You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2010.

Last year at this time, the Revd Canon W Gordon Reid blogged:

After Thursday’s High Mass, as the congregation leave, I will wish them a Happy Circumcision – well, some of them – those with a sense of humour (which is almost all)! The modern Church has gone all prissy about the name of this Feast, calling it the Naming of Jesus or even changing it to Mary, Mother of God. I prefer the earthiness of the Circumcision, which rams home the fact that Jesus was fully human, fully Jewish and fully helpless. All three of these attributes are vital in comprehending what God was doing through his Son in the Incarnation.

And if you are ever on Mastermind or any such quiz game, and you are asked: “When did Jesus first shed his blood for mankind?” the answer is not “On the Cross” but “When he was circumcised”. It may astonish the quiz-master, but the Catholic Faith is often astonishing.

One of his readers refers us to The New Liturgical Movement for the history of this feast commemorated on New Year’s Day in the Catholic Church (emphases mine throughout):

It is historically known as the feast of the Circumcision; the Gospel, St. Luke 2, 21, recounts that the infant Jesus, in fulfillment of the ancient covenant given to Abraham, was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth. Likewise, following the custom of the Jewish people, He was named on the same day, with the holy name given to Him by the Angel before He was conceived …

The first of January is, of course, the octave day of Christmas, and the circumcision and naming of Christ are set by the Mass as the consummation of the feast of His Nativity … In the Missal of the St. Pius V, however, the prayers of the Mass refer neither to the Circumcision, nor to the octave of Christmas. It was formerly the custom of the church of Rome to celebrate the last day of the Christmas octave as a feast of the Virgin Mary, much as the Byzantine Rite keeps December 26th as the “Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God” …

The medieval liturgist Sicard of Cremona, writing in about 1200 A.D., explains the tradition of the two observances which were later united into a single feast:

On Christmas Day, two feasts come together,… (one) of the Mother and (one) of the Son; but because of the festival of the Son, we cannot fully celebrate the Mother … therefore also two Masses are celebrated, the first of the Mother, Vultum tuum (now the votive Mass of the Virgin in the Christmas season), and another of the Son, Puer natus est nobis; but if anyone wishes to omit one of them, let him not omit the one that regards the Virgin, so that he may say the prayer Deus, qui salutis æternæ.

There is, however, a fourth element to the day’s observance, which was formerly of the greatest importance. In the ancient Roman world, as in our own, New Year’s was generally celebrated with a great deal of raucous behavior, dancing and drinking of a sort not in keeping with Christian morals. In many places, therefore the liturgy of the day was celebrated as a day of fasting and penance, against the excesses of the pagan world. A few traces of this survive in various places; for example, the Mass of the Circumcision repeats the epistle of the first Mass of Christmas because of the words “…instructing us that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly, and godly in this world.”

The station of New Year’s Day was originally assigned to the Pantheon, the “temple of all the gods”, which was dedicated as a church in honor of the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs in the year 609 by Pope Boniface IV. The choice was clearly made so that the commemoration of the Mother of God could be celebrated in a place which also symbolizes the victory of the Christian faith and the one God over all of the many gods of the pagan world.

The readings in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer clearly reflect the notion of turning away from the ungodly via a spiritual circumcision:

The Collect. Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true Circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Epistle. Rom. 4. 8. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.

The Gospel. St. Luke 2. 15. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The same Collect, Epistle, and Gospel shall serve for every day after unto the Epiphany.

Unlike Canon Reid, I won’t be wishing you a happy circumcision but a happy New Year in the hopes that 2011 will be ‘new’ as we make continued and more concerted efforts to turn from sin towards newness of life.

Pope Benedict XVI delivered a unique message on Christmas Eve this year, as he is the first Pontiff ever to deliver BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

The Press Association — via Yahoo! UK — tells us he recalled with ‘great fondness’ his trip to Great Britain in the autumn.

He also pointed out the type of liberation that Christ, in His humanity, delivered to us (emphasis mine below):

He told listeners: “Our thoughts turn back to a moment in history when God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, were waiting in intense expectation. They were waiting for the Messiah that God had promised to send.”

He went on: “God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them.”

For the Messiah did not bring a political liberation achieved through military means, the Pope said. “He did bring liberation, but not only for the people in that time and place.”

Christ destroyed death forever “by means of his shameful death on the cross”, he added.

“I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this holy season.”

This is an essential message for us to be reminded of not only during the Christmas season but the whole year through.

