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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,
In that fear doubteth thee.George MacDonald, The Disciple, 1867
I accept the truth of John’s statement about perfect love. I think my made-up version about perfect faith is probably true as well. But to date I have found neither perfect love nor perfect faith in myself. Maybe there have been a few exceptional moments of fleeting near-perfection scattered through the decades of my life, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Yet I have some faith, and I do love — amid my doubts and fears.
You and I live our lives in imperfect love and imperfect faith. We hope both virtues are maturing in us, but perfection is a distant goal, and our progress depends utterly on abundant grace from a Source outside ourselves.
Meanwhile, remember that “grain of mustard seed”? (See Matthew 17:20.) Our faith doesn’t have to be perfect to be real. A small amount, amid our doubts, can be enough for today.
I’ve been thinking a lot about music during this Christmas season. It’s not just because Offspring #3 is playing at Carnegie Hall (a concert last night and another on Friday; I wish we were there). And it’s not just because my wife’s organ playing in our Christmas service on Sunday afternoon was as glorious as ever, if not more so. At least since my teen years, when I made my share of it, the music of Christmas has been my favorite part of the season.
My favorite hymns, carols, and performances thereof have varied somewhat over the years – though mostly in the sense that my list of favorites has multiplied. Even now, after more than half a hundred Christmases, I am still adding favorites. For example, last year an old hymn, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” made the list. I now have four different recordings of it on my iPhone, and I like them all. (See below for a performance on YouTube.)
This season, bits of text more than whole songs have had me pondering. I’ve long appreciated Christmas hymns which celebrate but also look beyond the (mostly) sweet story of the Savior’s birth. For example, “Once in Royal David’s City” looks to a glorious future (again, see below for a video):
I talked recently with some non-LDS friends and neighbors in Utah Valley. They’ve lived here for years, and they know us Mormons (officially, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) quite well. In speaking of their experience here, they praised us for welcoming their particular religious minority among us. I gratefully add that they were philosophical and forgiving about our occasional clumsiness and outright failures on that score over the years.
When we truly welcome others into our towns and neighborhoods – and homes, hearts, and circles of friends – we’re not just being nice. We’re obeying two key commandments. Both are literally as old as Moses.