LISTEN: “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) / Auld Lang Syne” | Arranged and performed by Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Chris Botti (trumpet), on Songs of Joy & Peace (2008)
The three-word Latin prayer “Dona nobis pacem,” which translates to “Grant us peace,” is part of the Agnus Dei section of the Catholic mass. The traditional melody associated with it likely originated in the sixteenth century.
“Auld Lang Syne” (Old Long Since) uses a traditional Scots folk melody.
In this final track on Yo-Yo Ma and friends’ 2008 holiday album, Ma plays the “Dona Nobis Pacem” theme alone on cello and then is joined by trumpeter Chris Botti playing “Auld Lang Syne” as a countermelody. The two are cozily layered together in an expression of warm wishes for the new year.
LOOK: Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes
After the angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Messiah to a band of shepherds, “they went with haste” to the place where he lay (Luke 2:16). The Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes shows the shepherds’ hurried arrival at the manger. One of them gallops through the door panting, having run from the scene in the upper right corner, and another removes his hat and kneels. Two more stand behind them just outside the shed—one playing a recorder, the other in midclap.
In the center of the composition, the Christ child squirms in his makeshift bed, surrounded by his parents, an ox and ass, and a coterie of angels. At the foot of the manger is a sheaf of wheat, an allusion to Jesus as “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51) and, by extension, to the Eucharist. This painting, after all, was originally made, most likely, to hang over an altar.
In the foreground two men draw open a set of curtains, revealing God made flesh. An actual wooden rod is attached to the panel and painted with rings, enhancing the illusion. Most scholars agree that the men represent Isaiah (left) and Jeremiah (right), Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ (see, e.g., Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:5–6)—though John Moffitt suggests they are the apostles Mark and Paul, two New Testament personages who specifically associate themselves with a veil as a sign of divine manifestation. Either way, these figures act as intermediaries between the viewer and the depicted narrative, inviting us, like the shepherds, to bear witness to the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation and to respond in adoration.
This Adoration, sometimes referred to as van der Goes’s Berlin Nativity, is not the artist’s most famous painting on the subject. That would be the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted a few years earlier.
We are being shown here [in the Incarnation] something profoundly significant about human life—“God speaks in a Son,” a baby son, and reverses all our pet values. He speaks in our language and shows us his secret beauty on our scale. We have got to begin not by an arrogant other-worldliness, but by a humble recognition that human things can be holy, very full of God, and that high-minded speculations about his nature need not be holy at all; that all life is engulfed in him and he can reach out to us anywhere at any level.
As the Christmas Day gospel takes us back to the mystery of the divine nature—In the beginning was the Word . . .—so let us begin by thinking of what St. Catherine called the “Ocean Pacific of the Godhead” enveloping all life. The depth and richness of his being are entirely unknown to us, poor little scraps as we are! And yet the unlimited life who is Love right through—who loves and is wholly present where he loves, on every plane and at every point—so loved the world as to desire to give his essential thought, the deepest secrets of his heart to this small, fugitive, imperfect creation—to us. That seems immense.
And then the heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness—these form the setting of the divine gift. In this child God gives his supreme message to the soul—Spirit to spirit—but in a human way. Outside in the fields the heavens open and the shepherds look up astonished to find the music and radiance of reality all around them. But inside, our closest contact with that same reality is being offered to us in the very simplest, homeliest way—emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby—just that. We are not told that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like the quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer—“The Lord is with thee!” “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.
—Evelyn Underhill, from an address given at the Chelmsford Diocesan Retreat House at Pleshey in May 1932 (published in Light of Christ by Evelyn Underhill, 1945, 2004)
A traditional Tibetan art form, a thangka (roughly pronounced tonka; literally “recorded message”) is a painting on a portable fabric scroll of silk or cotton. Traditionally they depict Tibetan Buddhist deities or influential leaders and are used for personal meditation or instruction of monastic students.
This thangka, however, portrays a Christian narrative: the birth of Jesus Christ. He lies on a leafy bed on the ground, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, two yaks, two horses, and an angel who is seated much like a bodhisattva and who plays the dramnyen (a Himalayan six-stringed lute, roughly pronounced dra-nyen). The stylization of the clouds and mountains is clearly Tibetan, whereas the angels seated on the clouds bear Western influence, as does Mary’s gesture of hands crossed reverently over the chest.
