Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hurray! For He is Good in Nature

One of my favorite Christmas carols has always been 'Twas In the Moon of Wintertime, also known as the Huron Carol.  As a child I adored this carol because it told the story of the nativity as though Jesus had been born Native American, or as they say in Canada, as a First Nations person.  Even at a young age, it inspired my theological imagination.  There is something that rings very true for me in the idea that Jesus could have come to any culture at any time and had the same effect.

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 at times frequently, I always realize, however dimly, that it is my heaviness, my fears surrounding survival and control and self-preservation that lead me to respond that way.  And then I want to escape.  I want "alone time."  I want order.  I want things to be pleasant and smooth for say an hour or two.  I want a break.

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.


  1. Loved, loved, loved the video! Beautiful!

    I know I'm an Indian, Polly, but I do not know how much of one I am. There's a DNA test I want to take to find out more.

    "I just can't seem to get away from this theme of violence and compassion."

    When you first brought this idea up- my thought was: "For the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."

    And: "A good man regardeth the life of his beast."

    For some reason... I believe that one's compassion towards animals is a great marker, overall, for one's compassion towards humanity in general.

  2. "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."

    Now, that's just beautiful!

    "I suspect we all just take ourselves too damn seriously. (Well, except for Entrepreneur Chick.)"

    Hahahahaha! You are SO right. I don't. The only thing I take seriously is cash flow.

  3. It's funny that you say that about compassion for animals, because the very same boyfriend I mentioned in this post was a huge animal rights person, but had appallingly little compassion for humans.

    But I think, in general, you're right.

    Do you anything about the Native aspect of your heritage at all?

  4. I am sitting here laughing and crying. This was perfect for me!! Thank you! The third to last paragraph is one I will have to return to read again and again. I, and the vein that bulges on my forehead when I laugh and cry at the same time, we thank you!

  5. I suppose this highlights my inherent white privilege that I never once thought of Jesus as a Native American. What a cool picture that brought to mind.

    And have you read the Book of J? That's my God. The one with the sick sense of humor.

  6. Jenny - Thank you so much for your exuberant response! I thought of you when I was writing this because you said you tend to avoid long posts. I'm glad that didn't deter you - I'm nothing if not long-winded.

    I think you should make a collage involving a closeup photo of your forehead vein. And post it on your blog.

  7. Kate - You're referring to the Book of Job? I love that book. Job has got to be one of the best characters in the Bible, and I love God's answer at the end, after all Job's dufus friends have been babbling. Job should be a movie.

  8. This is a great post...for lots and lots and lots of reasons.

    I LOVE THE CAROL. My most favorite line in English the version you brought from you tube, is the part where the chiefs say that the star is so fair a sign that they follow where it may. Something like that, not quoting exactly, but I love this...this is SIMPLE and FAITH filled.

    Have you read Christ the Lord by: Anne Rice? This really touched on the "child" part of Jesus for me.

    I like remembering that Jesus existed in a body like mine. I realize I can really relate to God when I consider this.

    Although my focus has been on Mary this year...My Mary Christmas, I do love the joy and exhilaration surrounding the happiness of anticipation, fun and as you say SENSORY magnetism. I have been telling friends and family for two weeks now that our home is BLOWN UP in some Christmas...we are so celebrating and loving every minute of it.

    Thank you as always for the educational aspects of this post.

    He is Good in Nature!

  9. Polly,

    It's hard to say my favorite book, but I'd have to go with the book of Job and also the Psalms.(Though Jeremiah rocks as well... and Romans.)

    Yesterday I was reading one of my favorite passages in Job-

    "For I know that my redeemer liveth and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
    And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God."
    Job 19:25

    And now let me tell you how I am a Bible snot.

    I can not abide any other translation than the King James.

    It's not that I'm a legalist and think that's the only true translation- I've always contended that it's easier to understand as it conveys a thought with far fewer words and is very simple to memorize.

  10. Jennifer - No, I haven't read Christ the Lord. I've read the entire vampire series and loved it, and then tried the Witching Hour series and got bored with it. I also started Called Out of Darkness but was not inspired by the writing and so didn't finish it. Christ the Lord sounds like it could be good, though.

    The carol's great, isn't it? I'm glad you like it.

    How's your Mary Christmas progressing? Did you make a Mary candle?

  11. EC - Only you would ever coin the phrase "Bible snot."

    I wouldn't have pegged you as a King Jamesie. There are some things I like better in it, and some things I like better in other translations. It probably won't surprise you to hear that I like to compare translations and am rarely satisfied with any one, but usually want to combine them. That's what I did when I read from John 1 at the Quiet Day.

    Oftentimes, I go to Strong's concordance and translate it myself. I once spent a good two hours looking up every word in: "The Lord, the Lord is my strength and my song. He has become my salvation."

    My favorite King James verse is "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." Matt. 5:22 or 6:22, I think. Other translations say "if your eye is healthy" and things like that. It just doesn't have the same power and multi-layered meaning. I could write a whole theological treatise on that verse and it's relationship to the Fall. Anyhoo...

    My favorite books are John, the Psalms, and Philippians. Actually, I love everything Paul wrote. I think he was brilliant, and unfairly gets a bad rap.

  12. I am going to do the candle with my sister. Not on the actual day, but I have my reasons for waiting. Her Mom passed away January 1 of this year and I just thought with the celebration of Mary "the Mother" of Jesus we could do it together in Honor of her Mom.

  13. The book Christ the Lord is interesting because of Anne's evolution spiritually, so her background leading to the book is interesting as well. There are others, but I haven't had time to read them.

  14. Didn't know that carol, or the story of this brave and compassionate Jesuit. Both are beautiful, as is your enjoyment of this season through so many eyes and thoughts, and especially those of your daughter.
    I remember reading somewhere in an obituary of Cardinal Hume (was Head of Catholic church in the UK and died about ten years ago) that he took his God so seriously that he didn't need to take himself seriously at all.

  15. I'd never heard that quote before, but I love it! I've been thinking about that kind of transference lately. It works in so many ways.



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