Innocents, Still

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, greeted her readers on Christmas day with a heartfelt Feliz Navidad and a reminder of a charming Ecuadorian custom:

At the  midnight hour on December 24th, many people in Ecuador pause during their late-night meal and raise a toast to Baby Jesus. They exchange greetings with everyone in the room; then they return to their seats and resume their meal.

Other Ecuadorians, on their way to Christmas Eve Mass, carry the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes to the church. The infants are placed on the altar until midnight. At the end of the service, they’re carried back home and returned to their mangers.

It’s a lovely tradition, reminiscent of some Americans’ practice of leaving the manger empty until Christmas Day. Once the baby Jesus has been tucked back into the heart of his family, we sigh over the loveliness of his mother, admire the steadfastness of his father, give a nod to his humble surroundings, and go our way. What comes next isn’t our concern.

The temptation to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy isn’t particularly surprising. Babies offer challenges, to be sure, but there’s very little more touching than the sight of a sleeping infant, warm and secure. More than a few parents and grandparents have been heard to murmur the ages-old wish: “If only this time would last, just a bit longer.”

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at innocent babes in bassinets is only the beginning. Soon enough come colic and teething, followed closely by the terrible twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or coaches come knocking at the door. The driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter everyone assumed was spending weekends in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse than a tattooed skateboarder. Unhappy choices of friends may lead to a Saturday night call from jail, or a suspension from school. Now and then, illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury. Given the unpredictability of life, it’s impossible to know what’s just around the bend. Whatever it is, it may be heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children, and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, the challenges are different, but equally daunting. Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis, and simple malnutrition lead to much higher infant mortality rates. Violence, insurrection, civil war, and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  

While our Christmas celebrations often romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios, and slums around the world continue to suffer and die. They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered. Innocents in every sense of the word, they have done nothing to deserve their fate.

Massacre of the Innocents ~ Illustrated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France (c. 1200 CE)

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  According to historical sources, King Herod the Great, Rome’s man in Judea, already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  

Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior,  Herod lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing both Rome and his own subjects alike.  After a visit from the Magi, the traditional Wise Men from the East who prophesied the birth of another, more powerful ruler capable of usurping his authority, Herod reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence exists that Herod’s ferocity was real, even when it came to his own sons. But no matter how many Bethlehem children actually died by Herod’s hand, their Feast Day stands as a reminder that power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

An especially poignant and mournful Christmas song commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named for Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, an entertainment rooted in 14th century morality plays and provided by tradesmen to their towns.

One of the oldest unadapted carols we have, the Coventry Carol retains both the original lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534) and tune (Thomas Mawdyke, 1591). Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

“Coventry Carol”  ~ Collegium Vocale Gent
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and sigh
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.

Understandably, Coventry’s carol rarely is heard in retail spaces during the Christmas season, but it’s equally uncommon in congregational settings. Medievalists love it, as do madrigal groups and chamber singers, but it’s not Joy to the World or Adeste Fidelis. Offered the chance to move beyond familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even our violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate.

Perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas songs rarely experienced today.  Too archaic in language, too bleak in tone, too reflective of realities we prefer to ignore, and far too straightforward in its recognition of innocent death, the Coventry Carol makes us nervous.

Ignoring reality has its perils, of course. Birth is only the beginning. Life is movement; time passes, and history continues to unfold. Herod may be gone, but his successors live on, determined to preserve their positions of power at the expense of innocent life.

Certainly we are free to turn away, to avert our faces, to imagine ourselves innocent of complicity in events unfolding in time.  But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger while choosing to ignore the needs of children living among us.  If we can come to see in Bethlehem’s stall every child of Christmas; if we dare to preserve against slaughter every poor youngling for whom the angels sing; we may yet free them from the world’s hand, and transform their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

Comments always are welcome.

Dancing Down Life’s Storms

 

It seems impossible that four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama.  As the secondary tragedy of New Orleans’ levee failures compelled the world’s attention,  the destruction strewn across the Mississippi coastline faded into the background.  In a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial, the South Mississippi SunHerald put it succinctly: 

There is no question that the New Orleans story, like ours, is a compelling, ongoing saga as its brave people seek to reclaim those parts of the city lost to the floods. But it becomes more and more obvious that to national media, New Orleans is THE story – to the extent that if the Mississippi Coast is mentioned at all it is often in an add-on paragraph that mentions “and the Gulf Coast” or “and Mississippi and Alabama.”
Christ Episcopal Church, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Given the nature of things, neglect of Mississippi probably was inevitable.  Given the realities of human nature, it also was inevitable that some Mississippi residents would express bitterness at their relegation to the fringes of the story.   The bitterness surely was understandable, as was the accompanying anger at the unfairness of life, but in the end it was the sadness which touched me – the deep, pervasive sadness of  people who know the living death of surviving a cataclysmic event.  Standing in the rubble of his life, a man from Waveland who was interviewed shortly after the storm captured all the poignancy and pathos of events when he turned to a reporter and said, “You know, we had a storm here, too.” Continue reading

The Latitude of Fear, The Longitude of Love

 

Sociologists may enjoy debating whether we’ve become “just numbers”, but it’s impossible to avoid numbers in our lives.  Everyone has numbers that are important to them.  We have social security numbers, drivers’ license numbers, telephone numbers, security gate codes and padlock combinations. We have access numbers for telephone banking and ID numbers for online purchases.

