Sunday, December 18, 2016

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #21: Ironic Ecumenical Advent

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #21: 
Ironic Ecumenical Ambrosial Advent

Well that was interesting. Today, this Fourth Sunday of Advent, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, we sang a lovely Advent hymn by . . . Martin Luther.

Now, that isn't THAT strange I know. Heck, I remember singing "A Mighty Fortress" at Saint Anthony Catholic High School in San Antonio, but I always figured that was just sort a gesture towards the fact the Protestants in general and Luther in particular (whom the nuns at Our Lady of Mercy had taught me was the grossest kind of sinner--the kind that encouraged priests and nuns to have sex, WITH OTHER PEOPLE!)could still do something worthwhile, despite being damned to the lowest circle of hell reserved for those who betray the Pope.

Now, no longer in high school, despite my immature behavior and ironic ways, I know that different attitude was because of the Ecumenical Movement (kind of) and the Ecumenical Council, also known as Vatican II (definitely). And I guess at least in some Catholic hymnals, the rage for Ecumenicism continues with a vengeance. Ummm, I'm getting lost in colorful language here. Sorry. 

We not only have lots of Luther (and the other great German hymnists) and Wesley, but also some really really  bad things from wishy-washy-vague-modern-not-sure-about-any-doctrine-but-sure-do-love-me-some-whimsy hymn "writers." And somebody at the Cathedral, someone I have not yet identified, actually likes these songs. 

Anyway, or anyways as Jennifer Lynne Ricke likes to say, tonight we were not in the hands of Thomas H. Troeger (may his name live forever in hymnwriter infamy), we were in the hands of one of the greatest Ecumenical collaborations of all time. St. Ambrose of Milan and that wacky monk from Wittenberg (whom, they say, had a thing for nuns), Martin Luther. 

So, we were singing an Advent hymn in English, translated from the German of Luther, translated from the Latin of Ambrose. [Most scholars agree that the hymn actually was written by Ambrose, based on a reference to it in the writing of Saint Augustine, who was a kind of disciple of Ambrose.]

Ambrose was the popular bishop of Milan from 374 to 397. So popular, in fact, that the populace sort of demanded that he be made bishop even though he wasn't yet a priest and, in fact, wasn't yet baptized. They took care of things quickly, and he took care of the rest. 

  He did lots of things, all the things as Jennifer Woodruff Tait would say, but I can't go into them today. One of the many things,  a thing that really amazed Augustine before he was saint (or baptized for that matter), was that Ambrose read without moving his lips or making any noise. Augustine had never seen that. "When he read," said Augustine, "his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. . . . Often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud." Augustine found that strange. And extraordinary. 

Another extraordinary thing Ambrose did was write one of the loveliest of all Advent hymns, set to a plainsong chant, "Veni, Redemptor Gentium." That's usually translated "O Come, Redeemer of the Earth." Truthfully, my Latin is more than a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure "Gentium" doesn't mean "Earth." It means something like peoples, nations, or even, the heathen (or gentiles). I happen to think that "Redeemer of the Earth" is a cool title for Jesus, but I prefer Ambrose's original idea because it makes the whole incarnation a little more about me. I am such a freakin' heathen. Just sayin'.

Of course, Luther, remarkably uneducated, not having studied English with the Irish nuns from Our Lady of Mercy, did NOT translate the song into English. But he did translate it into German as "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,"("Now Come, Savior of the Heathen"--yay!), probably in 1523. Well, talk about Protestant privilege (and I say this coming from a family of German Catholics going back at least to the conversion of the Visigoths; we have meaty bones to pick with German Protestants), Luther's version happened to get picked up by a musical impresario by the name of Johann something-or-other. Next thing you know, his rip-off(or, to be fair, sorry Sisters, his loving rendition) of Ambrose's original was sort of like a Reformation version of Pat Boone covering Little Richard (look it up, kids; it's filed under "Tutti Frutti").

Everybody in the 'burbs forgot about old, morose Ambrose (check out the photo that Augustine took; cool mosaic effect using
SmartArt, I think) and was raving about Luther and Bach and Praetorious and how nice it was to have good Protestant boys churning out the hits. 
I mean, Ambrose still got the cred for the reading without moving his lips, but, come on,this is a really really good song. And that is very important in the Ben Camino universe. Wait, is there a Ben Camino universe? Yes reader. Welcome.

So we sang it (if you forgot where we are in this meditation, just remember, you are in the Ben Camino Universe). And we sang the Lutheran chorale tune based on the medieval chant tune, the English words probably by some Anglican (ewww) based on the Lutheran words based on the Latin words from one of the original four doctors of the early Church.Whew!

It was great, as it should have been after I had spent so much time thinking about how ironic it was. We did it after communion. Now, exactly what happens at the communion I am not prepared to get into tonight. But I do want to riff on the word. Communion. 

Because, really, the irony is rather superficial. In a deep structural sense, this kind of ecumenical mash-up thing is just what we should expect from the story and doctrine the hymn "spells" (in the best, oldest sense of that word, which, it turns out, only Ben Camino knows). 

The first verse (which was originally the second verse, but let's not get into that now because it would lead me into German Protestant conspiracy theory) says, or rather sings: 

Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall,
such birth befits the God of all.

Every age. The age of Caesar (he thought), the age of Ambrose, the age of Luther, the age of Bach, the ages of Francis, the saint and the Pope. And the age of Oprah. Sorry, but I swear she wrote some of the new hymns.

The second verse (OK, 3rd), makes the bold claim, much like the gospel writers, the angel Gabriel, Ambrose, Luther, and even Ben Camino when he's in a good mood, that this whole Christmas baby event was "Begotten of no human will/but of the Spirit." I know all this doctrinal stuff gets very confusing and mumbo-jumboish. But, for this meditation anyway(s), the point seems to be this. The child, the Savior of the heathen (that would be Ben Camino and at least several of his readers, some of them Anglicans), does not "belong" to us and our religious institutions, even though I sure do like me some institutions. He's not something invented, formalized, and liturgized by Catholics, Lutherans, or even the Anglicans. Or, to put it another way, if that's all we got, Advent is really as dark as it sometimes seems. 

Below, there is a link to a lovely version of the song. Here are the lyrics of one of the translations (I don't have time tonight to compare them all). I like to think that Sisters Philomena and Nancy (truthfully, I've forgotten that other nun's name) would join me, if they could, around the bright cradle hymned by Ambrose, by Luther, by Bach, and by a few hundred of us tonight on a cold snowy night in Northeastern Indiana.
1. O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.

2. Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

3. The Virgin's womb that burden gained,
its virgin honor still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

4. Proceeding from His chamber free
that royal home of purity
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now His course to run.

5. O equal to the Father, Thou!
gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

6. Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light
where endless faith shall shine serene
and twilight never intervene.

7. All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore. 

Goodnight ya'll. It's going down to 10 below here, so keep your hearts warm with . . . right doctrine. Ha ha. Well, I like theology, but tonight, don't forget your heating pad, your hot toddy, and, if appropriate, some heathen to cuddle.  


No comments:

Post a Comment