When I pointed out this morning that our baby Matthew would have been killed had he been in those villages near Bethlehem, my fifteen-year-old daughter Bernadette was thoughtful. This evening, she gave me a set of poems she had written, and I want to share them here:
Have you ever seen a baby’s smile light up the room?
Seen sheer happiness for no more reason than a laugh?
Have you ever heard a baby’s song without a tune?
Or, playful, fought him for your bread, at least a half?
Four groups made up the dramatis personae of the medieval cathedral: aside from the bishop himself, there were priests, deacons, subdeacons, and members of the choir. During the Christmas season, each group claimed its day: deacons of course celebrated specially on the feast of St. Stephen, priests celebrated on the feast of St. John, the boys of the choir had their day of glory on the feast of the Holy Innocents, and the subdeacons claimed the feast of the circumcision. The choir boys’ special day led to one of the most beautiful and yet surprising customs of the middle ages, the boy bishop.
This Advent I treated myself to Neil Mackenzie’s delightful book, The Medieval Boy Bishop. Mackenzie offers a panoramic view, explaining from source texts how the “boy bishop” custom operated in England and in countries all across Europe. The essential idea was expressed by an official at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1263:
The Breviary begins today with this invitatory: “Come let us worship the newborn Christ, who has given the glorious crown to St. Stephen.” In the book of Acts, where we read about Stephen’s martyrdom, nothing suggests a connection to the newborn Christ in particular, but the fact that his feast day has been right after Christmas since the liturgical year first took shape led to the tradition that the three days after Christmas bring three “companions of Christ” around the crib to adore the infant God.
The three companions, according to a medieval commentary, represent the three kinds of martyrs. First we have Stephen, who was willing to die for Christ and was in fact killed; tomorrow we have St. John, who was willing to die for Christ but was not in fact killed; and then we have the Holy Innocents, who were in fact killed for Christ but were too young to be willing. Today’s invitatory connects the newborn Christ to the first kind of martyr. Tomorrow’s invitatory turns to the default invitatory used for every Apostle, but the invitatory for the Holy Innocents sounds like today’s: “Come, let us worship the newborn Christ, who crowns with joy these children who died for him.”
You may have noticed that the New Song blog fell suddenly silent a week or more ago. I had just begun the Jesse Tree project, and I was tossing up additional posts, getting into the Advent season–and then nothing. The Holmes house hit a major bump when all the kids came down with this nasty cold/flu thing going around and flopped around on chairs and couches like they had just rolled off the rubber chicken factory line.
Actually, the major bump was when Matthew the seven-month-old filled his head with mucus, started coughing, and stopped sleeping. My wife and I took turns pacing with him through the night for the better part of a week; we did only the essentials during the day, and by the end we didn’t do those, either. We hit that point where you have to rearrange things on the kitchen counter creatively so you can put down your cup. Only you can’t find a cup, because all the sniffling, hacking rubber chickens take one sip from each cup in the cupboard, decide they need a new cup, and even drink from your cup when you’re not looking.
So the Jesse Tree project is dead for this year. But in all that night-time pacing I thought a lot about new ideas and directions for the blog. I actually compiled a spreadsheet one afternoon of all my top blog posts from the past couple of years and I ranked them by the number of “hits”. And I learned something extremely valuable from that exercise:
Which posts get lots of “hits” and which do not is pretty much random. It has nothing to do with how well written or thoughtful the blog post is. Seeing that fact in cold numbers really takes the ego out of blogging.
So I figure I should just keep writing about whatever I enjoy writing about, although I do have some crazy ideas about new directions that may or may not work out, depending on which way the wind blows. To this point in my life, when I have kept on doing things I enjoy then God has always opened neat doors in front of me.
The tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra had long been a popular pilgrimage destination, but when sailors from Bari, Italy stole his relics from the Turkish-occupied town, devotion to St. Nicholas took off in the west. Given the stories of his generosity and his love for children, it was natural that St. Nicholas should surround himself with the aura and the legends of Father Christmas, a lingering memory of Norse legend. Within a couple of hundred years, the Feast of St. Nicholas was a landmark in the Advent season, hailing the election of the Boy Bishop (more on this character later) and the exchange of Christmas gifts.
Since my childhood was not spent in the Church, the first time I encountered any celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was when I visited my soon-to-be wife’s family. Later, when we lived in Gaming, Austria, we experienced the intensity of medieval devotion to St. Nicholas. A friend who was a boy in Gaming around that time has posted his vivid memory of Nicholas and the Krampus here–you can see what I mean by “intense”! Our first daughter was a baby at the time, and we realized that we just had to stay inside. Krampus was too much.
Once back in the states, we brought new fervor to our celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, although we haven’t opted to have a demon chase our children with whips. Instead, we bought a giant cookie mold of the bishop Nicholas from houseonthehill.net; since the cookies need time to age, we make them a couple of weeks ahead of time. The night of December 5, the kids make gingerbread cookies for their stockings.
