“A Light to Lighten the Gentiles”: Christmas Reflections

The simple — and I think understandable — fact of the matter is, a lot of my thoughts about Christmas come with music attached. Last week, one of the season’s first chances to sit quietly and think Christmas thoughts came at Carnegie Hall, up in the cheap seats on the highest balcony. A fine New York City ensemble, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and a choir of professionals from Montreal, La Chapelle de Québec, performed Bach’s entire Christmas Oratorio. It was glorious. The hall was nearly full, including, just in front of me, five rows of priests, seminarians, and a bishop or two.

As I write this, Christmas music plays from my iPhone’s very long Christmas playlist. “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” is playing now. It has become a favorite. (I wrote about this before.) The playlist is mostly alphabetical; if I didn’t tell my phone to shuffle it, I’d get five different recordings of that carol in a row. It wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Using the shuffle button has its risks. That sublime carol just gave way to the Chipmunks singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It’s been on my phone for a few years, since I used it to summon the family to wakefulness, breakfast, and gifts one Christmas morning. Perky and annoying, it was just the thing to make it difficult for them to fall back into sleep.

It’s still perky and annoying. But it’s short and I let it play. I’m too lazy to reach out my finger and skip it, let alone remove it from the playlist. “The Huron Carol” by the Canadian Brass is next.

All that music is the setting for writing my Christmas reflections. The reflections themselves come mostly from the Bible today, though music makes another appearance at the end.

Ten Ways to Celebrate Easter (Alone or Together)

Christmas looms large on the Christian calendar, but I’ve long thought that Easter should loom larger. I may have thought that before I encountered Easter’s prominence in the Russian Orthodox tradition a few decades ago; I’m not certain. In any case, Gethsemane, Calvary, and the empty tomb are the climactic scenes to which the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem is a wondrous prelude. There is no greater cause for celebration in all of earthly Christianity than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So let’s celebrate Easter!

There are many ways to do it. None of the ways I’ll list involve the Easter bunny or a nice Easter dinner. I look forward to the baked ham, the chocolate, and the jelly beans (not the spice ones, and not the black licorice flavor) — but this not about those.

You’ll see that my categories overlap, but I won’t lose any sleep over that if you won’t. And I’m certainly not suggesting that you do everything I’m about to list. This is merely a list of ideas.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve done a lot of these in the past week, as I prepared this essay, and I’ve done the others before too. They all work for me; I hope some of them will work for you.

Christmas Reminds Me

During this Christmas season, I’ve been noting the many reminders the season brings for me. By nature they are not new thoughts, but Christmas reminds me of important things, I think.

Some reminders are connected to my personal circumstances, from which yours may differ in essential ways. Some are matters of my particular faith. Some are controversial, but I’ll list them here anyway — and try to resist the temptation to explain at length how each applies to the world as I see it. Feel free to make your own connections, if you will.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, My Two Favorite Authors, and Mother’s Day

I recently added a small canvas print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (Madonna di San Sisto) to the wall of my study. (The original is nearly nine feet tall; my print is sixteen inches tall.) Much of its appeal to me is its connection to my favorite nineteenth century author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and my favorite twentieth century author, Vasily Grossman. (I studied Russian literature quite seriously for a while.) What this has to do with Mother’s Day … we shall see.

“I triumph still, if Thou abide with Me” (a reflection)

One of the unsung joys of Christian worship — there may be a pun there, alas — is encountering verses of a beloved hymn which aren’t in the hymnal you happen to use. A double blessing is discovering (or later remembering) them in a time when they are immediately relevant to you, your loved ones, or the state of things around us generally. This week, I was struck by these lines from the well-beloved hymn on Henry Francis Lyte’s text, “Abide with Me”:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Two Kinds of Christmas, Both Good (an essay)

Here we are, in the shortest days and longest nights of the year. It’s cold and getting colder — a dark season with less life about it, in some ways, than the warmer, greener months. But we don’t hibernate, and most of us don’t fly south for the winter, though by February we may wonder why not. What we have — Christians and non-Christians alike — is the Christmas season.

There are two basic versions of Christmas, sacred and secular. A few people openly oppose both and do their best to erase them from our public life. Some folks embrace one version but not the other, and are either uninterested in or disdainful of the opposite choice.

I’m here to suggest that both versions are good.

Thou, Lord (a poem)

For Max Olsen (1930-2020)**

Thou, Lord, who groaned in agony
When darkness ruled Gethsemane
And daylight mocked on Calvary,
Whose perfect gift has ransomed me,
O turn my wand’ring heart!

Thou, Lord, who spilt thy blood for me
To answer justice’ stern demands,
That sin might keep no claim on me,
Whose grace is graven on thy hands,
O shrive* my selfish heart!

For Latter-day Saints, the Temple Is for Life Outside the Temple (an essay)

Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple. Photo courtesy the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at churchofjesuschrist.org.

These thoughts are primarily for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who generally understand what we do in our temples and why, and how the temple connects to the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it. In case that’s not you, and you’d still like to make sense of the following, let’s take a few paragraphs first and try to give you a foothold.

The Temple: Quick Background

In ordinary times Latter-day Saints meet for worship every Sunday, on our Sabbath, in the local chapel. (Sometimes we call it a meetinghouse or simply a church.) There are thousands of them scattered around the world; they are thick on the ground in Utah suburbs and cities and parts of neighboring states. In the rural Idaho village where I spent my teen years, we had one post office, no stoplights — and three large Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, including two on the same road, a mile and a half apart.

We have far fewer temples in the world, only about 200. These are closed on Sundays. A Latter-day Saint will go to the temple for his or her own rites only two or three times in a lifetime.