Whether we like it or not, we have to keep track of serial numbers, registration numbers and credit card numbers.  We memorize them and use software programs to track them. If we’re old-fashioned enough, we write them down on slips of paper and tuck them away into cubbyholes and drawers for days when memory fails.  If we’re particularly obsessive or forgetful, we may even keep lists of important numbers in safe deposit boxes. One of my own friends makes a trip to her bank on the first business day of every month to pull out her “number list” and check it over, just to be sure things are in order.

For people who live in certain parts of the country, another pair of numbers is equally important. In fact, they’re so important and so often used they don’t need to be written down, tucked away or loaded into a computer. They’ve been burned into our hearts and minds by life itself.  My own special numbers are 29.5444 and 95.0666, known familiarly as 29N and 95W.  They are, of course, my latitude and longitude. My place in the world not only has a name, it can be reduced to a pair of coordinates. It’s an accurate way to locate me on a map and, when the storms arrive, a quick way to predict my chances of getting wiped off that very same map.

During Hurricane Season, latitude and longitude reign supreme on the Gulf Coast.  From the time a depression forms in the Atlantic or Carribean, the numbers begin to lurk, just at the edge of consciousness. If a storm scoots through the Yucatan channel and heads across the Bay of Campeche, shoppers are talking latitude and longitude in the lines at Target. Drivers carry on cryptic conversations at the gas pumps: “Has it crossed 25 yet?”  “No, I heard it’s still hanging in at 22”.  In the cafes around the marinas, boaters’ gossip is faintly anxious: “Did Cyrean head up-island yet?” “Nope. They’re staying put below 15 until after the season.”

As storms form and re-form, wobbling or surging their way through tropical waters, latitude and longitude take on the feel of ancient incanatations, mysterious, trusted charms whose endless recitation somehow can influence  a force of nature. The response is totally irrational and completely understandable. Watching a tropical storm or hurricane creep across the Gulf toward 29N, latitude becomes more than a number. It becomes the boundary for fear itself.   Once you’ve lived through the winds and watched the water rise, when your own experience has proven your place in the world can be completely obliterated in an hour, or two, or three, the latitude called fear becomes as real as the monster spinning into life over the water, and people can live at that latitude for years.

Months after Katrina and Rita devastated the northern Gulf Coast, I spent some time in Louisiana and Mississippi. On my second trip to Bay St. Louis, I met a little girl and her mother down at the shore. The girl, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, stood barefooted at the water’s edge in a green and white checked dress.  Her hands circled her head like a ballerina’s.  “Does she dance?” I asked. “No,” her mother said, “not any more. She used to. But since the storm, she’ll only put out her arms, or hold them up above her head. She says she’s afraid to dance because she doesn’t want the water to come when she isn’t looking.”

None of us wants those waters to surprise us, and so we look: obsessively, compulsively, unable to turn our eyes from the chaos swirling just beyond the horizon.  While Gustav was on the prowl, poor Louisiana began to prepare while Florida breathed a sigh of relief and Texas began to twitch with nervousness. Today, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are experiencing the same emotions. Whether a storm arrives on your doorstep, devastating everything in its path, or goes elsewhere to wreak havoc in a stranger’s neighborhood, there’s no escaping the watching and waiting, with its attendant anxiety and fear.

In the midst of the watching and waiting, there’s no way to avoid the basic question: do we stay, or do we go?  Sometimes the decision is made purely on the basis of fear.   Some people flee because they never have experienced a storm, and they fear the unknown.  Others, more experienced, run to avoid being pummeled by another hurricane’s wrath.  Sometimes anxiety leads people to provision as best they can and hunker down, staying to protect property they fear would be lost in their absence to water, wind or looters.

But more often than we imagine, decisions in the face of a coming storm are influenced by love.   Some stay because they love the land.   Along the coastlines, communities exist whose people know their land more intimately than many of us know our children or our spouse. Attuned to its rhythms, they recognize its voice and are bound to it by ties so unspeakably strong they would willingly die in its arms rather than turn away and leave.  Some stay because they love their community, the people they’ve grown up with and a heritage they’re determined to preserve.  Others stay because their work requires them to be steadfast and present.  Their commitment, too, is a form of love.

On the other hand, there are people who decide to leave because of love.   They love their aging parents, their children or their disabled relatives too much to subject them to a storm or its aftermath.  Others respond to the loving pleas of far-off family members,  or realize in a fit of clear-eyed understanding that their love for life itself will not allow them to risk that life in a confrontation with a raging storm.

If fear is the latitude that crosses the storms of life, love is its longitude, a line running as deeply through our lives as the worst of human fears.  In the face of a storm, those who leave and those who stay differ only in their final decision. They are equally courageous, their courage found at that intersection of love and fear where questions are asked and answered: what do I do, now?  What will I do, then?  Will there be something left, or will the water come when we’re not looking, and wash our lives away?

At this moment, asking the questions is sufficient.  The next moment will be time enough to begin the decision-making process anew, or cope with what has been. Just now, the air is cooling, a breeze is stirring and if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of life itself, washing onto shore.   A storm has gone; a new storm rises. And when that storm has passed, there will be another, and another, until the end of time.

But storms do end. As they pass, as the wind sighs into silence, as the water calms and debris begins to settle out along the shore, there is a moment of perfect peace, a gift from an exhausted world to its storm-battered creatures.  In that perfect moment the music of life, full of love and courage, trills like a seabird taking flight.  As the clouds part and stars shine, somewhere on the storm-scoured coast someone walks to the water’s edge with a child’s heart: newly courageous, newly determined, perfectly poised at the intersection of love and fear to encircle the world with her arms.

It is the time and place to dance.

 

 

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