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Passiontide (II)

Were you there when He crawled atop skull hill,10-good-thief-2
Driven by big bad Romans as a lamb,
Condemned and cursed by sons of Abraham
Who, for perjury, returned a true bill?

Were you there when His hands and feet were nailed
Down, His body lifted up, on a tree –
A spectacle for all the world to see
Where Israel’s sight and Rome’s Blind Justice failed?

Were you there when one man hanged by His side, 
One terrorist at death’s door, came alive,
His “just cause” to lay down, his wrongs to shrive,
To know the true King’s mercy ere he died?

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

R. E. Lee, Definition of a Gentleman.

McLean HouseGrant’s pursuit of Lee ended one hundred and forty-nine years ago today. It ended neither with a bang nor with a whimper. Grant did not gloat. Lee did not grovel. Grant’s forbearance in victory showed him a gentleman, and Lee, feeling the final sting of the defeat he’d foreseen nearly half a decade earlier, did not fail to recognize the gentleman in the tattered blue uniform. Grant and Lee, and Parker, and Chamberlain and Gordon, were flawed men. But for four days at Appomattox they exercised the sternest self-control, and so laid the foundation for an honorable restoration of a nation. Sadly, those of us who have followed have too often chosen not to build upon it.

The world is sick from a million Faustian bargains — and the revolutions that arise to overthrow them are but a different set of Faustian bargains. Except one: the one Christ inaugurated by his fasting and temptation in the wilderness, commonly known as Lent.

In honor of the 122nd birthday of J. R. R. Tolkien, here is a fascinating quote from his Letters (letter 267) concerning a chance meeting following a lecture by Prof. Robert Graves:

ava gardner bandwagon-00005

Ava Gardner (as herself) in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon.

After it [Prof. Graves] introduced me to a pleasant young woman who had attended it: well but quietly dressed, easy and agreeable, and we got on quite well. But Graves started to laugh; and he said: ‘it is obvious neither of you has ever heard of the other before’. Quite true. And I had not supposed that the lady would ever have heard of me. Her name was Ava Gardner, but it still meant nothing, till people more aware of the world informed me that she was a film-star of some magnitude, and that the press of pressmen and storm of flash-bulbs on the steps of the Schools were not directed at Graves (and cert. not at me) but at her . . . . .

This weekend I rode through L’Enfant Plaza.  There is nothing especially remarkable about riding through L’Enfant Plaza; many thousands of people did the same this weekend.  Not so many, though, had the music of Johann Sebastian Bach playing in their earbuds.  Maybe only one had Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin playing in his earbuds.  At least one did.

I’ve associated L’Enfant Plaza with Bach’s Chaconne ever since reading this fascinating article a few years ago.  The article tells the story of how one morning, Joshua Bell played a free forty-three minute concert in L’Enfant Plaza, and hardly anyone noticed.  One of the pieces Bell played in his concert to the deaf in L’Enfant Plaza was Bach’s Chaconne.

Much could be said about the article; it is worth a good read and not a little thought.  What’s always fascinated me most about it, though, is this quote from Johannes Brahms about Bach’s Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

I won’t linger here over Brahms’s first sentence, except to note hearty agreement.  It’s the second sentence I find most fascinating.  For Bach did, after all, create the Chaconne – and creating it did not drive him out of his mind.

You may credit a number of things for keeping Bach’s boat from tipping over as he composed pieces of such magnificence that composing them would have overthrown Brahms.  For example, Bach’s siring twenty kids gave the man’s domestic life plenty of heft, enough heft to provide a good ballast for him as he worked on the Chaconne – next to the demands of his wife and kids, the Chaconne probably seemed to Bach rather a light thing.  Or youjsbach3 may look at the astonishing diversity of Bach’s genius – he was a brilliant composer, a formidable organist, and an expert in organ-building, among many other things – as something that kept him balanced and sane.

I attribute Bach’s sanity, though, to a few letters he wrote on most of his transcriptions.  Bach began most of these with “J.J.” – Jesu, Juva (“Jesus, help”), or “I.N.J” (In Nomine Jesu).  He ended them with “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone the glory”).  He opened with invocations, closed with dedications.  Here the contrast between Bach’s thoughts and Brahms’s – “if I imagined that I could have created” – is as great as the contrast between Chesterton’s poet, who wants to get his head into the heavens, and Chesterton’s logician, who wants to get the heavens into his head.  The one gets a good view; the other gets a bad headache.  A sanity-killing headache.

Nothing kills creativity, or sanity in the midst of great creative exertion, like a creator’s interest in his own identity.  A creator may create worlds – whole worlds of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings, for a small instrument, on one stave – but only so long as he is not busy creating himself, and not a moment longer.  Here is the difference, not just between Brahms and Bach, or between Chesterton’s logician and Chesterton’s poet, but between the Serpent who ever provokes us to make names for ourselves, and the eternal Word of God, who rests wholly in the identity given Him by His Father, even as He creates and then renews the world.

(Originally posted March 18, 2013 at While We’re Paused.)

Today is the eve of Christmastide.  And yet, despite the fact that the twelve-day Feast hasn’t begun, there is no shortage of Christmas fatigue in the air.  I can think of at least two sources of the fatigue.  The first is that celebrating and having a good time are hard work — good work, but work not easy to keep up over the long haul.  The second is the encroachment of the commercial racket.  After all, we’ve been bombarded with various and sundry Christmas messages since November 1.  How much longer can we even think about it?

