The prophet Isaiah dominates the season of Advent. Old Testament readings at Mass are taken from Isaiah, the Office of Readings draws almost entirely from Isaiah, and many of our hymns and carols are based on one or another passage from Isaiah. One reason is of course the clarity of Isaiah’s prophecies, but another is the beauty and power of his poetry.
Prophecy and poetry were not cleanly distinguished ideas in antiquity. All the biblical prophets are poets, pagan oracles spoke in short poems, and Plato referred to poets as “inspired” or possessed by a “divine madness”. Today we often meet poetry that makes no claim to inspiration—perhaps a mere advertising ditty—and our prophets tend to write blog posts or newspaper columns rather than verse. As a result, we turn to a biblical prophet looking for the “content” or the “message” behind the poetic medium rather than through it. We treat as separable something Isaiah would not have seen so.
So as we begin Advent, I would like to offer a few thoughts about poetry I have seen in Isaiah. Continue reading “The Poetry of Isaiah”
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.
[From the online Jesse Tree.]
A reading from the book of Genesis (28:11-17):
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!
St. Abraham, pray for us!
[From the online Jesse Tree.]
A reading from the book of Genesis (6:5-7):
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:
[From the online Jesse Tree.]
A reading from the book of Genesis (3:1-8):
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
When God made our first parents, he put them in the Garden of Eden, where they had everything they could want. The Garden provided food, warmth, and safety, and they could eat from the Tree of Life and never die. But the best thing about the Garden was that God lived their with our first parents. They could talk with him and walk with him there, the way you meet your best friend.
To stay in the Garden, our first parents had really to be best friends with God. They had to trust that he knew what was right and wrong, good and bad, safe and harmful. But Satan told them a lie, the biggest lie there is: he told them that God did not really love them, and told them that God wanted to keep the best things away from them so he could have the best things all for himself. First Eve and then Adam believed the lie, stopped trusting God, and claimed the power to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. They preferred the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over being friends with God.
When God came to visit them after that, Adam and Eve didn’t walk and talk with him. In fact, they hid from him. They were afraid of him! Right away, God saw that they could not live in the Garden anymore. He banished them, sent them away. The world became a sad place for Adam and Eve, a place where they would have to work hard to get their food, a place where they knew they would have to die someday, and a place where God seemed far away—not because he was far from them but because they were far from him.
Ever since that day, all boys and girls have been born into a world where people are hungry and where people have to die. Everyone has been born into Adam’s sin, and for thousands of years little boys and girls were born away from God’s friendship—away from the Garden of Eden. But the story of Advent is about how God came to find his lost people.