Friday, December 23, 2016

Slumber Song - A Christmas Reflection

Sleep, my baby, sleep
Beneath the stars of night;
Slumber sweet and slumber deep,
dream ‘neath their beauteous light.
Are ye born to be a pauper;
Are ye born to be a king?
Ye’re born to teach us, proper,
How to love and give and sing.
Shepherds, they rejoice;
the beasts in their stalls
—even angels send a voice
throughout the heavenly halls!
Joseph stands by me
—now, we dare not sleep;
Having been blest to raise thee,
the Lord’s own son shall we keep.
Innocent from sin,
and, too, all other harms,
all we, who watch over him,
long to hold him in our arms.
Sleep, my baby, sleep
Beneath the stars of night;
Slumber sweet and slumber deep,
sheltered by their glowing light.
© by Elisabeth T. Eliassen,
October 5, 2016; Set to music by
Angela Kraft Cross for the
San Francisco Renaissance Voices,
Katherine McKee, Director

I woke up from a dream with the refrain in my head, and that is how this carol text came about.

I have been an ardent student of biblical and other sacred texts for over thirty years and a musician for much of my life. While I cannot say that I am a scholar in these matters, I know that a few things that most people who practice Christianity don’t know or realize.

First of all, Christmas is an entirely manufactured holiday. Jesus had a birthday, of course, but it was most likely in the springtime of the year. Somewhere around the year 200 C.E., Clement of Alexandria is likely the first person to have recorded his guesses about the birth date of Jesus—none of which occur anywhere near the winter solstice. The commemorative mass could have been placed in the winter for several reasons; one of many theories is that overlaying a preexisting pagan holiday with the birth of Jesus might have been done as an means to make pagans be less suspicious of Christianity, or even entice them to join the faith. It isn’t until the 4th century C.E. that the birth of Jesus can be found listed in a Roman almanac—the date affixed at during this time is either December 25th in the Roman Church or January 6th (Epiphany Day) in the Eastern Church. 

Secondly, carols are not hymns. There is a great deal more complexity to the explanation than what I have time to write about here, but, essentially, hymns are derived from chants of the psalms and other portions of scripture, and an occasional “inspired” text, first by the church Fathers, later by others, also known as a “spiritual song.” Carols are festive, religiously themed songs that can be sung in or out of church. The word “carol” is derived from the French carole, the word for a circle dance that was accompanied reed pipes and other instruments, but also by singing. While hymns are more liturgical in nature and always appropriate for the praise of God in church, carols are the festive music of the people during any holiday season celebration, be it Advent, Christmas, Easter, or some other festive season, not necessarily to be done in church.

Thirdly, only two of the canonical gospels (those that “made the cut” into the sanctioned liturgical library we call “the Bible”) record anything like the familiar Christmas story, and these two very different (sometimes contradictory) accounts are conflated into one single story. The earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t record anything about the birth of Jesus. The latest of the four gospels, the Gospel of John, reflects abstractly and poetically on the presence of the Messiah as the Word before all worlds. The middle two gospels, Matthew and Luke, are where we get our bits of the birth story, and then our minds take all the bits and put them together into The Traditional Holiday Pageant Play.

So, for me, if we really need to have a credible “reason for the season,” it has to be all about the child. This story is not at all about the radical rabbi who was crucified. This is about the mother whose child came a bit early to seem legitimate; about the family who couldn’t find shelter when the mother went into labor; really, most of all, about the baby who appeared in the midst of chaos. There is chaos, as well as hope and expectation, surrounding the birth of each child. Who knows if this child will survive to adulthood, or what sort of future lies ahead. Will this child attain royalty, or will this child live a life of poverty? Only time will tell the tale. This is the story of unknown potential, like the fallow winter awaiting springtime growth.

(If I was either a seer or a theologian, I’d to say that this child will grow to be both a king and a pauper. But I'm not, and this is talking out of season.)

The best of parents will tell you that bringing children into the world and nurturing them is one of the toughest and extended lessons of humility and grace that a person can undergo. “Choice” is not a word that pops up frequently in the parental vocabulary—often, you do what you must, with what you have to hand. Sometimes the lessons that get delivered are sketchy or cranky.

No matter what religion or holiday you celebrate, inherent in all should be a simple truth: All babies are proof of the Divine Miracle of Life. All babies are born innocent; it is up to parents and community to teach and encourage, to facilitate the very best for every growing child. This is a lesson all cultures must recognize and act upon. I mention it because so many children worldwide are in grave need, right now.

But at this moment, in this story, Mary’s attention, and the attention of all who happen to be there, is on the sleeping child, illuminated by the glow of starlight.

This is meant to be a quiet celebration. It's not about angels or saviors or martyrs or gifts. It's not about loud singing and dancing or lavish meals. This story is all about a baby.

Let the baby sleep.

There’s time enough for all the rest.