This Christmas carol with words by Eleanor Farejon came into my life only a few years ago. I can see why it’s not as favored as some that have a fuller theology of the Incarnation, but there is so much that could be said about the significance of God taking on human flesh, I want to make use of all that has been written about this event.
This one is lovely in the way it captures some of the anticipation I feel as I also try to “make my house as fair as I am able.” It’s comforting to have the wisdom of a woman combined with the upbeat melody, a different tone altogether from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — but it is in sync with that joy of preparation of the material aspects of our Christmas feast. And after all, we are celebrating the mystery of God becoming material.
As St. John of Damascus said, “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” God entered His creation of seed, stars, birds, and dirt, and because He did, they are made glorious. Now, we give them back to him in celebration.
PEOPLE, LOOK EAST
People, look east. The time is near Of the crowning of the year. Make your house fair as you are able, Trim the hearth and set the table. People, look east and sing today: Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare, One more seed is planted there: Give up your strength the seed to nourish, That in course the flower may flourish. People, look east and sing today: Love, the rose, is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build, Guard the nest that must be filled. Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledging time has chosen. People, look east and sing today: Love, the bird, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim One more light the bowl shall brim, Shining beyond the frosty weather, Bright as sun and moon together. People, look east and sing today: Love, the star, is on the way.
Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth. Set every peak and valley humming With the word, the Lord is coming. People, look east and sing today: Love, the Lord, is on the way.
If I from California look east across the globe, I might come eventually to Ukraine, where these monks are singing carols. I don’t understand the words, but I know well what they are singing about. We are singing all over the earth about the pivotal event of history.
I didn’t encounter this Christmas carol, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” until long past my childhood. For various reasons it is one of my favorites now. This is a nice version:
I also love this one sung in Ely Cathedral:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming From tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, As men of old have sung. It came, a flow’ret bright, Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, The Rose I have in mind; With Mary we behold it, The virgin mother kind. To show God’s love aright, She bore to men a Savior, When half spent was the night.
This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender With sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor The darkness everywhere. True man, yet very God, From sin and death He saves us, And lightens every load.
By the time our family brought this carol into our repertoire, several of us would enjoy singing the carol in its original language when we gathered at Christmastime, at least a few times. Even before their father ceased to be one of the singers, the details of our festivities had begun to change. It’s been a while since we have been able to sing as many carols as we would like, usually because of the needs of small children.
This year I will sing it by myself. It will be a good chance to try the German version again and work on memorizing it. The tone and the message are certainly sweet like the loveliest rose. I appreciate the reminder of how Christ ultimately defeated death by his death. God is with us! That’s why every Christmas can be a merry one, and why I’m eagerly looking forward to this feast.
I opened a gift from my daughter Pearl on Christmas Eve, an apron that she thought appropriate for me as The Queen Bee. It was a surprising metaphor, but I can see how the whole week that is just past was a picture of busy bees using the minutes and days to create sweet nourishment for all.
When my children and their families started arriving on Christmas Eve Day, you could say that I fell easily into the role of a contented queen surrounded by a humming swarm of people whose chatter and activities were endlessly fascinating. I could hardly believe my good fortune to have them all under my roof.
I will try to build this post around the activities that we engaged in for the six days that they were coming and going, sleeping here in varying numbers or coming just for a day at a time.
During the week or two beforehand I had worked like a beaver — I should say, a worker bee — to get ready. Decorating, making up beds, shopping for several meals and 25 people, wrapping scores of presents, baking more cookies.
My own master bedroom that has over the last year and a half become an untidy catch-all, staging and storage area also needed to be thoroughly dusted up and set in order for some of my guests. I would sleep in Kit’s twin bed for a few days.
On the 23rd I fell into bed aching all over, partly from a sneezy and headachey cold. And when I woke the next day (the head cold and pain had vanished!), Kate and Tom had completed a grueling journey from D.C. and arrived while I slept (almost like Santa, eh?). The cheerful hubbub quickly expanded when Soldier’s and Pippin’s and Pearl’s families pulled in over the course of the next few hours and began cooking for us all.
WE ATE: For breakfast that first morning it was Baked Oatmeal with Cranberries and Apples and Nuts with Vanilla Yogurt on top, cooked by Pippin.
Only a week before, I’d wondered via email to them all what I might cook on Christmas Eve that would be simple enough to allow us plenty of time for more than eating and clean-up — time to sing carols and open presents while the children were still awake enough to avoid meltdowns.
My colony rallied and came up with a plan whereby I would cook nothing! I could be as spacey and distracted as I wanted, play with the grandchildren or chat with the men about books and politics, while everyone else would get dinner on the table.
It was not a simple meal, but the true and traditional-for-us feast that they wanted, starting with oyster stew and finishing with cookies.
WE MADE MUSIC and SANG CAROLS… with more musicians than ever, partly because three grandchildren accompanied us this year! A violin, ukulele, two guitars, and piano. The four-year-olds danced — that is what they would call galloping around the room.
