I found this nativity scene on the Virtual Museum of Canada's website. This piece is housed in the chapel of the village of Huron-Wendake, near Quebec City and was created to interpret The Huron Carol. Click here to read more about it.
Photo by Pierre Soulard
After living in the U.S. for a few years, it suddenly occurred to me one Christmas that I hadn't heard this carol in a long time, so I did a little research and discovered that it was the first Canadian Christmas carol, originally written in 1643 in the Huron language by a French Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brebeuf. It was then translated into French, and in 1926 into English. The English lyrics, while beautiful, are quite different from the original Huron ones.
I found a line-for-line translation of the Huron into English here, which is charming in its simplicity. The Wise Men ("elders") come and praise the Christ child by "greasing his scalp many times" and saying, "Hurray! For he is good in nature." But even the English lyrics are respectful enough to Native culture that they have been used by various tribes. For instance, I found one website with a translation from the English version into Mi'kmaw.
Here is a beautiful rendition of the carol, with a mixture of Huron, French and English lyrics.
Jean de Brebeuf had a deep appreciation of the Huron culture. He wrote a set of guidelines for fellow missionaries on how to deal with the Huron, emphasizing understanding of and respect for their ways. Apparently, the Huron respected him as well. He lived among them for only a few years before he was tortured and killed by the Iroquois in one of their raids on the Huron. Reading of how he was flayed to the bone and then doused with boiling water as a mockery of baptism, I was haunted for days. They cut off his lips because he would not stop praising God as he underwent this unspeakable torture. They also ate his heart because they saw that he was a man of courage and strength.
And then I ponder this line in the Huron Carol, when the Wise Men say of the Christ child, "Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us."
I just can't seem to get away from this theme of violence and compassion. For one thing, I keep reading other people's posts that touch on it in some way, highlighting some aspect that I had not considered.
This is such an adult theme, so serious. Frankly, I'm weary of it. The Christmas season is upon us, and my heart is wandering toward happiness, as it always does at Christmastime.
It recently struck me like a bell that the reason I love Christmas so ridiculously much (and I have been ridiculed for it) is because it enfolds me in a fairy tale that is real because it's a complete and intense sensory experience. A feast for all the senses at once.
I once had a boyfriend who introduced me to the joy of lying under the Christmas tree in the dark, looking up through the colored lights and branches. If you lie there long enough holding hands, occasionally sitting up to sip your eggnog, with carols playing on the stereo, and a crock pot wafting the scents of orange, cinnamon, and clove through the air, the spirit of Christmas envelops and possesses you. The resulting feeling of comfort and joy is not to be underestimated.
For me, the story of the birth of the Christ child is satisfying and enchanting. It's a story I can immerse and find myself in, and each year it takes on a new meaning, a new direction to explore. This year, I am entirely focused on the earthy, sensual, childlike qualities of Christmas, both in this story and in all the traditions and stories of Christmas that I know and love.
The humor of the Nativity story is striking me this year. What kind of a goofy God would have His Holy Self born in a pile of dirty straw surrounded by a bunch of livestock? I can only imagine what the Wise Men must have felt after traveling all that way, thinking they were going to meet a powerful political leader in his palace or something. It's just downright silly. And very, very messy. Who would have made any of this up? It's too irreverent for anyone of faith to come up with.
What I'm getting from contemplating all of this is primarily that by being born into the messiness and sensuality of the flesh, it is made holy. What else do I need to know?
Eliana, my two-year-old, is my best teacher right now. What in the world is more chaotic and messy and full of delight than a two-year-old? When I watch myself responding not-so-gracefully to that chaos
So I've been planning an Advent Quiet Day with my friend Cathy, which happened today. This is a day set aside to gather and focus spiritually through prayer, silent periods of meditation, discussion, reflection. I was in charge of leading a reflection on John 1:14 - "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." And what I found myself saying was, "We're not here today for a brief escape from the messiness and chaos of life, but to learn to receive it as a gift and experience it as children." Eliana doesn't care if her face is dirty, if the ornaments are on the tree or all over the floor, if Miracle on 34th Street plays all the way to the end.
I suspect we all just take ourselves too damn seriously. (Well, except for Entrepreneur Chick.) Advent is called a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, and it's generally considered a solemn time of self-reflection and repentance. But what is the real purpose, and what can this preparation possibly be for but joy? How does one prepare for joy but by lightening the load? What is there to repent for but the heaviness and fear that make us forget to receive life with childlike wonder and delight?
Maybe Christmas was God's way of saying "Lighten up!" Maybe it's about being so filled with joy that someone has to cut off your lips to get you to shut up about it. Maybe the idea of being "saved" by Christ is largely about the sanctification of incarnation, with all its senses, its messiness, its ordinariness, its awkwardness. And its joys.
I find myself returning to the idea of compassion with new eyes. Karen Armstrong, author of the Charter for Compassion, says it's about the willingness to enter into another's experience. Jean de Brebeuf's, for instance. The Iroquois who killed him. But it can also be entering the unfettered delight of your two-year-old. Or even looking into the face of the Christ child and seeing your own.