So many clergy — including many Catholic bishops — get wrapped up in liberation theology and social justice.  Yet, contrary to what Christ’s contemporaries at the time expected, he came not to deliver us from political oppression but the eternal bondage of sin through His death and resurrection.

As blogger Anna Wood, an Anglican, says, ‘The Cross Is All’.  How true, and how refreshing it is to be reminded of it by good Christians everywhere.

Enjoy these posts while they last, because my subscription expires soon.  I’m counting down the weeks!

More globalisation from our concerned, learned friends at The Economist — a ‘newspaper’, you understand, never a magazine.

Page by page, I read, digesting from cover to cover.  Some of it was actually good.  Here are a few gems from their ‘Special Christmas Double Issue’ (emphases mine):

Letter from two academics at Arizona universities (p. 20) taking the newspaper to task over promoting genetically modified seeds (hooray!):

It would be far more cost-effective to support local farmers in their breeding and evaluation of selected varieties already in community seed banks. The diversity of heirloom seeds offers rural communities far more pragmatic options than the Gates Foundation and Monsanto can generate with all their wealth.

‘The U-Bend of Life’, an article on happiness (pp. 33-36) intimates that extroverts are happier than those who are ‘neurotic’, a trait they associate with introversion, yet, ‘studies show’ that childless households are happier than those with children.  Also, the older you get, the happier you are.  They also say, ‘Happier people are more productive, too.’  I’m not so sure about that;  I take a pessimistic view of life and I have always been able to churn out work by the shedload.  My extroverted colleagues were always well behind schedule, mostly because they gabbed the day away.  In case you are wondering, the ‘U-bend’ referred to has to do with a decrease in happiness until age 46, at which point, things start looking up again.  They conclude, in a rather patronising way (remember, the people writing this tripe are probably only in their 20s, and 20-somethings never grow old!):

the cheerfulness of the old should help counteract their loss of productivity through declining cognitive skills — a point worth remembering as the world works out how to deal with an ageing workforce.

‘Time, Gentlemen’, an article on pub closures in Britain (pp.39-41), states:

The church can go, long since the preserve of a flower-arranging few; the local shop can go, since the distant hypermarket’s cheapness is worth the petrol; but the vanishing of a pub means, by common consent, the loss of a beating heart of a community, in town or countryside.

There is one main reason why pubs are closing which the couple-thousand word essay does not mention or even hint at: the 2007 smoking ban.  This is why people are having what are known as ‘smoky-drinkies’, informal bring-your-own parties in friends’ homes.  Everything else is incidental, especially pubco control on supply and pricing to publicans.  If smoking sections still existed, we wouldn’t have this magnitude of closures.

‘What went wrong?’, is about cultural tensions in Luton, Bedfordshire (p. 44):

Are these just typical post-industrial woes, or is this seemingly blighted town evidence that British multi-culturalism is in crisis?

Sarah Allen, the borough’s community-cohesion officer, dismisses that generalisation. ‘Apparently we’re sitting at the epicentre of the world clash of civilisations.  I don’t see that.’

No, I wouldn’t expect a government community-cohesion officer to see that, either.  My commiserations to the people of Luton.  I don’t have an answer for them, I’m afraid, but sweeping real problems under the carpet, as Ms Allen has, only exacerbates the situation.

‘Nasty, brutish and not that short’ discusses men from the Middle Ages (pp. 50-52) and quotes archaeologist Christopher Knüsel from the University of Exeter:

‘It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted’, says Mr Knüsel.

Please pass me the Bravo Sierra button, because if you have ever visited the châteaux in the Loire Valley, many of which were built during the Renaissance or Baroque periods, you will see how short the beds are. My classmates and I audibly gasped when we saw them decades ago. The guides will tell you that people then were much shorter than we are today.

‘In the bleak midwinter’ explores long-term unemployment in the United States (pp.69-70).  They refer to an unfortunate lady, Moira McKamey of Wilmington, Ohio, as having been ‘sacked’, when she has most likely been made redundant (laid off), along with 8,000 of her colleagues in Ohio.  She retrained as a certified medical assistant, but was not offered a permanent job after one 90-day job trial.  Mrs McKamey’s husband,  Randy, was also interviewed.  He, too, hopes that she finds a secure position somewhere.

The article concludes — again, no help from our pals who are sitting pretty in St James Street and offices worldwide:

Workers may be discouraged or their skills may decay.  Employers may be wary of someone who has been out of the labour force for more than a year … When the economy recovers at last, many will be left behind.

