Joy and Shadow, Free Will and Something Silly

Advent started November 29, a couple Sundays back. It’s my faith’s Christmas warmup. I’ll get back to that.

'Deck the aisles with panicked shoppers....' 'The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee.' (November 26, 2017)My culture’s Christmas begins after Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Our traditionally-frenzied holiday shopping season does, at any rate.

This year’s liturgical Christmas season runs from Christmas to January 10, 2021. I’ll get more than the traditional 12 days of Christmas, which doesn’t strike me as a problem.

I’ll probably get back to Macy’s holiday slogan — “Love. Give. Believe.” — on another day. Along with what C. S. Lewis called “the commercial racket.”

“Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. … The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. … But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business.
“I mean of course the commercial racket….”
(“What Christmas Means to Me,” C. S. Lewis (1957) via The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis and Tim Collinses/University of Rochester)

My attitude toward the glitz and plastic pomp is somewhere between “‘Bah!’ … ‘Humbug!'” and ‘more julekaga, please!’ Although minimizing julekaga is a good idea. It’s pronounced yulekaga, and that’s another topic.

Today I’ll be talking about Advent’s serious side: a song that’s been sung at funerals, a Nativity painting’s crucifix, introspection and shortcomings.

Also ♪ magi on Segways with Amazon cartons. ♪ (Try singing it to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” from “Sound of Music:” The bit that goes “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens….”)

Anyway, these are today’s headings:

“Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” — Plainsong, Burial Chant and Advent Hymn

'Veni Emmanuel,' in 'Bone Jesu dulcis cunctis.'
(From Bibliothèque Nationale de Franc, via, used w/o permission.)
(Part of “Veni Emmanuel,” in “Bone Jesu dulcis cunctis.” (1500 or thereabouts))

European monks added “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” to their pre-Christmas plainsongs a dozen centuries back. Give or take a bit. Probably.

The first three words, “come, come Emmanuel,” sum up what Advent is about. We’re looking forward to our Lord’s coming.

The earliest Latin text I know of popped up in 18th-century Germany. It’s been translated into German and English several times since then.

A German hymnologist published a Latin version in 1844.

An Anglican priest translated the German-Latin text into English, which got the lyrics started in my native language. They’ve been rewritten and expanded several times.

A German Englishman named Thomas Helmore put English lyrics to a singable tune. Helmore said the tune was in a French missal he’d found in the Lisbon National Library. Maybe that’s so. But researchers didn’t discover which missal he’d read.

That encouraged speculation that Helmore wrote the tune himself.

Fast-forward to 1966. An Augustinian canoness found our ‘oh come Emmanuel’ tune in the French National Library. It was in “Bone Jesu dulcis cunctis,” a 15th-century compilation of processional chants for burials.

These days, we call the tune “Veni Emmanuel.” Those of us who are into music, music history and Latin, anyway.1

Heaven’s Peace: a Work in Progress

A fair number of us sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” with these extra lyrics:

“…Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Envy, strife and quarrels obviously haven’t ceased. Heaven’s peace doesn’t fill the world. I’d like to say it fills me, but I can’t. Not without offending truth — and God — which is a kind of trouble I don’t need. Don’t need more of, that is.

Happily, noticing when I offend truth and God is an option. So is seeking forgiveness. More about that later.

Advent: Ordinary Folks, Unique Events

(From Lorenzo Lotto, via The National Gallery, used w/o permission.)
(“The Magnificat® Advent Companion,” 2020, left; and Lotto’s 1523 “The Nativity.”)

My parish’s Christian Mothers/Catholic Women and Catholic United Financial make “The Magnificat® Advent Companion” available to people like me. Buying the booklets in bulk brings the unit price down considerably.

The booklet’s cover has a cropped image of Lorenzo Lotto’s 1523 “The Nativity” on its cover. The whole picture is inside. I’ve seen it called “Adoration of the Christ Child” — the painting, not the booklet. I’ll use its shorter name.

Most nativity pictures I’ve seen look more or less like the Advent Companion’s cover. Jesus is an infant in a wooden box. Mary and Joseph kneel or stand nearby.

Something Odd

There’s something odd in the background of Lotto’s “The Nativity,” over Joseph’s shoulder: a crucifix.

Artists have considerable leeway in what’s appropriate in a Nativity scene. My guess is that there’s an informal consensus that the picture’s tone should be dignified, with Jesus, Mary and Joseph front and center.

Canon law says Christmas and Epiphany are feast days, but I haven’t found rules about what must and must not be in Nativity scenes.

Which doesn’t mean the rules don’t exist.

If they do, folks who relish rigidly regimented regulations regarding ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ Nativity scenes may get conniptions over the muddled mobocracy of manger art. That’s yet another topic, and arguably ample alliteration for now.

