A huge thanks to the folks who found that song for me. If you didn’t catch my post asking about it, I was trying to find a choral piece I heard sung at an Advent Mass in 2010. I had no idea what it was called or even what any of the words were, yet it clearly spoke truths about preparing for the Lord and the real meaning of Christmas. To my great delight, I now know that it is Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium. You can hear it here:
The words are in Latin, originally written by Thomas Aquinas. The scholar and Doctor of the Church writes an ode to the Eucharist in which he says:
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.
I love it even more now that I know what it says.
Thanks again to everyone who helped identify it.
I’ve been meaning to ask this for two years, but have never gotten around to it. Now seems to be as good of a time as any: Can anyone tell me what this song is?
(If you can’t see the player, here is a link to the recording.)
During Advent of 2010 I had EWTN on the TV in the background as I did some Christmas decorating (read: I was probably surfing the web while the kids dug through ornament boxes) and it played a live broadcast of a Mass that was, if I recall correctly, at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Whatever it was I had been doing while footage of the Mass played in the background, I stopped when the choir began that song. I was so drawn to it, I was desperate to know what it was — so desperate that I actually had the forethought to grab my voice recorder and hold it up to the television so that I could ask all the sophisticated people who read my blog to enlighten me as to the name of this captivating piece of music.
I’ve thought about that song many times since I first recorded it. In all these years, I never did put my finger on why I was so drawn to it. It’s beautiful, yes. But there was something more. It “said” something to me, some profound wisdom that my heart yearned to hear, some truth that brought me the kind of peace that transcends happiness or sadness or any other surface-level emotion. It brought me the kind of peace that can only come from God. But what was it? What, exactly, was this song — a song whose lyrics I couldn’t even understand — speaking to me that was so important and true?
As I have watched the mind-numbingly horrific news coming out of Connecticut, that song has come to mind once again. And I think I finally understand what feels so true about it.
The song was sung as part of an Advent Mass. It was December, a few weeks before Christmas. Outside the doors of the Basilica, it was the “Christmas season.” While the world was proclaiming only uplifting messages of gaiety and good cheer, the choir at this Mass proclaimed a tune that was deep and serious, maybe even a little mournful, and seemed to spring from some eternal source. On the broadcast, people had tears in their eyes when they received the Eucharist. I remember vividly the shot of a two women who seemed to be mother and daughter; one’s eyes were red and glassy, the other had buried her head in her hands as if in great mourning.
What I felt that day when I first heard that piece of music, that I feel once again as I recall it, is that this song proclaimed a truth about Christmas that is utterly lacking in our modern culture’s understanding of the holiday. Certainly secular culture sees Christmas and the season surrounding it as one of non-stop positivity, happiness, and fun. Even many parts of mainstream Christianity seem to see the weeks leading up to December 25th as a time almost exclusively for happy thoughts.
In this understanding of the season, it seems antithetical to the entire concept of Christmas to think about all the terrible suffering in this world. If you fall into this “Christmas Lite” understanding of the season, as I think I may have done lately, there’s a feeling that it is an insane juxtaposition to be praying for people impacted by atrocities while draping garland across the tree. There’s even a temptation to block it out, to put it aside, to close your heart to those impacted by evil, in the name of keeping the Christmas spirit — or, if you immerse yourself in prayer for those who suffer, to think of that as something separate from your normal activities of the season, like you’re hitting Pause on Christmas, and will resume immersing yourself in the season when you’re done thinking about tragedies.
But, as I have been reminded by the traditional prayers of Advent, and by my memories of that song, Christmas is the celebration of the baby who was born save humanity — but he saved it through his suffering and death. As always with Christianity, joy and suffering, happiness and pain, are always entwined. The true “Christmas spirit” is not rooted in appreciation of material goods and surface-level amusements. Even when we celebrate, our toasts and our feasting are founded on truths that transcend this world.
