Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Music for Christmas: Nativity

Christopher Orczy

With my second major religious work, I have taken the moment of Jesus' birth as the subject. It is a long piece, 37 minutes.

You can listen and download here.

As in the earlier Annunciation piece, the source material was recorded on the Feast day; in this case Christmas day 2007. Likewise, the image for the artwork was again taken from
English Altars by Percy Dearmer.

Whereas in Annunciation, I used the text from Luke and expressed each "moment" of the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary with some inspiration from secondary, apocryphal sources; this time I wanted to express a singular idea: that of the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Upon looking at the two Gospel narratives depicting the birth of Jesus one is struck by how scanty the information regarding the actual birth is. In both Matthew and Luke it is almost mentioned in passing.
And Joseph arose from his sleep,
and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him,
and took unto him his wife;
and knew her not till she had brought forth a son:
and he called his name JESUS.
Matthew 1:24-25 RV

And she brought forth her firstborn son;
and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 RV

We are give more detail on events that occur after; in the case of Matthew, the wise men; in Luke the angels and the shepherds.

Turning to non-canonical sources, there are some fantastic versions of the actual birth, in particular The Protevangelium of James (c 150). At the moment when Mary goes into labour, she tells Joseph, who leads her to a cave. He then heads off to Bethlehem in search of a midwife. He experiences a vision:
And I Joseph was walking,
and was not walking;
and I looked up into the sky,
and saw the sky astonished;
and I looked up to the pole of the heavens,
and saw it standing,
and the birds of the air keeping still.

And I looked down upon the earth,
and saw a trough lying,
and work-people reclining:
and their hands were in the trough.
And those that were eating did not eat,
and those that were rising did not carry it up,
and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it;
but the faces of all were looking upwards.

And I saw the sheep walking,
and the sheep stood still;
and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them,
and his hand remained up.
And I looked upon the current of the river,
and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking,
and all things in a moment were driven from their course.
Protevangelium of James 18.
The idea that time is stopping, that eternity is becoming temporal is a beautiful depiction;

Once Joseph returns with the midwife, visual phenomena that is usual for describing God's presence is described. We see this same imagery used at the Annunciation earlier in the Protevangelium of James:

And they stood in the place of the cave,
and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave.

And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave,
and a great light shone in the cave,
so that the eyes could not bear it.
And in a little that light gradually decreased,
until the infant appeared,
and went and took the breast from His mother Mary.
Protevangelium of James 19.

The stilling of time, and the light and cloud images are a mythical description of:
And the Word became flesh,
and dwelt among us
John 1:14 RV

The Nativity piece is an attempt to put all this together, as much as it is possible. I didn't want to compose a Christmas piece using the Shepherds or the Wise Men; my interest was far less about narrative. I liked the idea of birth, the idea of a new beginning. While both Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus' being born, they don't tell us about his birth.

The other idea that guided the piece was from later in Luke. When Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, Simeon the prophet holds Jesus in his arms, and after blessing them, says to Mary
this child is set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel;
and for a sign which is spoken against;
yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul;
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.
Luke 2:34-35 RV

Maybe it is my natural gloominess, but while I think Christmas is wonderful: we are after all celebrating God's love for us, there is a darker side. Simeon's prophecy that this baby will be the falling and rising of many is both good news and bad news. It also hints at what is to take place on Calvary 30 or so years later. While the birth of Jesus is the best thing to happen, to be a follower of Christ is not "an easy option". Simeon states to Mary (who may be seen as the ideal follower of God's Word) that a sword will pierce her soul, and the thoughts of many will be revealed. Many will not see the light, and many will be persecuted for speaking of it. It is a difficult road, but one which once shown, is impossible to deny.

Merry Christmas everyone.
For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
John 3:16 RV

No comments: