“MERRY CHRISTMAS, TO ALL, AND TO ALL, A GOOD NIGHT!”
One Christmas in the ‘70s when I was recently divorced, half a continent away from family, and even poorer than I am now, I house sat for friends who went skiing in Colorado. Part of the arrangement was that I would take care of their hyper, ill-mannered (sniffing crotches was his favorite activity) dog. He was cute (some kind of gangly, short-haired black and white beast) and loveable, but—for me alone, apparently—a pain in the ass. The dog did not survive the week. If you want to know the details, ask my therapist.
I fully understand the line from the hymn that is the fifth movement of the first section of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio—the first section to be performed at the Lutheran service on Christmas Day—in Rev. J. Troutbeck’s 19th-century translation, “O Fount of light, shine brightly upon my darkened heart.”(I’m grateful that youtube has this performance—an obviously (very good) amateur group fervently singing their belief—not a professional group making glorious music.)
Remarkably, the tune to which this hymn is set is the one familiar to most Christians as the Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” There, smack-dab in the middle of the music for the Lutheran service on Christmas Day.
The German of the hymn text begins
Wie soll ich dich empfangen Und wie begegn’ ich dir?
The literal translation of that line is
How should I receive you and how should I meet you? (1)
I learned the cantata singing it in English in Troutbeck’s translation. (His translation and the literal are copied below.)
Many commentators (both musical and other) have explained the “dissonance” of the congregation’s response to the birth of Jesus set by Bach to the Good Friday hymn. All a layman needs is to listen to five minutes of the news in the last week to understand completely. It is no mystery that here in the Christmas season we—that is, some Americans, some christians who are paying attention—should be thinking about the death of the very “reason for the season,” the sweet little Jesus boy who is the inspiration for Black Friday—as opposed to “Good” Friday. Many commentators have also noted that bitter/ enormous/ overwhelming irony –Black/ Good.
What I want to say here is that, in light of the massacre at Newtown, we might take a look at our collective “darkened heart.” There’s nothing new or different in what I’m about to say.
Listen to what WE Americans say about violence, about the darkness of the human condition.
Yet when it comes to our most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family, our children, we as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless. And the monsters and the predators of the world know it and exploit it. That must change now. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun (2).
You draw yourself up to full stature, as I do, and we indignantly declare that’s not what “WE” say about the darkness of the human condition. That’s what the NRA says.
No. If that were only the NRA’s theological, sociological, and philosophical position, our nation would not be awash in the blood of one American killing another. We love it! We thrive on it! Killing sells advertising time on TV. Killing sells newspapers. Killing gives every electronically connected American (to wit, Sumnonrabidus) the opportunity to spout off, to sound as if he or she understands the situation.
I know the darkest side of myself. At least I hope and pray there is nothing darker than I know. As I have said in public before, the darkest part of me cannot be trusted not to be violent. I know that most people have either more control of or less contact with the darkness of their natures. I get it. My anger—rage, some might say—is unusual. And almost none of my friends and colleagues have ever seen it. Most who read this will not believe it.
Anyone who does not have a realistic view of his or her anger is living in a kind of la-la land in which it’s true that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The fact is, we all have the capability to kill. Or, if not that extreme, the capability to harm one another in a million ways. Until we, as a society, learn to face and understand our dark side, there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.”
Susan Palo Cherwin has written a poem about this reality. It is set to music by Thomas Pavlechko and published in the hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship. It is more hopeful than I personally can be, but it is certainly worth reading, hearing, singing here on this somber Christmas.
In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.
When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.
When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.
__________ (1) Gerhardt, Paul. “Wie soll ich dich empfangen?” From J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 248/1. Trans. Francis Browne. Bach Cantatas Website, (November 2008). Web. 23 December 2012. (2) La Pierre, Wayne (National Rifle Assn. Chief Executive). “A defiant NRA calls for armed guards in every school.” Los Angeles Times. Politics, December 21, 2012. Web. 23 Dec. 1012.
How shall I fitly meet Thee and give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee and I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly and know Thee as Thou art.
—Translated by Rev. J. Troutbeck (1874)
How should I receive you and how should I meet you?
O longing of the whole world O adornment of my soul!
O Jesus, Jesus, place yourself your lamp by me
so that what gives you delight I may know and understand!
—Translated by Francis Browne (2008)