It feels like this has become a season of sorrow. In a way, it always was. The only joy this season ever contained was a joy rooted in eternity, in the knowledge that death has been overcome, and the hope that we will all meet again in a place where there is no suffering.
Was your Christmas less than picture perfect? Then you’re going to love this guest post by one of my favorite writers, Simcha Fisher. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the liturgical calendar, Ordinary Time is the liturgical season outside of specific liturgical seasons like Lent, Advent, Christmas, etc. The Christmas season just ended, and now we’re currently in Ordinary Time.)
I’m still sweeping up pine needles from the Christmas tree. I don’t mind, because unlike every other mess, this one has a definitive end. Some day soon, I will find and remove the final pine needle, and then the house will be back to normal — back to Ordinary Time.
This year more than most, Christmas was more crisis than celebration. Oh, it was happy and holy, but we also had strep throat and surgery and extra helpings of every type of anxiety and distress that comes with family life. And even in easier years, the sheer volume of things that Need To Be Done For Christmas is overwhelming.
The season follows this structure:
Advent is a time of struggle, when the spiritual and material to-do lists fight for primacy. We do our best to pray and sing, confess and prepare our hearts — but what can we do? Even small presents have to be planned, bought, and wrapped; even simple meals have to be baked. Even minimal parties and concerts must be practiced, bathed and brushed for, driven to, kept awake during. Unless you live in a cave, Advent is an endurance test, especially for mothers. The struggle reaches its peak on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas day, there is a brief island of peace and contentment. Unless you’re made out of stone, you lay down the recipes and white tights and gift tags, and let the song of the angels in. You stop working, and you rejoice.
Then comes a pleasant, buzzing chaos that consumes the house for a couple of weeks at least. It’s a messy but happy time, with new presents scattered in with laundry, candy canes underfoot, and Christmas cards fighting for display space with the normal decor of water bills and exemplary spelling tests.
And then finally comes the day when you can’t stand the disorder one more second. It has all got to go. Epiphany is the Housewive’s Holiday: it doesn’t matter how much we love those colored lights and baubles — nothing makes my heart warmer than to pack it all away, away, away.
And while I pack and sweep up pine needles, I think about what just happened to us. I wonder if we did it right, or if I missed anything.
Christmas never hits me until the season is over. The sheer obviousness of what I’m going to say next may annoy you: Christmas is kind of like having a baby. There, I said it. Baby Jesus being born is a lot like a baby being born. And it doesn’t always go as well as it sounds in the books.
Advent, for instance, is an awful lot like the third trimester of pregnancy: everyone’s gleeful, quivering with anticipation. You know that something wonderful is happening, and you just can’t wait — but at the same time, you feel like hell. You want that baby to come, but you know how hard it’s going to be. No matter how much you meditate on the mystery to come, these days are one part sacred, two parts panicked, and one part just trying not to stop moving — because, like a shark, if you stop, you die.
And the big day itself? I don’t care who you are: no matter how holy or fit or hypnotized or drugged out you are, giving birth is horrible. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, you chose it, and you want it to happen, and you’d do it again. But it hurts. It’s bloody. It’s messy, and exhausting, and sometimes you almost die. Just like the last week of Advent!
And just like on Christmas day, the birth of a baby will give you a few blissed-out hours right afterward. Eight times, I’ve been absolutely gobsmacked to see an actual little person — with eyes, even, and ears and knees everything, just like a real person — come out of me. This is what I have accomplished! And he is so beautiful. And the struggle is over, and I hear the song of the angels.
I go home, and it’s a mess, but who cares? That same pleasant chaos, that mixture of delight and weariness, relief and confusion, surrounds me and the child. Instead of post-Christmas-day drifts of crumpled wrapping paper and tumbled-together presents and ornaments, the post-delivery house is awash in diapers and receiving blankets, bouncy chairs and rubber duckies — nothing in its place, but all part of a lovely, inevitable disorder.
