Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Magnificat 2: A Son Is Given

2000 years remote in time we have convinced ourselves that the Messiah the world got was the Messiah the world--at least the Israelite world--wanted and expected. And we have convinced ourselves that what everyone wanted and expected was somehow the opening night performance of all that we have associated with lighted manger scenes and children's Christmas pageants with children in crooked cherub wings, 10-year-old boys with woolen beards, a plastic doll wrapped in a towel and kids in ill-fitting purple robes and gold spray-painted cardboard crowns.

It all went down so smoothly. Everyone expected this and knew all about it. They googled all the pertinent prophecies, got the streaming video online and texted all their friends who instantly pounced on all the packages under their trees exclaiming, "It's happened! Now let's get to the stuff!"
Tradition may not be very accurate. It may not serve us well. It may not even serve us at all. It may only serve to keep us in the dark rather than lift us into the light.
I never really confronted anything prophetic in the worship liturgies of decades of Christmas worship and children's programs at my Lutheran elementary school in Nebraska. Too much about a baby. Too little about the man and eternity. He actually did grow up. And I've never experienced a more thorough telling of the story since then.
Until years had gone by.
Until I picked up a 12" vinly LP of Gregorian Chant some years back. I was intrigued. It was sung by the choir of the Hofburg Chapel in Vienna, Austria. Since I've lived there, I wanted to know more. I bought the album. It contained liturgical compositions for Advent and Christmas, some of the oldest church music we have. It contained no instrumental music, only the heavenly, unitary music of male voices that eschews polyphony. I now own a 2-disc set on CD to include the season of Epiphany as well.
We can know all the "events" of the Christmas story written in our gospels and really be almost completely in the dark about what it all means, then or now. But that original 12-inch LP has the Latin lyrics, the English translations and brief commentary about each.
Here's what the record has to say about the Introitus for the Third Christmas Mass, based on a familiar verse Isaiah 9:6. Sadly, this text has been so dominated by Handel's "Messiah" and videos of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that it's difficult to recover anything more authentic. So before you read the quote below, read Isaiah 9:6 in its immediate context of vv. 1-7. Then go on:

Christmas, in the Liturgy and the Chant, is not a charming children's festival, in 6/8 time and with pastoral songs. The splendour of the Lord's festival, which primarily concerns God the Father who sent his Son, flows from the text and the songs. Only our Introitus attains mellower tones too. In bright, joyous lively melodies it sings of the Child who was born to us and ponders on the greatness of His Dominion of the World, but in his spirit it already sees the Cross and celebrates, in majestic tones, the Child as Executor of the Heavenly plan of Redemption.
Not a charming children's festival. . . Have you ever thought about the theological statements made by the three gifts of the Magi?
Gold. The noblest of metals and the gift you would present to one in authority, one who has ultimate responsibility.
Frankincense. Something burned with the offering of a sacrifice.
Myrrh. A fragrant substance used in embalming and preparing a body for burial.
The Magi did not present these gifts because they were 60% off at Macy's or because they had gift cards to the MessiahMart Superstore.
They were foretelling what Messiah means. Have you ever thought what it means to be more than head of the government? What it means to have the authority for all things on your shoulders?
Read Colossians 1:15-20. How many times does the term "all things" occur? Does it mean less than all things? If it means all things, really, what does that mean?
If you celebrate Christmas as the coming of a Savior and the only thing you celebrate is the forgiveness of sins, you are correct but woefully short. You have picked up the penny but left the rest of the vast treasure on the table.
Jesus proclaimed the presence, nearness and fulfillment of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is about all things, ALL THINGS, not a silent night.
Have you ever heard a grown up enough presentation of the Christmas story that it touched all things? If not, we might look back in time to the majesty of Gregorian chant. Or farther still.
Since most churches can't or won't do Gregorian chant, here's something we could do: the ancient hymn "Of The Father's Love Begotten". It's about the oldest piece of Christmas music we have. It tells the story like a creed, far better than nearly all modern traditions. The text goes back to Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius who lived from 348-413. The common tune is a plainsong from the 13th century. Here's the first verse:
Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.
All things! Evermore and evermore. Amen.

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