Over five days I refilled the cookie platter a couple of times per day, which was very gratifying – all those boys and men might have eaten every last cookie if I hadn’t saved some back for the one grandson who wasn’t able to be with us. By the time I took a picture the only thing left was my two favorite Trader Joe’s varieties: Chocolate Shortbread Stars and Pfeffernüsse.
WE GAVE GIFTS – And yes, we received gifts! I was given earrings and ornaments and books, a family tree chart, garden decor and an olivewood cheese board and a suet wreath for my wild birds.
The youngest grandchildren made gifts for everyone. This year they were very nicely crafted ornaments for the tree. And Pippin and Kate gave me bird ornaments, too, including a triplet of very furry owls.
I must tell you that the subtitle of the middle book in the stack is: “And Other Myths about Language Explained.” I was flattered by the gift-givers who thought me a worthy recipient of big books such as two of these are — certainly I am interested in them, but… Good King Wenceslas feels more my speed at this time, and I right away perused the wonderful illustrations.
WE WORSHIPED: Tom and Kate went to church with me on Christmas morning, where Tom hit it off with my little goddaughter Mary, and we admired all the shiny matching-sister dresses among the congregation. Kate took a video of the chandeliers swinging during a hymn commemorating the Incarnation. We sang “God is with us!” and afterward feasted on cheesecake and extravagant mounds of truffles in the church hall.
Mrs. Bread was there to give me a hug, and this darling brooch that confirmed the week’s theme. I happened to be wearing my black wool coat, which I do every two or three years, so she pinned it right on.
WE COOKED INDIAN FOOD: Tom and Kate and I started right in cooking after church: pakoras, curried lamb, roti bread, vegetable curry and basmati rice. Piles of spices and vegetables went into the curries. We all chop-chop-chopped and I made the roti dough and rolled it out, leaving Kate and Tom to figure out the most effective way to get the thin pancakes to puff up like balloons.
WE HIKED: Two hikes were taken, but I joined only the second one, after half of the houseful had gone home. My boys and their wives were on this hike, several grandchildren, plus Tom. Kate had to stay home and study Hindi. Liam marched energetically up hills while singing lustily “Joy to the world!” And “Go tell it on the mountain….” He knows the first verse of at least six carols now. I tried to sing with him through my panting.
The picture is of four people trying to get two-yr-old Laddie into the fancy new backpack. His mom is helping partly by being something for Soldier to hold on to while he squats, even while she is carrying Brodie in a front pack.
We came to a lake at the end of our hike, and sat around on benches for a half hour before starting back. On the way out we saw these berries which I think are toyon.
WE BUILT FIRES in the woodstove against the cold. It froze every morning of our Christmas week, but starting on Christmas Eve the ban on burning was lifted. Maybe it was a present from the Air Quality Board? Usually it’s on the coldest days that the prohibition is in effect. I had lots of help building and tending fires, and bringing in wood.
WE ATE MORE: Naturally, when you have all those children from 0-7, six teenagers, adult men, nursing mothers, etc., in cold weather, we go on eating. One morning Tom fried three pounds of bacon while Joy baked tender buttermilk biscuits. For dinner one night Pathfinder and Iris made their famous posole for everyone and served it with Iris’s famous cornbread.
WE PLAYED VONNIS, a cross between volleyball and tennis. Even I played! A large number of us — maybe 18? — walked a few blocks to the tennis courts where we played with a volleyball. At first the younger kids tried to participate, but they gradually trailed off to the playground with a couple of the moms; we still had two teams with many true athletes in the 13-45-yr age range. I managed to return the ball successfully a couple of times. It looked like they were trying not to serve to my area of the court, and once I heard a grandson on the opposite team instructing, “Protect Grandma!”
WE REPAIRED THINGS: Not everyone went to the park for vonnis. Soldier stayed home to work on my playhouse, whose door was coming apart. I didn’t even realize this until we got home and he was still at it. I promised him that in the spring I will put some wood preservative on the whole house.
Scout and Liam found the little rakes I’d given them in the fall, and all on their own started raking up pine needles for me. (photo credit: Pippin) In the photo above you can see the frozen jade plant, and in the one below, the lemon tree with its frost protection.
WE MOVED ROCKS: A son-in-law and a grandson worked with me for an hour on the landscape art project of placing my favorite rocks all over the new front yard so as to look as natural as possible. A couple of these were huge and required their manly brawn, but I also wanted their creative input. It was fun – and I was ever so thankful! They went on to do some other yard cleanup and tool organizing before they were done.
WE TALKED: Of course I could not overhear even a fraction of the conversations that happened while all these relations were together, people who rarely see each other and had a lot of catching up to do. It was lovely that they could use my house as a meeting place.
Annie and Maggie are 14 and 13 now — When I passed Annie’s bedroom I saw their heads together. And as I roamed upstairs and down I could hear my people discussing everything from baby care to Indian politics, from university life to cars.
