Advent IV: How Unto Bethlehem

Seek we a king, and honor
bear him from afar . . .

Another last Advent, and I stayed home again. The night before the streets iced up, and a frigid south wind swept down them like wrath with darkness in its wake, chasing the cold moonlight towards another winter solstice. I thought of the famous passage from Lancelot Andrewes’ 1622 Christmas sermon:

. . . just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes spoke here of the Magi, those legendary kings from the east whose powerful appearance in the Christmas story we celebrate during Epiphany; he might have spoken as well of the holy family and their lonely journey to Bethlehem as the story has come down to us. But yesterday’s gospel lesson comes from Matthew “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise . . .” (I like to quote the KJV because its periods are lodged in my memory.)

And you may remember that Matthew’s gospel opens with a series of “begats” proclaiming the lineage of Jesus the Messiah, an interesting passage to say the least in that it gives Jesus a political lineage stemming from King David and Father Abraham, but an ontological lineage stemming from the Holy Ghost. Then into the middle of his account, Matthew inserts a further claim:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

Jennens and Handel quote the prophecy’s source in Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” which I always hear in the background; and that mental hearing reminds me that Messiah is both liturgical and biblical, both a rehearsal of the liturgical year and an epitome of Christian salvation history. Behind the two is one tradition whose typology was perhaps first articulated by St. Augustine: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” And perhaps the best known general explanation of the working out of the typologies of scripture is Eric Auerbach’s:

Under the term figura—defined in the essay of that title (1938) and developed in the opening chapters of Mimesis Auerbach defined a view of reality, at work in Christian thought and biblical narrative, whereby one historical personage or event prefigures or signifies a second, later one. The latter will, effectively, fulfill the former such that while the two remain distinct historical realities, their full significance is to be sought in the figural relationship between them. Developing this concept from the hermeneutics of St. Augustine and the exegetics of the fathers, Auerbach deploys it most effectively, and with the greatest subsequent critical impact, in his reading of Dante. (Seth Lerer, article on Auerbach in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism [2005]).

Auerbach terms this relationship a process of ‘completing the figure,’ and if Augustine stands somewhere near its beginning (though one can find traces of the same logic in the writings of St. Paul—“for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”), St. Thomas stands at one terminus—“Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here,” that is the Eucharist, not a memorial as Thomas understood it but the true body of Christ. (Aquinas’ great hymns to the Eucharist may be found in many hymnals.)

I must have been very young, third grade at most, when I was taken to a Christmas concert at Albuquerque High School. It featured the high school choir, whose performance of “Unto Us A Child Is Born” from Messiah was my first introduction to Handel’s masterpiece via live performance. I think I had been introduced to some recordings at school and knew the story of the King’s standing for the Hallelujah chorus. But “Unto Us a Child” in the same room with me, with live human voices, was an amazement (though the voices must have been young, and the performance surely must have lacked the panoply of Handel’s orchestration). I have never forgotten the experience. I left that concert with those great choral phrases filling my mind—“And the government, the government, shall be upon his shoulder!” Even at that age I recognized a high serious metaphor for what it was, though I couldn’t have articulated what was a felt thought that was mostly feeling. It is recorded now in my memory along with a performance of “Comfort Ye, My People” by a young tenor about whom I have written before, though I can’t locate the place right now. From there my Messiah experience joins with a veritable river of rehearsals and performances of parts and the whole. In the summer of 1956 I sang the Hallelujah chorus so many times (almost every day all summer) as one of the first group of Lake Junaluska singers (whose future seems to be in jeopardy), that I was burnt out for a while on that great work. To this day I resist certain ceremonial Messiah gestures but love the whole. Some years back I learned Handel’s refiguring of the refiner’s fire aria for bass, the original (which I had sung forever) having been rewritten by Handel for the celebrated castrato, Gaetano Guadagni. These experiences, and many like them, so many, give me a stake in the mythology of the Christmas story. I’m there to reenact it on Christmas eve, during the twelve days and Epiphany, all through the pensive time of Advent. I’m there, but there’s more.

For me this Advent IV, these multiple empressions, memories, intertextualities, have about them what Professor Tolkien has termed “the ‘inner consistency of reality.'”

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. . . . But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused (On Fairy Stories).

For me, as (I think) for Professor Tolkien, the issue of the naïve truth of the Christmas story, so important for some, simply doesn’t exist, allowances being made for the fact that Professor Tolkien is dead and can’t defend himself. We moderns have invented a standard of truth of which the ages before the Enlightenment knew nothing. For Matthew, the truth of the Christmas story is referred to biblical prophecy. For Augustine and Aquinas, the same truth is referred to the beauty and coherence of the body of the faith.

It is the mythical and allegorical significances of the story of the birth of Christ that give the tale its character of primary truth, as Tolkien reads it, and it is these mythical and allegorical significances that resonate down through the centuries in the encyclopedia of tropes that surround us here as Advent draws to a close, the shepherds, the babe in the manger, the angels’ song:

Such musick as ’tis said
Before was never made
  But when of old the sons of morning sung, . . .

“Unto us a Child is born,” will always be true.

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