I Got a Pope Benedict Bobble Head For Christmas

See?

2014-12-29 10.20.42

He sits by my laptop and nods his approval or disapproval at things I write. Mostly disapproval.

He does not, however, bobble as well as my daughter’s Agent Colson bobble.

We did pretty well this year. My book haul was great, as always:

2014-12-25 09.22.22

I plan to review the Russ Manning Tarzan because it’s just such a gas. I collect the Scrooge McDuck and Mickey Mouse books, and I can recommend them with ease.

My wife also got me this childhood favorite:

2014-12-25 19.02.52

This was one of those shows that took up permanent residence in my brain.

Anyway, I’m not here to brag or anything. I just wanted to check in and share some Christmas goodies and write a post to let you know I won’t be writing any posts. It’s vacation week at Casa McDuck, partly because I want a vacation, and partly because no one reads blogs this week anyway. In fact, no matter what you might think, you’re not even reading this post right now.

The How I Pray series returns next Monday with Jen Fitz.

Enjoy your continuing Christmas season, and God bless you all!

The Days of Our Glory

Darkness is a fearsome thing: concealing, obscuring, bearing with it an almost tangible sense of oppression. The promise of the savior in Isaiah is nothing less than the promise to banish the darkness: the people who walked in darkness shall see a great light.

What does the Psalmist tell us?

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for dawn,
more than those who watch for dawn. (Ps 130)

With dawn comes the light, and the end of the darkness, and that is why we wait and watch.

These days of Advent lead us, step by step, into that light, because to come into all at once is to be blinded by its brilliance. We are always told that Easter is the most important day on the calendar, because it is the promise of resurrection. Easter is the cause of our hope.

But Christmas is the cause of our glory. The incarnation is such a remarkable thing that it’s impossible grasp all at once. It is strong medicine for the fall of man, doing nothing less than divinizing flesh and enfleshing divinity.

God makes himself known in the most visible and powerful way possible. The theophanies of the Old Testament were mere foreshadowings of the incarnation. In these instances, God worked through creatures to make himself and his mighty presence known to man.

To make Himself fully known, however, he had to be visible and tangible. He had to be human. Then He could teach us. He could be our model. He could show forth his strength, goodness, power, and mercy for all humanity to imitate. And, ultimately, He could pay our debt.

He could not have done this in some other form or even through some creature, for He had to be both fully human and fully divine: the divinity (uncreated, eternal, and unchanging) showing forth the ideal, and the humanity (created, mortal, and mutable) showing what simple flesh could achieve.

By taking on flesh in the womb of Mary, He glorifies us all. We may look to Easter for our Hope, and it is right and proper to do so. But we look to Christmas for our Glory, because it is when God came among us and made our flesh–flesh that was the cause of so much distress and difficulty since man was first set down in Paradise–the very channel of our salvation.

Dickens on Hope and Despair: “The Chimes”

Charles Dickens’ deep Christian faith rings in all of his works, and especially so in his Christmas books. After the success of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens published similar titles in the same format: novellas with supernatural elements and a clear Christian message. All of them were successes in their day, but none had the afterlife of “A Christmas Carol,” and few remember “The Chimes,” “Cricket on the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life” (the worst of the lot and, not incidentally, the only one without a supernatural element), and “The Haunted Man.” There are also a few oddball Christmas items to be found in the margins of his career, such as the fable “The Seven Poor Travellers,” which is bracketed by a nonfiction account of a Christmas celebration among the poor.

I try to make a habit of reading (or listening to audiobook versions of ) some or all of the Dickens Christmas’ tales each year during the season. You need to take them as they are: occasionally mawkish (and what Dickens isn’t?), melodramatic, and filled with certain stylistic tics. You also need to remember that these are sermons in story form.

Scrooge is given a lesson in caritas. Certainly, his sin is greed, but it steams from a more fundamental cause: he has lost a sense of loving charity, which is the root of all Christian virtues. Scrooge’s conversion is not from a greedy man to a generous man. It is the story of a man who killed the love in his heart in pursuit of the world, and who gets that love back.

“The Chimes” follows the exact same format. Instead of 4 “staves,” we get 4 “chimes,” each marking the quarter hour. Instead of a rich greedy man who is shown where his life as gone wrong, we get a poor man shown where the world will go wrong because of his despair. In place of a ghost and 3 spirits, we have the goblins of the church bells, their fairy attendants, and a haunting little girl.