After the Oregon contingent had arrived and eaten a late Christmas dinner of our Indian fare, all but three of us had gone to bed. Tom and my youngest Oregon grandson started talking about their Toyota trucks. They even showed me the Top Gear video that is famous if you know about such things, and I have to say that if I ever need a small truck, I will try to find a Toyota like one of theirs.
On the last day of our Christmas reunion, when I got home from taking Tom and Kate to the airport, I showed the OR grandsons the video I am currently renting from Netflix, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” I thought that as they are outdoorsmen and skiers and builders, they would like watching the men cut down trees and make their own skis and traps and everything. As it turned out, we ended up talking more about Werner Herzog who co-directed and narrated the film, and about how he has written books and made many movies. That led us to the topic of other books that we have liked or want to read. One of my favorite things ever is getting book ideas from my grandsons!
Soon their father was directing them to take leaves out of the tables and help in various ways to set things back to pre-feast mode. They said good-bye, and I waved as they drove away. I was not the queen bee anymore, and I was not a worker bee…
Now I am a bee sleepy with winter and cold and fatigued by so much buzzing in my hive… sitting by the fire I built myself, with visions of dear people and memories of their hugs to sustain me.
On the tail of my recent mention of trees and their strength, I was impressed by the tree roots in this collection of photos in The Guardian, “Root Force.” My wandering mind led me from there down this bloggy path to make the kind of word-thing that is too long because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.
Italian cypresses and giant oaks, pine trees with thick trunks arching over lawns — the neighborhood in which I’ve been walking the last few days is a good one for a tree-lover, but it’s fairly new (not 50 years old yet) and manicured, not the kind of place where one is likely to see trees who have managed to exert their wills in the way of this example from the article.
This photo is compelling, and led me to search and find online many more cases of invasive tree roots, and I also know one firsthand. At my husband’s childhood home a steel post had been stuck in the earth to stake a young tree that, presumably while everyone was watching (whether out of the corners of their eyes, or faster than they could blink their eyes, I can’t say), grew up and around to swallow its supporting rod. But not completely; the top of the stake appeared to grow ungracefully out of the huge trunk.
Does it seem off topic, my telling you about the tree trunk, not the root? We must remember that all the parts are connected.
What occurs to me is that to live on a piece of land, to have a house or gate or sidewalk which you essentially give over to a living plant, is to show a deference to nature or at least a willingness to co-exist even in the likelihood that you, the human, will be the one to relinquish something. Or does it show that everyone was too busy or lazy to care? Many times I have let smaller plants in my garden have their way, but I somewhat regret that I haven’t had enough trees in my life, or lived ages in one place, for this to happen with great woody specimens.
All the roots and trees passing by my eyes and through my mind this week bring me around to the Incarnation, the birth of Christ which we are celebrating. That’s because the most persistent and enduring life system, if you will, is the Root of Jesse, and the Branch that sprouted, mentioned in Isaiah 11. Iconographers have painted this flowing of our salvation history, and it is the inspiration for many other types of illustrations, like this dramatic interpretation by Ansgar Holmberg:
Some excerpts from the passage in Isaiah:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
I am pleased to have arrived at a Christmastime theme, a history and reality that leads many of my friends to put up a Jesse Tree decoration during Advent. Christ is somehow the Root and the Branch and the whole Tree of Life. It’s just one of the ways that the metaphor of trees and roots and branches is used in the Bible to reveal God’s plans and ways to us. No wonder I love trees: I admire them for their strength and grace, but I am myself alive with the same sap that is the Source of all root and tree life.
My own preference for letting trees take over is a romantic and privileged one; I don’t live where hardwood forests perennially compete with farmers for every plot of soil, or where such things as Weed Trees can be talked about knowingly. We were told via Adam and Eve to have dominion over nature, which at the least means conserving it and managing it. A gate that can’t function as a gate because some roots have essentially ruined it is not a sign of good husbandry after all, though it makes a pretty picture. Other clashes that come to mind involve roots doing bad things to pipes; the play of humankind with trees is not always artistic, because the design elements are always in flux.
Time is a factor you don’t want to ignore in this sort of interplay. So many people disregard it, not imagining what a nursery sapling might become in 20 years, roots and branches reaching out and down and to the sky. Living in the moment doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility to plan for the future, taking into account the nature of living things to change and grow.
Even God plans, and caused His good will to be planted especially in the family of Jesse, the father of King David, from whose tribe our Savior blossomed forth. He had a very long-range perspective and intention, and we haven’t seen the end of it.
The imagery in The Guardian, and the language that connotes for me destruction and relinquishment, seem to contrast with the words of Isaiah quoted above. Nature will be at peace in the day of which the prophet speaks, and a great order will prevail because of the knowledge of the Lord. It will be a large space where all of God’s creation can function as intended, with plenty of room for partnership and concord between mankind and the rest of creation. What struck me most was that last line above: “His rest shall be glorious.”
I’ve been wanting to post again a link to the carol Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, in which we are appropriately encouraged in Christ to “sit and rest awhile.” I think it’s what I’ve been longing to say — and for that we don’t have to wait until Christmas.