The last half century has not produced too many effective fortifications against Christmas fatigue.  But it has produced one highly improbable one: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Upon one viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is evident that this is a different Christmas special. In modern American Christmas entertainment, it has no parallel. In contrast to most of the slick, well-polished Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has a rough, unfinished feel to it.  The characters are voiced by actual children, in most cases children with no previous voice-over experience. In many places, the show plays more like a series of loosely connected comic strips than a well-integrated story (not surprising, given that the three-frame comic strip was writer Charles Schulz’s regular medium). Far from being limitations, though, those qualities actually make the special earthier and more like real life. There is no glitz, no jingly-jangly bells, little adornment, much melancholy.  The one theme that holds the show together is the extended jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas.

Indeed, Charlie Brown’s struggle against the commercialization of Christmas in the show paralleled Charles Schulz’s struggle against the CBS executives.  Schulz had to fight on a few fronts to keep the show as he’d conceived it.  First, in keeping with convention for kids’ shows, the CBS execs had wanted to add a laugh track – a suggestion Schulz firmly rejected. Second, the execs didn’t like Vince Guaraldi’s brilliantly understated jazz score; this, after all, was a children’s Christmas special, and why would anybody even think about setting it to jazz? Again, Schulz held the line. Finally, the CBS execs were appalled at Linus’s reading St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – better to stick with a vague, lowest-common-denominator Christmas message to avoid offending anyone. This was Schulz’s Alamo: No gospel of Luke, no show.

Schulz’s battles are a fitting backdrop, then, to the show itself.  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Charlie Brown announcing the problem that will dominate the story:

There must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.

Things get worse when Charlie Brown learns that both his dog and his little sister have “gone commercial,” and when Lucy tells him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” And Charlie Brown’s “rock bottom” is the ridicule he receives for picking a small wooden tree (significantly, the only wooden tree on the lot) over a flashy aluminum one for the Christmas play.

It is at that point, when the salesmen in the temple of Christmas seemingly have their feet most firmly planted on Charlie Brown’s neck, that in exasperation he asks the momentous question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?” Then Linus steps into the spotlight, and with his trusty blanket and a simple recitation of the Christmas story as recorded by St. Luke, drives the salesmen out of the temple, with their shameless sales pitches and bloated pageantry. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Smiling, Charlie Brown picks up his fragile little tree and walks happily out of the theater into the crisp, starry December night.

His joy, though, is short-lived. The first blow it suffers is seeing that Snoopy won first prize in the commercial lights and display contest. When the “big eastern syndicate” running Christmas gets its tentacles into your beagle’s doghouse, it’s easy to take your eye off the babe in the manger and the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem.

Charlie Brown shrugs that off, though, and proceeds to put one of the bulbs from Snoopy’s doghouse on his little tree. Disaster – the tree collapses from the weight. Crushed, Charlie Brown walks off, lamenting, “everything I touch gets ruined.” This is a thornier problem than commercialization, because it isn’t inflicted from without, but from within. And it has a sting of truth in it common to all. Like Charlie Brown, we are a people of clumsy and unclean hands, and our deeds, projects, and relationships all bear our smudgy fingerprints.

Thankfully, Charlie Brown has a good friend wImageho comes along, sees the wreck he’d left in his path, and, with a little love and his trusty blanket, heals it. That friend is of course Linus. In the theater Linus had taken on the mantle of a prophet, confronting big evils with plain truth; now, in this scene, he’s become a priest, intervening for and lifting up the broken and downtrodden.

It isn’t a complicated story, and, as I mentioned before, the component pieces don’t hang together neatly. But I’ve been watching it since I was eight, when I did not even know that the weird text Linus read in that animated auditorium was from the Bible. For years, I could not understand the quality that kept dragging me back to watch it, year after year, or why Linus’s reading had so deeply seared my young pagan mind.

But now I get it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few pieces of holy Christmas entertainment produced in the twentieth century. Fittingly for a Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas does not animate distant, untouchable holiness, but holiness come near and reaching out, stirring our imaginations, fortifying us against the cultural acids that wear us down, leaving us a little different than before. The show isn’t bombastically holy, but — perhaps as real holiness always is — it’s gentle and unemphatic. Far from being ponderous, it wears its gravitas lightly. In a world overcrowded with entertainment profane, banal, or even just vaguely wholesome or fuzzy-warm, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as a testament that real, gritty, in-the-medium and on-the-ground holiness never goes out of style. Which is, after all, what Christmas is all about.

(Originally published December 31, 2011 at While We’re Paused, the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.)

VisitationMarytoElizChildinWombblogIn Advent we remember the absence of God — not to despair as though he were fully absent, but to hope for his fuller presence. Four hundred years of divine silence preceded the Exodus, and then the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Four hundred years of divine silence preceded the Word’s becoming flesh and dwelling — tabernacle-ing — among us. For so God loved the world, dark though it was.

In the Revelation to St John, the heavenly herald declared (21.3-4):

Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

The second promise — that God will scour us with all the old Creation –we do not yet see fulfilled. And long we have waited for it. Yet we know it is true, because the first promise was fulfilled, in the sight of unlikely but faithful witnesses, whose eyes had been tested almost to the limit in looking for God-With-Us, the glory of Israel and light to the nations.

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