Month: November 2017

Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)

A Cynic’s Guide to Thanksgiving

This is for the one who dreads the magical monotony of the incoming Hallmark holiday movie season.

For the one who grouches about the blatant commercialization of the holidays every time a Black Friday ad comes on, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.

For the one who feels a compelling need to explain that the snippet of praise on the Thanksgiving place card is actually from a psalm where David is asking God to slay his enemies, and would you like to talk about the implications of that over pumpkin pie?

I am right there with you, my friends. Let’s talk.

After the hurricanes and fires and shootings these past few months, I watched a number of people post this quote from beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

Part of me said, “That’s lovely and a very appropriate way to direct children’s attention after a tragedy and also, seriously, Mr. Rogers rocks that sweater.”

Another part of me said, “But…that’s not enough.”

It wasn’t the part of me that scoffs during cheesy lines in movies or expects to be double-crossed in games of Risk or writes satirical song parodies. That’s more surface-level.

It was the deeper part that loves both redeemed villains and fallen heroes and finds it easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice and marks the pages of books with a special symbol for paradoxes.

Yes, there is beauty and strength in stories about people helping each other, and I’m thankful for those who make the right choices in the face of disaster, even at great personal risk.

But I look outside at the world and inside at my own heart and know that selfishness takes the day more often than not, sometimes in terrible ways. There is more destruction than reconciliation. It’s more common for people to reach for bitterness than forgiveness. In the war of the Image against the Fall, when I look around…sin nature seems to be winning.

And Thanksgiving is coming.

Sometimes, at least to me, this time of year can seem overly sentimental. Writing out your blessings seems great for the preschool set, but the appeal can fade along with crafts like candy corn turkeys and construction paper Pilgrim hats.

When I start to think this way, I have to remember:

  • Contentment takes courage. So does faith, even the simple faith that I sometimes pretend is inferior because I don’t have it. You know what doesn’t take much risk at all? Snarky comments about the state of society. Witty takedowns and sendups of everything that’s wrong in the world. Stances on issues that make us feel superior to all those people who just don’t understand. As the dour and disapproving Anton Ego in Ratatouille put it, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” The truly brave act isn’t cynicism. It’s joy.


  • Stories about the Image—the ways in which humans display attributes of God, whether that’s human interest stories of sacrifice or movies about grace in the face of adversity—need to be told. They remind us of what we ought to be, sure. But maybe it’s even better that they remind us of what we sometimes fail to be, because that points us to the one who is perfectly loving and holy and just when we are not.


  • Paul wrote Philippians, famous for its references to joy, while he was in prison and wrote it to a church undergoing persecution and opposition. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” wasn’t written first on a rustic pallet wall decoration or a calendar of inspirational kittens, it was a solemn charge to a suffering church, as were many of the promises and exhortations of the New Testament.


So what do we do?

We celebrate Thanksgiving, like the saints have been, officially and unofficially, for centuries.

We collect paradoxes and adjust our expectations toward the already-not-yet reality of our world, both bitter and sweet.

But we don’t get too comfortable, because there’s a better story coming. That’s what we’re living for, and all the blessings we have here are shadows cast from that ultimate reality.

And I’m grateful.

A Suggestion for Thanksgiving Advent

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m still trying to make Thanksgiving Advent a thing, because gratitude shouldn’t be isolated to one lone day. But how does one celebrate such a countdown, you might ask?

My suggestion: write a few Thanksgiving cards. That’s what I’m doing this week, which is why this post is relatively short. I’m saving my words to tell some people in my life what I appreciate about them.

I highly recommend fun notecards, an inky pen, and a mug of cider or tea for this activity.

I’ve written about this before, so if you want the full persuasive argument for this practice, go here. Or if you want more of the emotional heart behind it, go here.

But before signing off, I want to tell a story. Two years ago, I was writing my Thanksgiving cards in an airport, surrounded by people nodding off or on their phones or anticipating narrow seats and turbulence with a look of resigned defeat on their faces. There was one older gentlemen who kept glancing my way, tattered worn like the newspaper in his hand. Eventually, he came over to me. “Excuse me,” he said, “What are you doing?”

“Writing Thanksgiving cards.”

“You mean thank-you cards?”

“No. Thanksgiving cards. Just to tell people that I appreciate them, not something in particular they did or gave me.”

“Ah,” he said, “I see. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.” And he smiled, and there have been few smiles in my life so beautiful. I almost wanted to write him a thank-you note for it, but then we started boarding and the moment was gone.

I’ll be beginning this year’s round in another airport tomorrow, with people coming and going and losing their tempers and rushing about and living for a lot of things that will end up disappointing them. I’ll eavesdrop on halfhearted conversations and be interrupted by an endless stream of rules announcements and watch the ebb and flow of thousands of people much more important than me with urgent business and exotic places to be.

And I wonder if the words I’ll write will be be more important, in the end, than all of that noise.

Maybe. Who knows? But I do know it’s a good thing. A very good thing.