No, really?  Who knew?  And, yet … see the next entry for more double-talk from The Economist.

‘Fields of tears’ discusses why Americans should not be upset by illegal immigration (pp. 75-78).  On Americans applying to work in farmers’ fields:

Only 8,600 people expressed an interest in working in the fields … But they made demands that seem bizarre to farmworkers, such as high pay, health and pension benefits, relocation allowances and other things associated with normal American jobs.

Yes, well, that tells you there is a problem with the way fruit and vegetable harvesting is done, not with American job seekers.  This is why I take a lot of encouragement to eat something other than protein or carbohydrate.  I’m much better the older I get, but, even in the UK, I never pick up a piece of fruit or vegetable without wondering who picked it and under what conditions.  If I could go without fruit or vegetables, I would.  Maybe I should start growing my own.

The article concludes:

People … will always keep coming, no matter the fences that go up on the border and the helicopters that circle above.

I’m sorry, that’s just not true.  This is a relatively recent problem in American history.  We did not have illegal immigration in this magnitude when I was growing up.  Another Bravo Sierra moment.

‘Fire in the hole’ provides a critical look at barbecue (pp. 79-80).  I bet you never knew how expert The Economist was at this quintessentially American cuisine:

Mediocre Carolina pork will bring back memories of school dinners and premonitions of the nursing home.

… northern Alabama’s is an abomination based on mayonnaise …

‘A smaller welcome mat’ explores immigration to Canada (p. 81):

Aklilu Wendaferew, who works with the homeless and Ethiopian immigrants in Toronto, says the familiarity that comes from living and working with immigrants daily counteracts fears of foreigners …

Funny, but I have partied, worked and studied with a number of Canadians and have never found them fearful of foreigners.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I’m hitting the Bravo Sierra button here.

‘Lights, camera, Africa’ is a great article on the African film industry (pp. 85-87).  However, I question whether the secularists praising the Christian overtones of these films, especially with the message ‘To God Be the Glory’ at the end of the credits (wonderful touch!), would be so eager to do so were the film makers Wee Frees in Northern Ireland.

‘A village in a million’ discusses the caste system in India thoroughly (pp. 93-96).  Here’s a phrase — typical of The Economist — that you can dine out on: ‘the Gangetic plain’.  If you wish to sound more learned, just drop that into the odd conversation or two.

‘You choose’ tries to convince us consumers that we have far too many choices (pp. 113-115), because left-wing psychologists say so.  They say people get confused.  I’ve never known anyone who was ‘confused’ and ‘tyrannised’ by more choice!  Please, Economistas, we’re adults! This is the 21st century! Leave us and our choices alone.  For those who want grape jelly, fine.  For those of us who prefer quince jam, that is an equally fine choice!

‘Offshoring your lawyer’ (p. 121) tells us we should have no fear about going abroad for legal advice.  How does that work exactly if someone has not passed the bar exam in the country you happen to be in?

‘Suitably dressed’ examines the evolution of men’s suits (pp. 127-128):

[Beau] Brummel’s look would not pass muster in a modern boardroom.

Another daft comment. Soldiers dressed in Napoleonic uniforms (worn by Brummel’s contemporaries across the Channel in France) couldn’t do battle today, either.  What else is new?

The last several pages of the issue are filled with MBA school (‘B-school’) adverts, including a full-page one for INSEAD.  Somehow, I once worked in a tiny department full of INSEAD grads, none of whom previously knew each other.  I always wondered how they got their diplomas …  Oh, well, that’s for another time, I guess.

On December 7, 2010, V Gene Robinson, the IX Bishop of New Hampshire, in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, and a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., wrote a guest column (second of a series) for the Washington Post entitled ‘Homosexuality in Leviticus’.

It’s a highly persuasive piece of writing — as are the comments — for those who are biblically illiterate.  I’ll just give you a brief excerpt — warning for readers who are parents with young children:

Oddly enough, we have relaxed these “rules” against a man “spilling his seed” through masturbation and birth control, yet we hold onto “a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman” as if it were eternally binding on believers. Such an inconsistency simply does not make sense.

Given these changes in our modern understandings and contexts, it is no longer appropriate for us to condemn men who have intimate sexual relationships with other men based on this proscription in the Leviticus Holiness Code. Either all of these proscriptions must be tossed out as binding on us, or they all must be adhered to. Biblical “literalists” cannot have it both ways, picking and choosing which proscriptions are still appropriate.

Hmm.  Interesting.