The Nativity Thangka was presented by the Dalai Lama in 1998 to the World Community for Christian Meditation, “a global spiritual community united in the practice of meditation in the Christian tradition . . . shar[ing] the fruits of this practice widely and inclusively . . . and building understanding between faiths and cultures.” It is on display at WCCM’s Bonnevaux outside Poitiers, France, a retreat center that is home to a residential community living in the spirit of Saint Benedict.
LISTEN: “Gawala! Gibala!” (O what joy! O what happiness!), a Tibetan Christmas carol | Composer and lyricist unknown | Performed by the WEC UK Resonance band, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Ian Collinge, the man leading this song in the video above, is an ethnomusicologist who trains people in cross-cultural and multicultural music at All Nations Christian College and London School of Theology. In addition, he and his wife, Helen, lead Arts Release, a ministry of WEC International that they founded in 2008. One of its initiatives is Resonance [previously], a multicultural collective of Christian musicians formed in the UK in 2011 with the aim of integrating songs from the global church into the Western worship repertoire. The Resonance band raises awareness of the beautifully rich diversity of musical expressions that exist around the world to praise the Triune God of the Bible.
Collinge learned “Gawala! Gibala!” while living in Nepal in the 1990s doing music research, which is also when he learned to play the dramnyen. Besides the dramnyen, the recording also uses a Tibetan instrument called the erkha, small pellet-bells that are sometimes attached to the legs and used in dancing or are otherwise played unattached to clothing, as here.
“I can easily imagine this song being done as a dance song, especially as a circle dance,” Collinge tells me. “I am playing it in the Southern Tibetan dramnyen style, distinguished by this tuning and introduction/ending and links patterns, and I have arranged it in the typical slow then fast section format.”
Addendum, 12/30/21: After reading this post, a friend of mine sent me a video of one of her friends, Migmar Dondup Sherpa, playing the same song on the dramnyen! I post it here with his permission. Sherpa is a worship leader at his church in Nepal, and he also writes original worship songs in Nepali and Tibetan.
December 28 is Childermas, or Holy Innocents’ Day, when the church commemorates the slaughter of young male children in Bethlehem by the order of Herod the Great, attempting to quash the threat of a rival king. This, too, is part of the Christmas story. The Gospel account of the “massacre of the innocents” quotes Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, / Rachel weeping for her children; / she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18).
LOOK: Saltcellars by Rebekah Pryor
This ensemble of delicate containers made entirely of salt “is a motif of maternal lament,” says Australian artist Rebekah Pryor. “My Saltcellars functions to preserve and offer a taste of both the bitterness of maternal lament and the wisdom of love that enables the mother to survive it.”
LISTEN: “Mothers and Shepherds” by Brittney Spencer, Emil Sydhage, Gilbert Nanlohy, and Connor Wheaton, 2018 | Released as a single by Common Hymnal (feat. Brittney Spencer), 2019 | CCLI #7141753
Come now and hear the sound Of mothers gathered round Tears are streaming down in Bethlehem Grieving life that didn’t have to end Asking God to justify the pain Never knowing He would feel the same The powerful oppress the prophecy But shepherds passing through have found a King
Rumor has it that a child is born And it’s said that we will call him Lord Heaven’s angels came to let us know That our freedom rests upon His throne So we’ve traveled from across this land Seeking out the new and precious Lamb The One who came and made time stand still When heaven opened up at God’s own will
Hallelujah Glory in the highest King Messiah Savior of the world
Now forever we will sing the song Of the One who was and is to come All creation joins in harmony In declaring He is perfectly
Holy, holy Merciful and mighty God has sent The Savior of the world
Hallelujah Glory in the highest King Messiah Savior of the world
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh Ooh-ooh, ooh Savior of the world Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh Ooh-ooh, ooh Savior of the world
Songwriter Brittney Spencer describes “Mothers and Shepherds” as “a Christmas song that forces hope, disaster, and pursuit to meet on a painful yet dauntingly beautiful path that exposes how much we’ve always needed a savior.” Find the chords here.