But “The Chimes” has a much harder edge to it. Trotty Veck, the central character, is a message-runner living in grinding poverty with his perfect daughter (Dickens always idealized women), who is eager to marry a young man despite their poor circumstances. Trotty’s sin is despair, which is indeed a mortal sin. The chimes–the church bells–stand for time, and symbolize the voice of God urging people to make the best of their days and have hope for the future. Striking every quarter hour, they remind the faithful of God, and the way that time passes according to His will. When Trotty hears the chimes, he hears hope and love.

But then Trotty and his daughter encounter three rich men who make them feel as if they have no right to even exist. They sink into despair, and believe in their heart that these men are right: the poor are “born bad.” Trotty starts to hear this accusation in the sound of the chimes, it seems as though Dickens is saying this is the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). Trotty is attributing evil things to the work of the Holy Spirit. Only in this context does the bill of indictment leveled against Trotty by the bell gobin make sense:

‘Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,’ said the Goblin of the Bell, ‘a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see—a cry that only serves the present time, by showing men how much it needs their help when any ears can listen to regrets for such a past—who does this, does a wrong. And you have done that wrong, to us, the Chimes.’

‘Who hears in us, the Chimes, one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng; who hears us make response to any creed that gauges human passions and affections, as it gauges the amount of miserable food on which humanity may pine and wither; does us wrong. That wrong you have done us!’ said the Bell.

It is, however, the rich and powerful who are left for the last and worst condemnation:

‘Lastly, and most of all,’ pursued the Bell. ‘Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!’

That “lost soil” is the soil of Eden, and the earth made to fashion man in image and likeness of God, which we cling to in our fall. It is the image of God in man. Trotty has believed the evil accusations leveled against him by the rich and powerful, and in doing so has joined them in their sin. It is the task of the goblins to show him the true path of despair, in order to set him back on the path of hope.

The paternalistic do-gooder is also savaged, in the person of Sir Joseph:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

After Trotty gives in to misery and self-loathing, Dickens delivers a powerful series of vignettes showing the horrible fall from grace of Meg and all those Trotty knows and love. Remember the moment  in “A Christmas Carol,” when the Ghost of Christmas Present draws back his robes to reveal two feral children: Ignorance and Want? That moment has disturbed me since I first saw it in the Alaister Sim version as a kid.

Well, Trotty’s lesson takes that moment and stretches it to chapter length, grinding Trotty’s face in scene and after scene of wretched squalor and misery. If you give yourself over to it and put aside the modernist tendency to sneer at Victorian melodrama, it’s potent stuff, almost intolerable in the way it careens towards a grim but inevitable conclusion. Since everyone knows “A Christmas Carol,” you know what’s coming in the denouement, but it doesn’t make these visions any less powerful.

The Scrooges of this story don’t get their turnabout. It’s not about them. It’s about the grinding lot of the poor (particularly grinding in the time when Dickens was writing), our need to ease their lot, and the need of the poor to maintain hope in God in the face of the most wretched disappointments.

The “decent” men of “The Chimes” mouth various pieties, but their hearts are far from God. They don’t pause a moment to hear his voice in simple tolling of a church bell, or look for his image in the face of the poor. Because, much as we may not like it sometimes, that’s where Jesus told us to look for it. Unless we give ourselves over the gospel message and allow us to see Christ in the most wretched, or even unlikable, people of all, then we’re doing it wrong. It should be no surprise that the poor and suffering tend to have a stronger faith than the comfortable. God–hated by his own, torn on the cross–has always been near to the broken. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”

* * *

You can read the story here, find a nice annotated collection of all the Christmas stories here, get the complete Dickens for Kindle here, or listen to Ruth Golden’s brilliant audio version here. I recommend the audio version. She does an incredible job, it’s free, and Dickens wrote these stories to be read aloud.

Coventry Carol: A Bit of History

Pageant wagon, with trade symbol

One of the things ultimately killed off in the English Reformation were the regional “mystery plays”: local pageant cycles in which the common folk performed dramatized Biblical stories. (The York cycle is the most famous.) Many of the surviving texts derive from the flowering of Middle English in the wake of Chaucer and Langland, and are of a very high literary quality.

The performances were mounted by various guilds and professions, so the coopers would dramatize the Fall of Man, the shipwrights the building of the ark, the tile-thatchers the Nativity, the butchers the Crucifixion (yes, really), and so on. The plays were done on “pageant wagons”: essentially horse-drawn sets not unlike parade floats. It was a way for a largely illiterate population to learn their Bible stories, but it smacked too much of popery so the authorities forcibly repressed the practice. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times.