Even if ‘we’ — how? who? culturally? mainstream Christianity? — have relaxed our views on sexual congress outside of marriage, has Holy Scripture?  It’s not up to us to pick and choose our sins, is it?

Throughout both the Old and New Testament, from Leviticus through to Revelation — including Jesus’s words in the Gospels — we are reminded that sexual sin in general still holds. Jesus had strong words on sins which can condemn us for eternity.  This is what He said in Mark 7:20-23 (emphases mine):

20And he said,  “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

St Paul had this to say in Romans 1:26-27 and 1:32:

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error … 32Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

And in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and later in the chapter in verses 17 through 20:

9 Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, 10 Nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God …

17 But he who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit. 18 Fly fornication. Every sin that a man doth, is without the body; but he that committeth fornication, sinneth against his own body.  19 Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own ? 20 For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.

Then, we have Jude 1:7:

7 The people of Sodom and Gomorrah and the towns around them also did evil things. They gave themselves over to sexual sins. They committed sins of the worst possible kind. They are an example of those who are punished with fire. The fire never goes out.

A number of Christians — regardless of their orientation — have been guilty of serious sexual sin, particularly today.  It is up to us, with God’s grace, to repent. This isn’t simply a matter of saying ‘sorry’ but of turning our lives around (the true meaning of ‘repentance’).

Yes, we are called to love each other.  Love does not mean acceptance of biblically-defined sin.  Love means urging our brothers and sisters in Christ to renounce deadly sin, that which deprives us of eternity with Him.

We must guard against reading these articles and thinking, ‘Gee, a bishop said so; it must be true’.  I’m criticising myself here, too, because a few years ago, I would have said exactly that.

Read the Bible along with a good commentary.  Our ‘acceptance world’, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Powell, is a recent one.  The Bible is the unchanging, inerrant Word of God.  There is nothing in Scripture saying to modify it as we move through the ages!

Here in the mousehole, we foresook many of the seasonal televisual offerings and relied instead on classic standbys.

Because of Spouse Mouse’s aversion to The Royle Family and Peep Show, two diametrically opposed slices of English family life, I watched them alone.

I enjoy The Royle Family for the reasons that Spouse Mouse dislikes it — the natural dialogue that the writers are able to script.  (At this point, Spouse Mouse says, ‘You mean someone actually writes that stuff? I’m off to bed.’)  I should be totally bored and unsettled were I to spend Christmas with Jim, Barbara, their children and neighbours in Manchester.  At least this year they sat down to a proper lunch, unlike in 2009, when everything went wrong and descended into a pagan mayhem around the table.  Yet, there must be any number of families in England sitting in casual clothes around the dinner table and serving turkey gravy out of a plastic measuring jug.  Hmm!  The conversation is so empty, yet so meaningful to the insiders there.  It has been said that informal groups of people have their own private ‘code’ of speech and conduct.  Saskia, son Anthony’s girlfriend, isn’t sure whether to be bemused or amused.  Cringe-worthy, fly-on-the-wall telly!

As was Peep Show, which isn’t pornographic at all.  From the Northern, working-class setting of The Royle Family, we move to a southern middle-class Christmas in South London.  In real life, the show’s stars, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, met at Cambridge University and were part of the Cambridge Footlights, which propels many to media stardom.  Mitchell’s character, Mark Corrigan, invites his family to Christmas lunch.  His girlfriend Dobby and flatmate Jez (Webb) are there, too.  Mr Corrigan, pater familias, prefers things his way — from Christmas dinner to his wife’s choice of career.  Mark, meanwhile, fears telling his family about his IT geek girlfriend-fiancée Dobby.  Some telling and amusing moments revolve around the setting of Christmas expectations, from the choice of presents to the ‘order’ of the festivities.  Another great snapshot of modern English family life.

We spent some of our late evenings together watching Christmas movies and interspersing them with a compilation of the best of Mister Ed, yes, the early 1960s American television show featuring the ‘famous’ talking horse and his master-best friend, Wilbur Post, played by Alan Young.   What impressed us was how nicely the middle class dressed in 1962, even to go to the dry cleaner: ‘day dresses’ (as they were called) for the ladies and jacket and tie for men.  As social history of suburbia, it’s a wonderful slice of life.  I particularly noted how nicely neighbour Kay Addison laid her table for a weekday lunch just for her and her husband: pristine tablecloth, water goblets and best china.  Hmm!

Christmas movie viewing in the mousehole consisted of Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street (Edmund Gwenn) and, for me, a particular ‘new’ favourite, Metropolitan, an independent film from Whit Stillman released in 1990. (Photo courtesy of ReelReviews.) If you want to know how the debutante ‘season’ works — and it’s cheap as chips for the right young men — this is it.  It takes place during December in Manhattan.  It’s got all the best Christmas scenes of New York as well as beautiful clothes and settings: the St Regis, elegant flats, the finest formal clothes.  It explores the dying bourgeoisie through their eyes and conversations at parties that begin after formal dances and end in the wee hours of the morning.  It’s about friendship, loyalty, morality and the future.  It was shown on the BBC here in November.  I’ve seen it four times since then.  If you can get hold of a copy, it would make excellent viewing for church groups of college juniors and seniors.  It’s a clean film which explores the problems and questions that people of that age and situation struggle with.  A modern classic with an intelligent script to match.

Christmas often brings out the best stories: entertaining, true-to-life and memorable.  Well, now with the thaw here in southern England, it’s time to get back into the kitchen and rustle up some post-Christmas treats!

December 26 is St Stephen’s feast day.

He is the Church’s first martyr.  Acts 6 and 7 recount his story, adapted here in this short yet moving video:

Shawn Boonstra, who offers devotionals via YouTube, discusses St Stephen and the lessons we can learn from his life:

Saul — the future Paul of the epistles and saint — approved Stephen’s sentence to death by stoning.  The story of Saul’s conversion appears in Acts 9.

Here is a short video of other early disciples who died for their faith:

Before we go about our day — for some this may include shopping or family visits and for others a return to work — let us give thanks to Almighty God that the prophecy described in Isaiah 9 has been fulfilled.

Isaiah 9:6-7

6For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.


Today is also Boxing Day, still celebrated as a public holiday in UK and parts of the British Commonwealth.

To find out more about this day and to glimpse another painting of the Nativity, see my post dated December 26, 2009.


A word about the artwork

The painting above is called Concert of Angels and Nativity, which Matthias Grünewald (Mathis Gothardt) created around 1515.

Wikipedia states:

The details of his life are unusually unclear for a painter of his significance at this date, despite the fact that his commissions show that he had reasonable recognition in his own lifetime. His real name remains uncertain, but was definitely not Grünewald; this was a mistake by the seventeenth-century writer, Joachim von Sandrart, who confused him with another artist. He is documented as “Master Mathis” or “Mathis the Painter” (Mathis der Maler), and as using as surname both Gothart and Neithardt — this last may have been his surname, or more likely that of his wife. He was probably born in Würzburg in the 1470s. It is possible he was a pupil of Hans Holbein the Elder. From about 1500, he seems to have lived at Seligenstadt, when not working elsewhere.

His first dated painting is probably in Munich, dated 1503 on a much later note which apparently records an older inscription. From about 1510 to 1525 he served in the Rhineland as court painter, architect—or at least supervisor of building works—and hydraulic engineer to two successive Prince-Archbishops of Mainz, Uriel von Gemmingen and Albert of Brandenburg (whose face he used for a St Erasmus in Munich). He left this post possibly because of sympathies either with the German Peasants’ War, in which Seligenstadt was particularly caught up, or Lutheranism (he had some Lutheran pamphlets and papers at his death). Grünewald died in Halle, probably in 1528, or perhaps 1531.

The Concert of Angels and Nativity forms part of the Isenheim Altarpiece, displayed in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar (Alsace), France — a lovely part of the world, as I spent a week there travelling whilst at university.  The altarpiece was painted for the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim. The monks there took care of people with skin diseases, some of which are depicted in some of the religious scenes.

Grünewald’s work was confused with Albrecht Dürer’s:

The Protestant theologian Philipp Melanchthon is one of the few contemporary writers to refer to Grünewald, who is rather puzzlingly described as “moderate” in style, when compared with Dürer and Cranach; what paintings this judgement is based on is uncertain. By the end of the century, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II embarked on his quest to secure as many Dürer paintings as possible, the Isenheim Altarpiece was already generally believed to be a Dürer

He is one of a small number of artists to be commemorated by the Church with a feast day:

Grünewald is honored together with Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on August 5.

He is commemorated as an artist and saint by the Lutheran Church on April 6, along with Dürer and Cranach.

