   The other and second direction to which I invite you, while entertaining the Christmas thought of feeling our worth, goes to the larger stage of the contemporary world. Which is probably the same as the world that came before it; the only difference being that it is the contemporary one we are experiencing and, therefore, comes at us intensely.  At us, yes, full throttle, never explaining itself, its intent, or so much as suggesting that it has one (intent, that is).  It seems all cacophony. Events, accidental and political, not of our making sweep us up and push us along. We are embraced by chaos.  So it often seems, especially when things go wrong.

    Into this world Jesus is born.  He arrives bearing an implicit message.  That within the cacophony, if you listen faithfully and hopefully, there sounds a love song as ancient as the creation (where heaven declares about us, "It is very good!") and as recent as the unspoken words with a dear one's kiss ("God is love"). That the chaos, seen in the refracted light of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, yields meaning that is bracing, certain, and finally exalting of this whole human enterprise. Our Emmanuel is born: God with us, for us, through us.  The gates of hell shall not prevail.

    And the soul feels its worth.             



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