One cycle of plays was the cycle for Coventry, and the play put on by the shearmen and tailors was the slaughter of the innocents. When Hamlet refers to an actor who “out-Herods Herod,” he’s talking about the over-emoting brought to the villainous role of Herod by amateur actors in these pageants.

After the slaughter of the innocents in the play, the women mourn for their lost children by singing them a final lullaby, and this is the origin of “Coventry Carol.” This performance is from the Mediaeval Baebes, and is the most delicate and haunting I’ve heard.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Snapdragon: A Festive Children’s Game Played With Flaming Food

Snapdragon 1887Thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon.
Wm. Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost

Since we’re after Halloween but not yet up to Christmas, here’s a weird little bit of folklore and gaming that’s relevant to both.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice is introduced to various fanciful insects by a gnat the size of a chicken. To an American child, these creatures appeared to be little more than whimsical creations, but one insect had special connotations for the British:

`Look on the branch above your head,’ said the Gnat, `and there you’ll find a snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.’

“And what does it live on?’

`Frumenty and mince pie,’ the Gnat replied; `and it makes is nest in a Christmas box.’

I’d never really paused over this reference to a “snapdragon fly”, but an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party includes an alarming scene of kids (shown briefly in this trailer) playing a party game during a Halloween celebration, and it got me to thinking about the connection. In the show, children reach into a flaming bowl, grab something, and pop it in their mouths while chanting “snip snap dragon.” It’s actually an old game (no one knows just how old) called snapdragon or flapdragon.

Here’s how Martin Gardner describes it in The Annotated Alice:

Snapdragon (or flapdragon) is the name of a pastime that delighted Victorian children during the Christmas season. A shallow bowl was filled with brandy, raisins were tossed in, and the brandy set on fire. Players try to snatch the raisins from the flickering blue flames and pop them, still blazing, into their mouths. The burning raisins also were called snapdragons.

The chant that accompanies the game goes like this:

Here he comes with flaming bowl / Don’t he mean to take his toll!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much / Be not greedy in your clutch!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
With his blue and lapping tongue / Many of you will be stung!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
For he snaps at all that comes / Snatching at his feast of plums!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
But Old Christmas makes him come / Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Don’t ‘ee fear him but be bold / Out he goes his flames are cold!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Snapdragon is normally a Christmas tradition, although it’s played at Halloween as well. There’s no clear indication of the game’s origins, but some sources trace it to the ancient Greeks or Druids, which seems rather fanciful. It pops up several times in the works of Shakespeare, where he uses “flapdragon” and “snapdragon” interchangeably to indicate something that’s easy to swallow. Dryden calls it a “mock fire that never burns” in The Duke of Guise.

You know: like flaming fruit!

That pushes the game back to the 16th century at least.

Like so many indoor amusements, it became traditional during the Victorian era, because nothing says “fun for kids” like sticking your hand in a burning bowl of liquor. Dickens mentions it in Pickwick Papers and Trollope in Orley Farm.

I’m annoyed that I even have to add this, but if you try this game at home, please remember that fire is hot and if you’re injured it’s totally your own fault, not mine.

Authentic Joy Is Here

I’m on break until after New Year’s, but I wanted to thank you all for another year of patronage. Thanks for spending some of your valuable time with me, and for all those who donated, used my Amazon links, or shared posts on Facebook and Twitter.

This evening, as I listened to the reading from Isaiah in the vigil mass in a Church packed to the rafters and shining with light and beauty and love, I felt again that peace I’ve felt only since returning to the Church. Certainly, I felt happiness in the years I was away: pleasure, gratification, satisfaction. But is was pretty weak tea compared to the authentic joy that comes only from God, brought to us as light drawn down from heaven through the Incarnation.

Authentic joy is possible only in the embrace of God. All else is an imitation. As we come to the end of our season of waiting and preparation, we remember again the day that joy came into the world.

May the peace Christ be with you and your family, your friends and loved ones. Through you, may the light of Christ shine in the dark places and bring authentic joy into a world in need. God bless you and protect you.

 

Kindling the Flame Of Advent

Each year, I try make a break with Ordinary Time, set up any new patterns of devotion I intend to observe, break out the Advent wreath, and get on with the work of active waiting in contemplation.