With regard to this particular painting, Crystal at Perspective was able to find information on it at The Web Gallery of Art. I couldn’t find the same information, so am grateful that she reproduced their explanation:

The musician angels are crowded into the Gothic chapel which fills the left half of the painting. In fact only three of them have instruments in their hands, and only one of them stands out, a blond-haired angel dressed in pale violet robe kneeling and playing the viola da gamba. His exalted expression and his beautiful instrument, however, fill the entire picture with music. The peculiar position of his hand, the way he holds the bow at the wrong end, is certainly not in accordance with contemporary practice; it is merely a compositional solution employed by the master. Behind him we can see one of his mates playing the viola da braccio, and on the left, behind the column, another bird-like, feather-covered angel who also plays the viola da gamba. Grünewald no longer makes the distinction between the nine orders of angels, but refers to their former hierarchy by depicting them as different.

A long-haired female figure, wearing a crown and surrounded by a halo, appears in the doorway of the chapel. She is perhaps a female saint or, according to more recent interpretations, Mary herself before giving birth. The crystal jug on the steps symbolizes her, and the tub and towel refer to the bath to be given the newborn.

Mary, lovingly embracing her child, occupies the right half of the painting. She is flooded with heavenly light originating from God the Father, in which angels flutter around. In the rear on the right we can see the two angels bearing the news to the shepherds. The garden in which Mary sits is a walled-in “hortus conclusus” (enclosed garden) with closed gates. The plants – the rose and the Tree of the Knowledge, the fig tree – also symbolizes Mary.

This altarpiece inspired Paul Hindemith, one of the most significant German composers of the 20th century, to create his opera and symphony entitled “Mathis the Painter”.

Enjoy the remainder of the 12 days of Christmas and give glory to God for sending His Son to be our Lord and Saviour!

Best wishes to all my readers for a very happy Christmas!

(Emphases mine below.)

John 1:1-17 (King James Version)

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2The same was in the beginning with God.

3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.*

7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

15John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

16And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

17For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

* John the Baptist


A word about the artwork

The painting above dates from 1622.  It is called Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, a Dutch Golden Age painter, studied in Italy and took his influences from Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, as you can see from the way the light plays on the Holy Family and the shepherds.

Wikipedia tells us:

Returning home in about 1620, after acquiring a considerable practice in Rome, he set up a flourishing school in Utrecht. Together with his colleague Hendrick ter Brugghen, he represented the so-called Dutch Caravaggisti. In 1623 he was president of the Guild of St. Luke in Utrecht, when he also married. He soon became so fashionable that Sir Dudley Carleton, then English envoy at The Hague, recommended his works to the Earl of Arundel and Lord Dorchester. In 1626 he hosted a dinner for Rubens …

He then lived in England for some years under the patronage of Charles I, where he was much acclaimed.  When he returned to Utrecht, his reputation as an artist continued to bring him commissioned portraits by and of the aristocracy.  Yet, he also painted more everyday subjects, one of his best known works being The Matchmaker (1625).

You can see another Northern European nativity painting in my 2009 Christmas post.

For those celebrating Christmas, I wish you a feast day of happiness and joy as we recall the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on December 25.

To introduce our festive celebration, here is a beautiful rendition of ‘Carol of the Bells’ accompanied by a home illuminations show (caution — flashing lights) by Richard Holdman of Pleasant Grove, Utah:

Many of us — myself included — think of this uplifiting melody as American, but it is actually a Ukrainian folk song adapted by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (1877-1921) in 1916.  A traditional Slavic legend says that every bell in the world rings in Jesus’s honour on the night of His birth.

And, whilst we watch the video, here is the Christmas story according to the Gospel of St Luke (Luke 2:1-21).  Mr Holdman’s site features a biblical narrative.  Here are the verses from the King James Version:

1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

21And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Here’s a Christmas carol which I rarely hear sung, ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’.  This a capella rendition is by the men’s choir of Bethel Baptist Church in Bangalore (India). They sing at the tempo I remember — rather upbeat and certainly uplifting:

This carol had its origins in In Dulci Jubilo, which is attributed to the German mystic and Dominican monk Heinrich Suso (Seuse), dating back to 1328.  In Dulci Jubilo is known as a ‘macaronic’ carol, meaning that it combines Latin with a vernacular (commonly spoken) language — in this case, German.

‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ is the Revd John Mason Neale’s 1853 translation of In Dulci Jubilo.  Some scholars of church music have criticised Neale’s musical collaborator Thomas Helmore for ‘tinkering with a perfect tune’, but many prefer its pace.

For those who prefer the slightly slower version, here is St John’s Episcopal Church choir in Detroit:

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