In those first weeks, though, the love and excitement gradually wear thin, and the weariness, the dampness, and the crumbs take over. Suddenly there comes a day when I can’t stand it a minute longer. No, this mess is not okay. No, the toddler does not like the new baby. No, I cannot go on for one more minute without getting some rest. No, it is not cute that my husband has become a vaguely fond stranger. I don’t care how much rest I’m supposed to be getting, I cannot sit here and let that plant go unwatered for another minute! Who thought it was okay to keep the bagels in the sock drawer? Does it bother no one that the bathroom looks this way? Do humans live here, or wolves? And. . . and do newborns always really cry this much, really?
And something so good has happened to us — so why do I feel so bad?
Well, those are the first few weeks. And then? Slowly, life begins again. That first, fragile period is over, and what do we have? What an epiphany: we have baby. He only becomes manifest to me, it seems, weeks after the birth. And that is when things begin to fall into place, literally (we figure out where the carseat and the crib can fit in) and figuratively (the toddler figures out where the new baby can fit in). Life becomes less of a desperate blur and more of something new, but something good.
It happens. Things comes together. The household slowly rises back to our (somewhat relaxed) standards; the other children come to know and love the baby, and become comfortable in their adjusted roles. My husband and I both reach for the baby wipes at the same time, and the moment is as sweet as the moment we exchanged wedding rings. Sweeter, even: less glorious, but more profound. The crisis is over, and now we get to live with what we have recieved. With every child, there comes a morning when I roll over in bed and realize that the sun is shing. I have slept! I look straight into the face of the little one in the cradle. The face is beautiful. He looks just like his father! I somehow didn’t see it until now, but look: the miracle has arrived.
What do we expect of Christmas? Some blazing apocalypse that will permanently transform us in a hurricane of angel’s wings? Sometimes that happens, but in the day-to-day, we’re not made to live like that — not yet. Yes, the Incarnation is a crisis — but it doesn’t end when Epiphany comes. In a way, that is when it really begins.
If you feel like you missed Christmas this year, it’s okay — the Child was still born. He hasn’t gone away. He’s quietly growing, and perhaps you will find that you have made some room in your heart after all, even if if didn’t happen in a blaze of glory. The Incarnate God lives with us, stays with us. This is the time for us to enjoy Him, see what He is like — and to keep making room for Him as the Christ Child grows.
Read more from Simcha at her blog, I Have to Sit Down.
RELATED (other great stuff by Simcha):
- The case for siblings
- I went out to buy a skirt
- Big families are the new green
- The five stages of exhaustion
I’ve been reading books about mountain climbing lately. (As a lazy homebody, I’m fascinated by people who like to leave the house and be cold and climb things.) In a memoir about a Himalayan climb, one author wrote a stirring description of his trip into a Buddhist monastery at the base of a mountain. This author had a mild anti-religious streak, so I took notice when he expressed awe and reverence upon witnessing their blessing ritual.
It reminded me of the way my friends and I used to view some foreign belief systems when I was younger. Even though I was an atheist, I had a kind of respect for certain Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. If I had ended up in a remote candlelit monastery with Buddhist monks, I’m sure I too would have been astonished by it all. In fact, when I think about it, I probably would have been even more astonished in such a situation than I am with my own Christian faith on any given day.
And it’s interesting to think about why.
When you’ve only ever seen a spiritual ritual as practiced by a devout few, it’s easy to stand in awe — you’re seeing it in its purest form. When you’ve never seen it as lived by the masses, exposed to all the bad things that come with human frailty, it’s easy to imagine that this faith contains a power strong enough to trump even human free will, that all who practice it automatically become devout and saintly.
When you yourself have only participated in the ritual once or twice, you haven’t had a chance to get bored.