This year, it didn’t happen. Recovering and weary from pneumonia, distracted by health problems all around me, and completing the final week of a two and half year long odyssey to earn an advanced degree in theology, I was unable to focus. I blessed and lit the advent wreath only at my daughter’s prompting, since I’d forgotten and my wife was away on business. I dutifully loaded the 2013 Magnificat Advent app on my iPad, but only poked at it grudgingly. I even fell off on my regular prayer observations.

Rather than going forward into a new season of devotion, I actually was backsliding.

That’s never a good way to begin, but it’s a human enough response, and rather than getting annoyed or feeling ashamed, I brought it with me to a basic set of devotions and decided to build from there. I simplified. I found a focus in the simple, core image of Advent. It’s this:

 

I know: it’s obvious: so obvious we tend to overlook it. Advent is about light coming into a dark world. It’s a light the stretches to the very ends of the universe, yet concentrates itself into a single flickering candle flame lit by a child on a tabletop advent wreath.

It’s about this:

From the Magnificat Advent Companion 2013

Light. I spent so much of my life in darkness, and still it tries to draw me back. The darkness is always there, either roaming the world or in the depths of the mind, trying to consume us. We are people of a promise, however. We have seen a great light, and that light is a light for all the nations.

Catholics light candles for a reason. They are a reminder that the flame of the Holy Spirit illuminates every dark place. This light came into the world with Christ, and in Advent we remember its coming. That’s why the season is preceded by readings from the book of Maccabees that are at the heart of the Hanukkah celebration. We remember the light that saves: a miraculous light that shines not only for 8 days, but eternity.

If, like me, you’re having trouble finding Advent, bring it right down to the basics. Light a candle. Focus on the flame. Remember that it is a sign of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ coming into the world. Bring in into your heart. Let it find the dark places there and cast out the shadows.

Start with a simple flame, and let the Spirit kindle it into a mighty blaze.

Adelaide Procter: The Church in 1849 … And Now

Anti-Emancipation cartoon, 1829

I intended just to share one of Adelaide Procter’s Christmas poems, but “The Church in 1849” seemed too relevant to skip. We all think we’re sailing through unique trials that will shake the church, but every generation faces such trials. We will have our difficulties, particularly since a majority of our coreligionists voted for a man actively hostile to our beliefs, but try to keep it in perspective, and remember this: the Catholic Emancipation Act passed in Procter’s lifetime, 20 years before she wrote these lines.

Here is Procter writing about the state of her church in 1849. Every line could be written today.

THE CHURCH IN 1849

by Adelaide Procter

OH, mighty Mother, hearken! for thy foes
Gather around thee, and exulting cry
That thine old strength is gone and thou must die,
Pointing with fierce rejoicing to thy woes.
And is it so? The raging whirlwind blows
No stronger now than it has done of yore:
Rebellion, strife, and sin have been before;
The same companions whom thy Master chose.
We too rejoice: we know thy might is more
When to the world thy glory seemeth dim;
Nor can Hell’s gates prevail to conquer Thee,
Who hearest over all the voice of Him
Who chose thy first and greatest Prince should be
A fisher on the Lake of Galilee.

“Coventry Carol”: A Bit of History

From France to England, and a beloved Christmas song that takes on added poignancy this year.

One of the things ultimately killed off in the English Reformation were the regional “mystery plays”: local pageant cycles in which the common folk performed dramatized Biblical stories. (The York cycle is the most famous.) Many of the surviving texts derive from the flowering of Middle English in the wake of Chaucer and Langland, and are of a very high literary quality.

The performances were mounted by various guilds and professions, so the coopers would dramatize the Fall of Man, the shipwrights the building of the ark, the tile-thatchers the Nativity, the butchers the Crucifixion (yes, really), and so on. The plays were done on “pageant wagons”: essentially horse-drawn sets not unlike parade floats. It was a way for a largely illiterate population to learn their Bible stories, but it smacked too much of popery so the authorities forcibly repressed the practice. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times.

Pageant wagon (note the trade symbol)

One cycle of plays was the cycle for Coventry, and the play put on by the shearmen and tailors was the slaughter of the innocents. When Hamlet refers to an actor who “out-Herods Herod,” he’s talking about the over-emoting brought to the villainous role of Herod by amateur actors in these pageants.

After the slaughter of the innocents in the play, the women mourn for their lost children by singing them a final lullaby, and this is the origin of “Coventry Carol.” This performance is from the Mediaeval Baebes, and is the most delicate and haunting I’ve heard.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.