Anyway, what about that crucifix?

It’s a reminder of our Lord’s messy and painful death. As such, it clashes with the conventionally cute winged trio singing and winging overhead.

The tiny trio, by the way, are ancient artistic conventions rebooted in the Renaissance. Donatello’s generally given credit for European religious art’s tradition of depicting cherubim as putti: pudgy little boys with wings.2

O Hipster Night

'Modern Nativity' by the Wright brothers of San Diego, Casey and Corey. (2016)
(From Casey and Corey Wright, via San Diego Union Tribune, used w/o permission.)
(A trendy Nativity scene, from San Diego’s Wright brothers.)

Then there’s 2016’s weird “Modern Nativity” scene, complete with solar panels and Segway-mounted magi.

It’s the sort of thing I might have dreamed up, but didn’t, in my college days. Even if I had, maybe I lacked the needed entrepreneurial qualities. And that’s yet again another topic.

Where was I? Plainsongs. Advent. Lotto’s “The Nativity.” Weirdness in 2016. Right.

I wouldn’t pay $130 for the “Modern Nativity” set, even if we had the money. Disposable income. Whatever.

But I probably wouldn’t call it “sacrilegious,” as some folks apparently have. That said, I see their point. I think Jesus, Mary and Joseph are holy persons. The “Modern Nativity” arguably falls short of displaying them with dignity.

On the other hand, the San Diego Wright brothers’ “Modern Nativity” decoration is well-crafted. I think it looks less tacky than some seasonal ‘Jesus junk’ that’s not denounced.

I also think The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue was right.

“…Those who want a new twist on the traditional crèche can buy a 10-piece Hipster Nativity scene that features Joseph sporting a lumberjack beard taking a selfie; baby Jesus and a peace-flashing Mary, holding a Starbucks cup, are included. The three wise men show up on Segways holding Amazon boxes full of presents; there is also a cow draped in a sweater with a ‘100% Organic’ seal on it.
“This depiction is more trendy than it is offensive….”
(“Hijacking Christmas Turns Ugly,” Bill Donohue, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (2016))

His response surprised me a bit. The Catholic League has sometimes struck me as a trifle over-zealous. Sort of like a chihuahua watch dog: admirable intentions with a hair trigger.

Illustrators and Illustrations

Guido Reni's 'Saint Joseph.' (1640-1642)Lotto’s two adults — I’m back to that painting now — have colorful outfits and all three look European.

So do the folks in most religious art I see.

I don’t have a problem with that. Partly because my recentish ancestors came from Europe and most folks I where I live with look a little like me.

Besides, I understand that nativity pictures and other religious illustrations are just that: illustrations. Their job is showing readers and viewers what the text is about.

Late medieval and Renaissance artists almost certainly knew that folks living around the eastern Mediterranean didn’t look Germanic. Or even French.

My guess is that they’d still have made the Holy Family look like their neighbors and patrons. Or enough like them to seem familiar. That’s because Advent and Christmas stories involve ordinary folks and anything-but-ordinary events.

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.”
(Luke 2:89)

From Xinxiang Series of Biblical Illustrations, Catholic University of Peking; via RBSC at ND, University of Notre Dame.One way to illustrate that contrast is having the ordinary folks look, well, ordinary.

For artists living in Europe, that means showing Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all with European features. And, sometimes, wearing contemporary clothes in familiar settings.

At least some illustrators at the other end of Eurasia have our Lord looking like someone who’s not overly out of place in their neighborhood.3 Most likely for the same reason that Jesus looks European in European religious art.

Again, I think Mary and Joseph are holy people. And Jesus is unique. But they’re also ordinary folks: on everyday economic, political and social scales.

Joy and Shadow

A crucifix on an open Bible (Matthew 6). From James Chan, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionAnd I still haven’t talked about that crucifix over Joseph’s shoulder.

Many Nativity scenes get along without a reminder of our Lord’s exquisitely unpleasant death.

Displaying a dead body clashes with my culture’s traditional “mistletoe and holly” holiday theme.

“Oh, by gosh, by golly
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
Countrysides covered with snow….”
(“Mistletoe and Holly,” Dok Stanford, Hank Sanicola, Frank Sinatra (1957))

Make that clashes with contemporary culture’s holiday theme. Holly, at least, dovetails nicely with both Christmas and crucifixes. But I’ll leave symbolism and Druids for some other time.

Getting back to “The Magnificat® Advent Companion,” its opening essay discusses Lotto’s “The Nativity” crucifix.

“…The shadow of the cross colors each chapter of the Christmas mystery. The joyful event of the Incarnation brings sorrow to Saint Joseph….”
(Christmas and the Cross, James Monti in “The Magnificat® Advent Companion” (2020))

Two millennia after our Lord’s birth, seeing the Incarnation and associated events as joyful is easy. Fairly easy. We know what happened after our Lord stopped being dead.

But two millennia back, in Judea? Remember, this wasn’t early 21st-century America. Rules and expectations were different.

Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father of Mary’s child.

His options weren’t palatable, since he was a “righteous man.” Which I am pretty sure doesn’t mean he was the sort of self-righteous, hidebound, bluenosed prig who helped make the Sixties possible.

Joseph’s Options

John William Waterhouse, 'The Annunciation.' (1914)Joseph could, legally, have denounced Mary as an adulteress. Then she would have been killed. Like I said, not palatable to someone who was righteous in a non-priggish sense.

Instead, Joseph decided to quietly divorce her.

I’ve read but not confirmed that his decision would have subjected him to a little ribbing.

Folks would have reasonably assumed that Joseph and Mary had jumped the gun, after which Joseph got cold feet. But Mary would have lived.

That’s not what happened.

Joseph learned how Mary got pregnant, that the father is the Father, and that he’d been selected for a uniquely high-priority mission. (Matthew 1:1825)

But, unlike several prophets, Joseph didn’t try to talk his way out of it. (December 4, 2016)

Neither did Mary, although she asked a reasonable question. Zachariah, maybe not so much. (December 7, 2018; December 18, 2016)

News: Not Entirely Bad; Unsettling; and Disbelieved

Adam Elsheimer's 'The Flight into Egypt,' (ca. 1605)Everything that could go wrong didn’t quite happen on that first Christmas.

Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem.

They even found a place to stay in the overbooked town. Granted, they shared accommodations with livestock and our Lord’s first cradle was a feeding trough. But they apparently had a roof over their heads.

Later, when they brought Jesus to the temple for consecration, they heard Simeon’s unsettling prophecy.

Three magi showing up wasn’t bad news.

But the foreign VIPs had unknowingly tipped Herod off that a king had been born, which led to unpleasantness. Herod the Great, following his usual threat-response protocol, sent enforcers to Bethlehem.

The good news was that Joseph got a heads-up about the threat. Not waiting for sunrise, he took Jesus and Mary and headed for Egypt.

The bad news? Herod’s enforcers killed Bethlehem’s boys. Those who were at or under age two. Which, I gather, is a non-event that never happened for many contemporary scholars.

They’ve got a point.

Herod, History and Reputation

Israel Museum's model of the Second Temple, as renovated by Herod the Great.
(From Ariely, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Model of the Second Temple, after Herod the Great’s makeover.)

Herod the Great saw to it that his administration’s glorious architectural achievements were well-documented.

Judging from his official records and some 1st-century accounts, he was a Roman client king who got things done. He was a brilliant statesman and diplomat, forging a new aristocracy while maintaining beneficial ties with Rome.

And he exercised the practical wisdom of killing anyone who might threaten him. Including a respectable fraction of his own family.4

How, today’s scholars apparently ask, could such an obviously capable and sagacious ruler possibly have done what Matthew’s second chapter says he did?

Particularly when Herod the Great’s chroniclers didn’t mention the botched hit.

There’s more to the ‘non-event that never happened’ position than that. But I very strongly suspect that lack of self-incriminating documentation, plus Herod the Great’s building programs, make seeing him in a dubious light difficult.

And I’m not surprised that killing maybe up to 20 no-account kids in a backwater podunk was omitted from official Herodian records. Particularly since the target escaped.

And the era’s chroniclers focused on the rich and famous. Sort of like today’s headlines.

Besides, 19th and 20th century scholarship includes proclamations that Homer wasn’t Homer, that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare,5 and I’d better get back on-topic.

Fa-La-La and Free Will, Responsibility and Reconciliation

Walt Kelly's Pogo characters and 'Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.' (1961)Our Feast of the Holy Innocents, three days after Christmas, is hardly in the season’s festive “deck us all with boughs of holly” spirit. Much less “deck us all with Boston Charlie.”

But, fa-la-la-friendly or not, it’s there.

So: how come Lotto’s “The Nativity” includes a crucifix and I celebrate an almost-forgotten butchery while many folks are prepping for New Year’s Eve?

And, assuming that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and Homer is Homer, how could a smart man like Herod the Great kill a bunch of anonymous kids and some of his own family?

That question and others like it has engaged some of this era’s greatest minds.

Kevin: “Yes, why does there have to be evil?”
Supreme Being: “I think it has something to do with free will.”
(“Time Bandits,” Monty Python (1981) via

“Very Good” – – –

God’s review of this universe is glowing.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed-the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

So how come people behave badly?

Maybe it’s because we have rules. We’re crazy because the trammeling conventions of society stifle our natural goodness.

Or maybe it’s because we’re bad-to-the-bone. This view’s religious version seems to imply that the Almighty blundered by creating an utterly depraved human race. I’ve never heard someone come right out and say it that way.

I’m over-simplifying both views. And they’re not, by a long shot, the only explanations for the mess we’re in.

– – – But Wounded

As a Catholic, I’m obliged to think that we’re basically good. All of us. Each of us. And that there’s something wrong with us.

I might think this was so, even if I wasn’t Catholic. But having millennia of accumulated wisdom to draw on has advantages.

As I see it, we were and are created in God’s image. We were and are very good. Basically. (Genesis 1:27, 31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405)

But the first of us decided that their impulses outranked God’s rule. We’ve been dealing with consequences of that bad choice ever since. (Genesis 3:113; Catechism, 396409)

Maybe that seems unfair. But I figure that free will wouldn’t be free if God scurried around, undoing every daft decision I made. Free, maybe, but pointless.

As it is, We make choices, deciding to help or hurt ourselves or others. (Catechism, 365, 17301742)

If I decide to do something, it gets done: within the limits of my nature. I can even decide not to decide, which is still a decision of sorts.

Our nature hasn’t changed. We’re still basically good. But we’re wounded. We still know, at some level, how we should be have. We’ve even got our old job: taking care of this place. But doing what’s right is harder than it needed to be. (Genesis 2:1517, Genesis 3:113; Catechism, 397409, 17761794, 18491869)

Like I said: we’re still here and in charge, and we’re dealing with consequences.

Examination of Conscience: Getting Ready for Reconciliation

Since I’m human, I have within me an ember of the fire that forged the universe. We all do.

That sounds like the Victorian ‘lords of the universe’ attitude that made a mess we’ll be cleaning up for centuries. But it’s not.

Being made in the image of God means I have dominion over, and responsibility for, my share of this world. And for how I treat folks around me. That’s scary. (November 17, 2017; August 20, 2017; December 11, 2016)

That’s also why my parish’s Advent Companion booklet has an examination of conscience before a DYI Advent wreath blessing.

The booklet’s ‘examination’ is an eight-point list that starts with —

“For the times when I forget that I need a Savior, and arrogantly conceive of myself as sufficient to myself.”
(“The Magnificat® Advent Companion”)

Each item ends with “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Examinations of conscience aren’t just an ‘Advent’ thing.

They are, or should be, how I get ready for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: what my culture calls Confession. (Catechism, 14221484)

I don’t enjoy reviewing my thoughts and actions, looking for misdeeds. Sins. But it’s like flossing and brushing my teeth. I’m better off if I do it than if I don’t. Happily, there’s a mess of resources out there; including these.

Failing to Love

“Sins?” I’d better clarify that.

Some actions are wrong, regardless of circumstances. Like murder, deliberately killing an innocent person. (Catechism, 1447)

Others, like sticking out my tongue, may be right during a dental exam, maybe-wrong when talking to someone, and quite often neutral.

And, although no sin is a good idea, some sins are worse than others; which is why we talk about venial and mortal sin. We also sort them out by what we misuse, how we misuse things — it’s complicated. (Catechism, 18461869)

But in another way, it’s simple.

Sin is a failure to love. When I don’t love God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor, that’s when I sin. And “my neighbor” includes everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1825, 18491851, 1955)

Sin is an offense against reason, truth and God. (Catechism, 18491850)

And, as long as I am alive, seeking forgiveness is an option. (Catechism, 827, 976983, 10211037, 10421050)

Good News

That’s good news. Very good news.

And it’s possible because Mary said “let it be done.” And because Joseph did his job.

And most of all because our Lord carried a cross to Golgotha, died and — I’m getting ahead of the story.

A couple weeks from now, we’ll be celebrating our Lord’s arrival.

“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”
(Luke 2:911)

That, and what happened later, is the best news humanity’s ever had.

I’ve talked about that before. So has my late father-in-law:

1 Old song, new language:

2 A little background and a few rules:

3 “Distinctive” illustrations:

4 Herod the First and the importance of PR:

5 Shakespeare, Homer, Bacon and all that:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Joy and Shadow, Free Will and Something Silly

  1. Thank you Brian. So much to read here. But I did get through it all. Thanx again.

    God bless.

  2. Speaking of the Holy Innocents, the thing about those events that strikes me the most is the fact that the Holy Family fled to Egypt of all places in response. On one hand, it would be something that would bruise the ego, especially the Jewish sort. But on the other hand, it can be considered a sign of God’s love for all of us, unpopular bad guys included. Pretty wonderful, no? 😀

Thanks for taking time to comment!