If those climbers had stayed in that village for the rest of their lives, and participated in the rituals once a week, my guess is that their awe would fade. They’d find that the monks aren’t perfect, and aren’t even perfectly holy. The rituals would become less exotic and more routine. They might catch themselves looking at their watches half way through the ceremony, wondering if this Sanskrit chant would go on forever.
What they sensed when they first arrived — that there are real powers outside of the material world, and that these monks sought to get in touch with them — would become buried under the blase attitude that we all too easily adopt when we’re surrounded by the familiar. They’d lose that gut reaction of reverence they’d felt the first time they encountered this faith, back before they’d had an opportunity to become cynical.
I thought of this phenomenon this weekend when I picked up my Magnificat for evening prayer. The first words on the page said:
Jesus Christ is covenant and law; come, let us adore him!
Jesus is the covenant. He is the law. He is the word. Really, this is some crazy mystical stuff! What a tragedy that I’ve let my familiarity with this truth dull my reaction to it. What a loss that I never take the time to see this through fresh eyes, and experience the jaw-dropping wonder more appropriate to such a breathtaking concept.
I went on to read the words to the hymn, an excerpt from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Borrowing from the Everest hikers’ experience, I imagined that I’d come upon this story in a secluded mountain monastery, far away from home. I pretended for a moment that I experienced my first Mass in this candle-lit, ethereal place. Translated from exotic, foreign tongues, the monks told me of an ancient tribe who foretold that a great King would come to save humanity. They waited for generations. And then, finally, he came. The Emmanuel, the God-with-us. The One who created all, who gave the Law to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, dwelt among us, deigned to take on human form. (And here is where I’d be really shocked): But he didn’t come in wealth and worldly splendor. He didn’t materialize out of thin air as a rich, all-powerful king. He came as a baby. A baby born to a poor family! Who were temporarily homeless!
If I could just hear this for the first time, without any cultural baggage attached to the message, I would be so shocked and astounded and fascinated and grateful. I would have a reaction much more fitting to such a reality.
But is that possible to re-create that reaction? That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
Maybe we can’t will ourselves to internalize familiar information as if it were completely unfamiliar. But I do think it’s possible to choose to adopt a mentality of awe. When I think back on how impressed my friends and I were with certain exotic religious practices, I realize that part of it was a conscious effort.
Not knowing any Buddhist jerks or hypocrites (because we didn’t know many Buddhists at all), we approached the subject without bitterness. Never having seen someone misuse these beliefs as a tool for personal gain, we checked our cynicism at the door. Never having tried out these practices for ourselves, they were free from associations with boredom or failure or discomfort, and we could view them in their purest form.
I think it comes down to willful innocence. We didn’t put up our defenses. Unafraid of being hurt or let down or even just bored, we allowed ourselves to be innocent, and therefore we allowed ourselves to experience awe.
As Christmas draws near, so does the usual stress that comes with the season. I fear that I didn’t get a nice enough present for So-and-So, that we didn’t get a gift for Thus-and-Such at all (what if she gets one for us?!) — and — ack! — I still haven’t mailed those packages to Uncle A and Aunt B. I worry that we don’t have enough gifts, I worry we have too many. Based on the mommy blogs I read, I am pretty certain that I have done an F- job of making Jesus the Reason for the Season.
And so, all sorts of ego-preserving armor flies up at any discussion of Christmas. The bitterness. The cynicism. The loss of focus. The ho-hum attitude. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not consumed by this negativity. It’s only there occasionally, and in small amounts. But even a few drops are poisonous enough to make me gloss over the words “Jesus Christ is covenant and law” with no reaction. It doesn’t take much bitterness or cynicism or fatigue of routine to let the words to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel be just words.
What I’m trying to do this week as adopt that willful innocence — and therefore the willful awe — that I used to embrace when looking at spiritual practices that were foreign and new. Maybe if I can carve out some quiet time, let go of everything else, and focus only on the simple truths of the Christmas story, I’ll capture some of the innocent awe I should have when hearing the beginning of the greatest story every told.