No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
—John 1:18 (NLT)
LOOK: The Word by Nicholas Mynheer
This sculpture on the theme of the Incarnation of the Word was commissioned by the Cathedral Church of Saint Philip in Birmingham, England, for the new millennium. The sun shines on the work through the south window, casting light from the colored glass pieces over and across the stone and the surrounding wall.
“The changing light and shadows represent for me the ongoing Incarnation and not merely an historical event,” says artist Nicholas Mynheer. He notes the combination of heaven (glass) and earth (stone).
This is a Trinitarian image: the Father, anthropomorphized but nongendered, presents his glory, the Son, spoken, breathed, coming as infant, and both are embraced by the arcing sweep of the Holy Spirit.
She took it all in: the shepherds and the royal and learned
men with their prophecies and proclamations. Resting among
common beasts, nipples sore and womb-ached, she smiled at
their praise—but her awe had begun with the angel’s decree.
At the mysterious life-pulse deep inside her. When flicker-
kicks strengthened to rolls and turns, elbows and heels in her
ribs. As buttocks bounced on her bladder.
The brightest star above them—a wondrous sign, but no
more miraculous than when, far from her mother and the
other village women, the flesh of her depth awakened and she
willed the baby from contentment into a harsh night. His cry
pierced the darkness, then quieted as, pressed to her breast,
he found her heartbeat again.
“After Luke 2:19” by Michelle Ortega, reproduced here by the author’s permission, was written for the 2021–22 exhibition Mary, Mary: Contemporary Poets and Artists Consider Mary at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. Ortega is the author of the chapbooks Don’t Ask Why (Seven Kitchens Press, 2020) and Tissue Memory (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming).
LISTEN: “Jesus, Light of the World” | Words by Charles Wesley (stanzas), 1739, and George D. Elderkin (refrain), 1890 | Music by George D. Elderkin, 1890 | Performed by Isaac Cates and Ordained on Carol of the Bells, 2014 (soloists: Margaret Rainey and Kami Woodard)
Hark! the herald angels sing. Jesus, the light of the world. Glory to the newborn King, Jesus, the light of the world.
We’ll walk in the light, beautiful light. Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright. Oh, shine all around us by day and by night. Jesus, the light of the world.
Joyful, all you nations, rise. Jesus, the light of the world. Join the triumph of the skies. Jesus, the light of the world.
Christ, by highest heav’n adored. Jesus, the light of the world. Christ, the everlasting Lord, Jesus, the light of the world.
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace. Jesus, the light of the world. Hail the Sun of righteousness! Jesus, the light of the world.
In 1890 Chicago publisher George D. Elderkin adapted Charles Wesley’s beloved Christmas hymn text “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” using the first two lines of Wesley’s stanzas 1, 2, 3, and 5 and adding a refrain that’s based on a Fanny Crosby text from 1880. For the music, he wrote a gospel waltz. Although Elderkin was not African American, this hymn has become especially well loved in Black churches. Read a more detailed history of the hymn’s composition at the UMC Discipleship website.
Isaac Cates’s 2014 arrangement and recording is my favorite. Cates is a gospel vocalist, arranger, and pianist who performs with his choir, Ordained.
Linda Syddick (Aboriginal name Tjunkiya Wukula Napaltjarri) (ca. 1937–2021) was a Pintupi artist from Australia’s Western Desert region whose work was influenced by her Christian and Indigenous beliefs and heritage. Living a seminomadic lifestyle until the age of eight or nine, she settled with her family at the Lutheran Mission at Haasts Bluff in the 1940s. She was taught to paint in the 1980s by her uncles Uta Uta Tjangala and Nosepeg Tjupurrula, who were both significant figures in the Papunya Tula art movement. She painted Tingari and biblical stories and was a three-time finalist for the prestigious Blake Prize, a religious art competition. Her works are held by the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and many other institutions.
In Syddick’s 2003 Nativity, a series of wavy, concentric blue and white lines encompass Joseph, baby Jesus, and Mary, while many more lines in blue and beige converge on the trio from the image’s border. To me the artwork conveys a vibrating joy! And myriad pathways leading to the birth of the Savior.
Jesus is the centerpiece of the composition, a little tot represented geometrically as a circle. What do you see in this form? A sun? An egg? A pebble thrown into a lake, sending ripples outward? A reverberant well?
LISTEN: “Shout Your Joy” | Original German words by Johannes David Falk, 1816 (stanza 1), and Heinrich Holzschuher, 1826 (stanzas 2–3) | English translator unknown | Music by Reindeer Tribe, 2011
O thou joyous day! O thou holy day! Gladsome Christmas is here again!
O thou joyous day! O thou holy day! Gladsome Christmas is here again! When the world was rent and torn, Christ was born on Christmas morn! Shout your joy to all the world! Shout your joy to all the world!
O thou joyous day! O thou holy day! Gladsome Christmas is here again! Christ now is living, his mercy giving. Shout your joy to all the world! Shout your joy to all the world!
O thou joyous day! O thou holy day! Gladsome Christmas is here again! Choirs of angels singing, joy and honor bringing, Shout your joy to all the world! Shout your joy to all the world!
This song by Reindeer Tribe has its origins in a tri-holiday hymn written in German in 1816 by Johannes David Falk. Falk wrote one stanza for each of the three main festivals of the church year—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—for the use of the children at the orphans’ school he ran in Weimar, paired with a preexisting tune known as O SANCTISSIMA or SICILIAN MARINERS. After Falk’s death, in 1826, his assistant Heinrich Holzschuher isolated the Christmas stanza and added two additional stanzas, turning it into a carol, known by its opening phrase, “O du Fröhliche” (O Thou Joyous [Day]). This Christmas carol is still widely sung in Germany today.
O du fröhliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit! Welt ging verloren, Christ ist geboren: Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!
O du fröhliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit! Christ ist erschienen, uns zu versöhnen: Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!
O du fröhliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit! Himmlische Heere jauchzen Dir Ehre: Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!
Reindeer Tribe chose one of the several available English translations (translator unknown) and wrote new music for it that really captures its celebratory spirit. They add a repeat of the last line of each stanza and call the song “Shout Your Joy.” If you’re looking for recordings in English that use the traditional tune, you can search under “O Thou Joyful Day” or “Oh How Joyfully.” For alternative English translations, which each has merit, see here, here, and (by Beale M. Schmucker) here.
Ring the bells for Christmas Vigil Ring the bells and light your candles now The stars are out
All the angels with covered faces Let all mortal flesh keep silence now All devout Keep silence now All devout
Ring the bells in every tower Ring the bells, let every hour tell All will be well
All the faithful come together Hear the name they love and know so well Emmanuel All is well Emmanuel
Ring the bells for Christmas Vigil Ring the bells and light your candles now The stars are out Keep silence now All devout
Lee Bozeman’s Jubilee is a wonderful little acoustic EP with three originals and a traditional. The title track, which Bozeman refers to as “a sorrow,” begins, “The kids won’t be home for Christmas . . .” That’s followed by “The First Artificial Snow of the Year,” an instrumental piano piece with jingle bells. Then “Down in Yon Forest,” a Renaissance-era carol from England that Bozeman sings a cappella. And lastly, “Christmas Vigil,” my favorite of the four—slow and solemn like the others, with understated echo effects, and I don’t know what that sound is he’s producing for the last thirty seconds, but it suggests an arrival.
Christmas Vigil is a common practice across church traditions, though the particulars may vary. Many churches hold their vigil around midnight on December 24, the time when Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas Day, so that the congregation can welcome in the feast of Christ’s birth just as soon as the clock ticks over into the a.m. (We have accounts of Midnight Masses being celebrated on Christmas Eve as early as the fourth century in Jerusalem.)
Other churches hold their Christmas Eve service earlier in the evening. Candlelight and corporate carol singing are usually involved. Churches that have lit an Advent wreath for each of the previous four Sundays will complete the wreath by lighting the Christ candle in the center.
Some Christians worship at home instead on this day with just their own family unit, perhaps with an informal liturgy or with special family traditions.
No matter how you mark the day, I pray that you are filled with excitement for God’s arrival in human flesh—that divine gift of himself—and with the peaceful assurance that, as God promised, all will be well.
This is the final post in the 2021 Advent Series—thank you for journeying with me through the season! Daily posts will continue throughout the twelve days of Christmas to the feast of Epiphany on January 6.
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