In the morning, the stockings are hung by the fire place–the beautiful, hand-crafted stockings my mother has lovingly made for each child–and in the stockings are cookies, some chocolate coins to remember the story of St. Nicholas’ gifts, and a small gift. Typically, the stockings buy time for my wife and me to get up slowly and make breakfast at a more leisurely pace.
In the afternoon, we’ll make hot cocoa and eat the giant Nicholas cookies. I like to give at least one giant cookie away, if I can. Because I’m into medieval customs these days, our background music will be an album of medieval folks songs for the feast of St. Nicholas.
Jacob came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, but his life did not start smoothly. He fought with his brother, and stole his brother’s blessing by lying to his blind father, and then he ran away because his brother wanted to kill him. One night while he was running away he had an amazing dream. He saw angels going up and down a ladder from heaven to earth, and God appeared and gave him the promises of his grandfather Abraham. Even though Jacob had gotten himself in trouble, God chose him as the one to continue the Advent story. When Jacob woke up he realized that he had slept in a holy place, the place where a ladder reaches from heaven to earth.
Jacob went on to new adventures, but we should stay a while and look at that ladder. Wouldn’t you like to have a ladder that you could climb all the way to heaven? One famous person in the Middle Ages said that reading the Bible is a ladder like that. But Advent is also a ladder to heaven: each day of Advent is another rung, and at the top of the ladder we will find Jesus. If you want to climb the ladder of Advent alongside the angels that Jacob saw, then wake up every day waiting for Jesus, prepare for him with little sacrifices and constant prayer—and do your Jesse tree at night!
For those of you tracking my adventure in novel writing, the word is in. At a writer’s conference last June the owner of a literary agency invited me to submit my work, and a few days ago I got this note:
Thank you for allowing me to read your submission for THE ROBOT’S MAKER. I really enjoyed your engaging narrative voice as well as the light touches of humor throughout. However, I unfortunately didn’t quite fall in love with the story in the way I would need to to offer you representation. Therefore, I do not think we would be the correct agents to market this project in today’s competitive book publishing industry.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to read your work. I wish you the best of luck with THE ROBOT’S MAKER and your future endeavors.
Shira S. Hoffman
Now isn’t that about the sweetest rejection letter one could ask for? I’m truly grateful to have achieved my first goal, which was to get a rejection letter from a literary agent.
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Abraham lived long, long ago in the city of Ur, where people worshipped the moon and other things as gods. In those days, his name was Abram. But the one true God called Abram to leave his home and travel far, far away to a new land that God would show him, and because Abraham believed God and obeyed him his name was changed to Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”
It seemed like a funny name at the time, because Abraham didn’t have any children. He and his wife were old, and it didn’t seem like they would ever have children. But by a miracle, God gave them a boy named Isaac. Everything seemed fine: Abraham believed God’s promise about the land and about his children, and God had brought him to the land and had given him a child.
But God wanted to push Abraham to be even greater than he was already. He put Abraham through a terrible test by telling him to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice. How could God give Abraham many descendants if Abraham’s only son were dead? And how could God ask Abraham to kill his own child? But Abraham trusted God even when he didn’t understand. He went to the appointed place, got everything ready, and raised his hand to do what God had said—but suddenly God’s angel called out him and stopped him. He gave him a ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac, which is why today’s ornament is a sheep.
Because Abraham had obeyed him, God promised him not only the land and many descendants, but also that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendant. With this promise, light dawned over the darkness left by Adam and Eve. God had begun something with Abraham that would become the Advent story we tell every year now.
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
When Adam and Eve sinned, something went terribly wrong. It was not just that the world was a sadder place for them. It was not just that now they would have to die someday. Something went terribly wrong inside of them, in their hearts, and all their children were born with darkness in their hearts. Remember that the whole world came from God and was supposed to return to God through Adam and Eve and their children. By the time of Noah, the children of Adam and Eve had become so bad that God decided to send a great flood to destroy the whole world.
God warned Noah to build an ark. He told Noah to bring two of every animal into the ark so that the animals would not all be destroyed in the flood. So when the rain poured down and the water rose up even over the mountains, Noah’s family and the animals on the ark were safe, and when the water finally went down and dry land appeared, it was a new day for the world. God promised that he would never again send a flood to destroy the whole world.
But something was still wrong inside the hearts of men. Darkness was still on the earth, and it would grow again.
Last year I had the honor of reporting that my poem “David’s Town,” set to music by Peter Kwasniewski, was performed by an ensemble in Scotland. This year I am happy to announce that “David’s Town” has been included on Wyoming Catholic College’s new Advent CD. It is a special song, because it is the only hymn to my knowledge that devotes one stanza to each of the “three comings” celebrated in Advent: the first coming in humility, the second coming in mystery, and the third coming in glory.
The new CD is beautifully done, recorded by a special student ensemble led by Kwasniewski. You can find lyrics, information, and a way to purchase the CD here. Take a look! We’re doing an important work at WCC, and every CD purchase helps us keep the lights on both literally and figuratively.
Meanwhile, to give you a sense for the quality both of the performance and the recording, here is the “David’s Town” track: