>A New England Advent Poem

>This past Sunday evening some Catholic friends and I attended the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols at Christ Church Episcopal here in the village. Of the three Episcopalian churches in Georgetown, Christ Church is the closest to the so-called “smells and bells” type Anglicans, though not quite there. That being said, their Advent service is always a musical treat because of their great choir, and the combination of both their voices and the lovely, Gothic Revival church, remind me of similar concerts I attended when I lived in London.

One of the pieces performed by the choir, and which was very beautiful, was an American composition I had never heard of before. It is based on an anonymous poem published in New England in the 18th century. Certainly it gives one the chance for both reflection on the Scriptures and on one’s relationship to Christ, and as a poem certainly stands alone for that purpose. In addition, by re-printing it here this morning it also allows me the chance to finish my packing, as I am heading home to the country this morning…

JESUS CHRIST THE APPLE TREE

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

- Author Unknown.
From a hymn collection gathered by
Joshua Smith of New Hampshire, 1784.

Fair St. Lucy’s Fair: An Example We Should Take

Today is the Feast Day of the early Christian martyr St. Lucy, known for her beauty and devotion to the Faith. She is a very important saint in Barcelona, should you happen to find yourself there during the Advent season, but she is also a point of challenge for all of us. Yet before we get to her specifically, I hope the reader will allow me to wander down what I hope is an interesting side topic regarding Church history.

Someone once observed that you could make a reasonable guess as to the age of a European diocese by the name of the patron saint of its cathedral. Of course, this does not always hold true: for example, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice was first built in the 9th century, long after the time of the Evangelist. Still, in many cases one can come up with an approximation that is fairly accurate.

In the case of Barcelona, legend says that the diocese was founded by St. Aetherius, disciple of St. James the Apostle, in about 37 A.D., who was later martyred and succeeded by St. Theodosius. That being said, the first true documentary evidence of an episcopal see in Barcelona comes from about 290 A.D., with the important pastorate of its bishop St. Severus. St. Severus was martyred under the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D., as was a local girl by the name of St. Eulalia. Just 10 years later, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan granting religious tolerance to Christians, and 10 years after that his mother, the Empress St. Helena found the True Cross in Jerusalem and brought it back to Rome. Needless to say, times changed very quickly for the Christians.

Thus, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia of Barcelona celebrates in stone two important 4th century events: the discovery of the True Cross, and the martyrdom of St. Eulalia. As the late 3rd-early 4th century is also the beginning of the first documentary evidence for the bishopric of Barcelona in the person of St. Severus, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the true founding of the diocese proper dates from no later than the 3rd century. Indeed, St. Severus is buried in a magnificent little church just across from the Cathedral cloister. Moreover, the Royal Chapel of Saint Agatha, in the Old Royal Palace behind the Cathedral, houses relics of that 3rd century saint. And the original churchyard chapel of the Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Martyrs under the Romans, among whom St. Lucy (martyred the year after St. Severus and St. Eulalia, in 304 A.D.) is one of the most prominent; subsequently it was renamed for her alone.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, St. Lucy has a special connection to the Catalan people beyond simply having a building dedicated to her as part of the Barcelona Cathedral complex. Should you find yourself in Barcelona or in many cities throughout Catalonia right now, head down to the square in front of the local cathedral or major churches, and you will find the “Fira de Santa Llúcia” or “Fair of St. Lucy”. Like the Christkindlmarkt in Germany, these open-air markets sell Christmas decorations, handicrafts, special seasonal treats, and so on.

In the case of Barcelona’s St. Lucy Fair, the stalls occupy the Plaça Nova, the main square in front of the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, and wrap around the exterior side walls and apse of the Cathedral, where the stalls are tucked between the buttresses. The Plaça Nova itself is largely populated by stalls selling the accoutrement necessary for building a “pessebre”, the elaborate Catalan manger scenes where the Holy Family, shepherds, wise men and stable are only the beginning. Here you can buy all kinds of buildings, landscaping, animals, peasant folk, and the infamous necessity of every Catalan nativity scene, the legendary caganer. The creation of a pessebre of ever-increasing dimensions, replacing or adding elements as necessary, is an obsession among many Catalans, somewhat akin to model railroad building but with a spiritual dimension. The St. Lucy’s Fair in Barcelona and in other towns is usually the best time to see what is new, and continues up until December 23rd.

While certain ethnic communities have managed to bring the tradition of these Christmas markets to the United States, the question has to be asked: why do our dioceses not sponsor such things themselves? We have Christmas bazaars in many parishes, of course, but experience indicates that these often take place as early as November, and usually inside the parish hall, where they are often rather sad and staid affairs. They are often boring, and they do not take us out of our comfort zone. And they are, quite frankly, a shameful loss of an opportunity for evangelization.

I think the example of St. Lucy, as well as St. Eulalia, St. Severus, and St. Helena, and so on, is lost on us. We eschew public displays of our faith to the extent where, today, even Eucharistic processions (when they take place, which is seldom) take place around the INSIDE of the church. Seriously, ladies and gentlemen: how is that bringing Christ to the people? Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I saw a procession of anything, whether the Blessed Sacrament itself, or a statue or painting of one of the saints, take place in this country.

How difficult would it be to set a Christmas market or bazaar outside? An excuse of course, is that in certain parts of the United States, it is too cold to be outside, which is nonsense. We are hardly a poor country lacking in resources or know-how. If the Germans and the Austrians freezing to death in tiny towns up in the Alps can set up outdoor markets with space heaters, hot foods, and so on, are we going to claim that we are bigger wimps than they?

Being a Christian, as St. Lucy and our other 4th century forbearers in the faith understood, is not about being comfortable and beige, like an old cardigan. Sometimes it can be (quite literally) a bloody mess. It is a wonderful thing to be Catholic, but not if we lack the spirit of conviction behind what we claim to believe. St. Lucy, as you may know, plucked out her own eyes rather than marry a pagan and give up her faith; one hopes that the Lord is not calling us to do the same, even if we must be prepared for that possibility. Yet by witnessing to her faith by preferring to die rather than give up the Church, she sets a very high example and, in the example of these markets named in honor of her Feast Day, I believe she sets a challenge to us all.

Could we not, as a Catholic community, use the squares, covered entrances, or even parking lots of our cathedrals, shrines and churches, at least in urban areas, to host Christmas markets like hers? Imagine the opportunities to engage with the public about the faith, and to challenge the attempts at neo-atheism and secular humanism that are infiltrating their way into urban culture via advertisements on city buses, billboards, and the like. Are we so very comfortable and beige like that old cardigan that we only pay lip service to what we claim we believe?

I would ask, gentle reader, that you consider this in whatever capacity you are able, and see whether one cannot use the example of the Fair held in honor of the fair St. Lucy as an inspiration to do more to proclaim the faith in your own community: not just preaching to the choir, as it were, but rather bringing the choir and everything else out onto the street.

The St. Lucy Fair in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona

>Frozen December Warmth

>Gentle reader, chances are wherever you happen to be reading this in the Northern Hemisphere, it is pretty darn cold. In Europe for example, there has been early and crippling snow in many places, shutting down airports and causing all sorts of accidents. Here in the Nation’s Capital, we have been stuck around the freezing mark for several days now, sometimes with terrible winds out of the northwest from Canada that sweep across the plains and over the Appalachians. Fortunately the mountains keep the snow from getting here, but the winds continue down into the valley of the Potomac nonetheless.

I noticed on my way into work this morning, it seems that the winds have finally died down. It is still much colder than usual in Washington this time of year, but sunny, making things not seem so bleak. And so I began singing one of my favorite Catalan Christmas carols to myself, “El Desembre Congelat” or “Frozen December”, as I walked to the office.

A Christmas carol is known as a “nadala” in Catalan – “Nadal” being the Catalan term for “Nativity”, and the expression for “Merry Christmas” in Catalan being “Bon Nadal”. Most of the best Christmas carols of Catalonia were written between the 15th and 17th centuries, and have been making a slow but steady impact over the past twenty years or so into the repertoires of singers outside of the Hispanic countries, where they have always been popular albeit with lyrics translated into Spanish. Until comparatively recently, if you were to find any Catalan carols at all in a program of Christmas music in the U.S., you would most likely get “Fum, fum, fum,”, always a favorite of children’s choirs, and possibly “El Cant dels Ocells” or “The Song of the Birds”.

The latter was the great cellist Pau Casals’ signature tune, which he always played at the conclusion of his concerts. In fact, he played it for The Kennedys in his legendary White House concert of November 13, 1961. The subsequent Columbia Records album of the concert was purchased not only by classical music aficionados, but by just about every JFK and Jackie fan in this country and around the world. The result was that this was probably the first and largest single distribution of a specifically Catalan musical composition to a general world audience.

Today it is becoming more common to see English translations of Catalan carols appearing in newer church hymnals, something I always check on whenever I come across a Catholic hymnal which I have not seen previously. The song “El Noi de la Mare” or “The Boy of the Mother” is one example of an increasingly popular Catalan carol for American singers. As a matter of fact, when I was still a tenor, I had to sing this piece solo in front of the entire school for an after-communion meditation. (Subsequently my voice cracked down to a baritone, where it has remained since, and I quit the choir.)

However, for sheer cheerfulness it is hard to beat “Frozen December” for lifting your spirits on a cold wintry day. The music for this particular carol started out in the late 16th century as a popular tavern song in Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Pyrenees, the northern provinces of Catalonia (most of which were subsequently made part of France after the sacking of Barcelona by the French in 1714.) By the beginning of the 18th century, the tune was given new lyrics and had morphed into a Christmas carol.

Those interested can listen to a lovely recording of Kathleen Battle – my favorite soprano bar none – with guitarist Christopher Parkening. Here is the first verse in Catalan:

El desembre congelat
confús es retira.
Abril, de flors coronat,
tot el món admira.
Quan en un jardí d’amor
neix una divina flor,
d’una ro, ro, ro,
d’una sa, sa, sa,
d’una ro, d’una sa,
d’una rosa bella,
fecunda i poncella.

Here follows a popular non-literal translation into English, which is necessary since obviously the Catalan text if translated literally would not fit with the notes and rhythm of the tune, due to the significant differences between Catalan and English linguistically:

Cold December’s winds were stilled
In the month of snowing.
As the world fell dark one night,
Springtime’s Hope was growing;
Then one rose-tree blossomed new,
One sweet Flower on it grew.
On the tree once bare,
Grew the Rose so fair,
Ah, the Rose, ah, the Rose,
Ah the Rose tree blooming,
Sweet the air perfuming.

Textually, the verse employs the symbolic imagery of the single rose growing unexpectedly in the garden, to theologically addresses the Old Testament prophecies of Advent, such as the root of Jesse and Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the event of Christmas itself, in much the same way as the great German carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen” or “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”. Unlike the German tune, however, this carol is not a meditation but rather a celebration. Perhaps this is because the Catalan peasant, so cold up in the mountains or with the Tramuntana wind blowing down from the Pyrenees, needed something to jump around and keep himself warm with as he tended his fields and sheep during a frozen December.

A true “Desembre Congelat” in a village in the Catalan Pyrenees.